Can I Conquer My Vanity for the Sake of My Sanity?

By Andrea Karim on 22 December 2006 (Updated 4 February 2011) 13 comments

I'm worried that becoming frugal will force me to give up a certain amount of pride. And at the same time, I'm hoping that becoming frugal will help me to give up a certain amount of pride.

It's hard for me to be frugal. I don't mean that it's difficult to clip coupons, or to restrict your spending, or to limit spendy nights out on the town. All of those things are difficult, too, but they are not the root of the problem with finding frugality. The root of the problem, for me, is selfishness — the selfish need to be seen as NOT selfish.

As of today, I have $18.74 in my savings account. I have an IRA with a couple of thousand dollars that I used to open the account, and have yet to add to. I do own a home, but given that the first several years of mortgage payments go to interest, I literally own about $500 worth of my home. I pay over $400 a month for my new car, the first new car I've ever owned. Despite making a very healthy income, I live paycheck to paycheck.

This just about drives my boyfriend bonkers. He's a first generation American, and his immigrant parents raised him to be the epitome of frugal. If he buys anything, he buys the best (on sale, with free shipping), but he rarely buys anything. Despite making less money than I have for the past three years, he has amassed a savings of well over 60K simply by depositing the maximum allowed percentage of his paycheck in his 401K, by not buying a new wardrobe at Target every few weeks, and by not purchasing every new NPR-recommended book at Amazon.com. I am in awe of him, but at the same time, I am repulsed by his frugality in the same way that he is repulsed by my careless spending.

Vanity, oh Fair Vanity

The truth is, frugality terrifies me because it assaults my vanity, and makes me fear for my dignity. It's gotten so bad that I will go through with an unexpectedly expensive purchase, and return merchandise later, rather than to tell a cashier that I'm going to put some items back, or that I can't afford that fourth pair of Spanx. Nordstrom is obviously a great place for me to shop, since their returns policy is so liberal.

At one point in my life, when I was determined to frugalize, I went to Amazon.com and, devoid of any sense of irony, spent well over $100 on how-to-be-frugal books. I subscribed to About.com's Frugal Living newsletter, where host Pat Verreto's outdated thumbnail image convinced me that frugality meant that I was doomed to a life of white turtleneck sweaters and large Coke bottle glasses. Frugal Living suggested that I ask the supermarket for their about-to-be-discarded vegetables ("Just trim the rotten leaves! Boil the carrots, and you'l forget that they haven't been crisp for weeks!"), and suggested that I could grow my own patio vegetable garden cheaply — all I needed to do was spray paint some discarded milk jugs, add some dirt, and voila! Cheaper than terracotta pots!

Cheaper, but infinitely more humiliating. I unsubscribed after a couple of weeks, shuddering over the idea that I would be dumpster digging at my local supermarket in order to eat the last three good leaves on a head of romaine.

To be fair, Verretto speaks from experience and has a lot of good advice to offer. She's a kind and kindly mentor. But something about the idea of planting tomatoes in milk jugs, or weaving a rug from plastic grocery bags, makes me want to cry.

I don't want to be like my crazy Russian grandmother, who wore a shower cap when it rained, even though she owned several hats, and dressed like a bag lady when she went to Safeway to stock up during those two-for-one deals on cat litter. When she died, we found a four-year supply of toilet paper in a previously unknown closet — apparently she had stocked up in (disturbingly gleeful) anticipation of Y2K. I think of the pitying looks she used to receive from people who assumed that she was poor, even though she had everything that she needed. I think of the sad way in which she carried herself and my mind screams out "Don't turn out like Nana!"

Will being frugal make me like that? Will people look at me with loathing or sympathy when I break out my stack of coupons? I don't want to furnish my home with plastic rugs! I want a cool, urban abode. I want to stalk haughtily to work in patent leather high heels, with my Starbucks cup in one hand and a leather briefcase in the other. I like being a yuppie.

Bourgeoisie Guilt

My parents have a decent amount of money. Both have worked hard and saved all their lives, and made some fantastic investment decisions. As a result, both kids graduated from college without having to take out loans, and my parents now own several properties and are set for a comfortable retirement. My sister and I grew up with almost everything we wanted. (Mom drew the line at expensive clothes — we shopped at K-Mart for that.) And my parents are extremely generous — they've raised not only my sister and I, but a bevy of our friends and classmates who came from broken and/or highly dysfunctional families.

Despite, or rather, because of the attitude of classmates who assumed I was a spoiled rich bitch (spoiled — yes; bitch — but of course; rich… um — just upper middle class at the time, thanks), I have always felt that it is my obligation to spend money in order to treat both myself and others to comforting things. Be it an evening of pizza and gabbing, expensive snooty drinks at a ridiculously hip bar, or an expensive gift card to a job recruiter who landed me a lucrative contract at Microsoft, I have toiled under the impression that I OWE people the debt of my generosity.

In college, I ran up a huge credit card debt taking care of friends who were struggling financially. Gasoline, dinner, clothing, interest-free loans — I paid for it all. And then I paid for it again when the credit card companies caught up with me a couple of years later. I reveled in the idea that I could fix my friends' problems by providing a scrumptious meal that was beyond their means. I also feared that by not doing so, I would risk losing friends who knew that I had money/credit that I could TECHNICALLY afford to spend on them, but chose not to.

It's a terrible way to live. First, it assumes that there's not much else about me that someone would value, or that economics would trump the value of my friendship. It also assumes that my friends are cynical bastards (they're not) who wouldn't like me as much if I wasn't paying for their dinner. And it's condescending, assuming that because my friend might make less money than me, they must not have set aside enough cash for an evening out, and I'm alleviating a bunch of stress for them by paying for their martini.

Bollocks! Spending your way into debt, in order to prove that you have enough money to give away — is there a better definition of "senseless"?

Baby Steps to the Elevator

I'm getting a head start on New Year's resolutions, because I'm bothered to be this close to age 30 without a 401K. It means making some very large changes to my life.

It means splitting the bill with friends rather than insisting that I pay for the whole thing. It means offering to cook a meal for a friend, rather than ordering the priciest pizza for a night of girly bonding. It means loving pho more than sushi. It means breaking out that library card and being patient enough to allow that I might not receive the book right away, or even within a few days. It means learning to live with less-than-instant gratification.

But most of all, it means (cue inspirational music) that my friends love me, not because I treat them to dinner, but because I'm lovable. It means dropping the stupid Rich Girl's Burden that's plagued me since high school, and accepting that my friends are probably better at budgeting than I am, and thus able to pay for their own martinis.

And yes, it means clipping coupons, something that I have never done before. Something I plan to do with my head held high, my scissors sharpened, and my shower cap secured.

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Guest's picture
Jeff Bayer

Amazing isn't it? I also make a decent living but I'm also living from paycheck to paycheck while some of my less well-off friends are buying homes. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

Lynn Truong's picture

how to be frugal books should always be in the .99 sale bin.

Guest's picture

Thank you for sharing. It's difficult making those spending changes. I'm trying to do the same. A few months ago I too was living check to check. I've made small changes and they are beginning to slowly add up. So keep at it and you'll get there.

Guest's picture
Him

I think that you've expressed how we have felt about our finances when we first got our jobs, and probably even well before that. It sucks when you realize that you can't be who you want everyone to think you are. When we're posting again, I'll link to this post, along with some of our history.

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

One of the best things I did while living paycheck to paycheck was to automatically send $50 from my checking to my savings account. I set it up using BofA's online banking, and forgot about it. The transfer was set to happen every two weeks, on payday. After a few months, I had a little nest egg saved up for emergencies, and the best part was that it didn't hurt at all. And I didn't give myself a chance to flake on the savings because it happened automatically.

Thanks for sharing Andrea! Great food for thought.

Guest's picture
ispf

Great post! I can relate it so much! A little unlike you though, while growing up, we had to deny ourselves some of the luxuries because we couldnt afford it. So, now anytime I deny myself something, I feel like I am "poor". And to avoid that feeling I spend, even when its not quite NECESSARY to spend. To try in incorporate frugality in my life without feeling "poor", what I do these days is to postpone instead of deny. I still spend a lot more than the real frugal people around me, but not as much as I used to when I was compelled by psychological reasons! Its a start :)

Jessica Okon's picture

Andrea you wrote "where host Pat Verreto’s outdated thumbnail image convinced me that frugality meant that I was doomed to a life of white turtleneck sweaters and large Coke bottle glasses" and I almost choked on my store-brand mineral water.

That poor woman also scared the hell out of me this past year. I came across the same site when I was faced with the sad state of my finances. In fact I recall posting her picture elsewhere. Come to think of it, a large majority of the frugality sites made think I was destined to make prarie dresses at home and hoard empty bleach bottles.

But you know, style goes beyond thrift. There are some very well-to-do folks out there who make her look ready for the runway. If you have an ounce of fashion sense, you can still look good and be frugal.I need to remind myself that next time I find myself wandering into Sephora.

Guest's picture
ispf

[...] Note: This post was inspired by Andrea Dickson’s post Can I Conquer My Vanity for the Sake of My Sanity? at Wise Bread. Thanks Andrea, for your thought provoking article. [...]

Guest's picture

Andrea, Thank you for participating in the Carnival of the Storytellers. I hope the comments I made about your post on the Carnival don't bother you- was just having a bit of fun.

DigitalRich (http://digitalrich.blogspot.com/2007/01/carnival-of-storytellers-2nd-edition.html)

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

I did laugh out loud at your second recommendation: 

  2) Marry your boyfriend. From the brief description you gave, I predict he will be a millionaire in less than 10 years. If he doesn’t propose to you, then you go ahead and ask him. Trust me.

Andrea Karim's picture

If only it were that simple. :)

Guest's picture
Jerry

Andrea,

Acually the opposite will happen. My wife and I have need 20 years of being " frugal". And look what happened. We have a house with a pool and no mortaguge. A daughter in college and a 95% scholar ship. Last June we went on vacation to Portugaul. We have 1/3 of a million in the bank. I have pracitalcul force my wife to buy nice clothes as she want to buy cheap... How we got there.

1) Get a house under 2000sq ft. No that is not tiny.
2) no cable.
3) Live where you can ride a bike to work.. Benefit I am 50 and still wear size 32 jean
4) Drive a Corolla or CIVC -- highest milage and last 125K miles. NO SUV
5) Don't invest in a IRA or ROTH or 401(k) until the house paid for
6) pay off car loans in one year
7) don't carry a credit car balance
8) Pay your self first. Put what you used to pay on your car loan toward prepaying on your house.
9) do not shop at the mall Go online and plan your purchases buy quality classic stlyes not tendy
10) be a resident tourist -- see want is near by first.
11) Indulge at home.. Champnge is $10 a bottle enjoy with hambergers and hot dogs

Guest's picture
Richard Heaton

Wealth is what we use to negotiate with the rest of the world. People in debt are slaves to the lenders. Buy three books: (1) The Millionaire Next Door (2) Financial Peace (3) The Richest Man In Babylon. Richard Heaton