Not the sort of person who ...

By Philip Brewer on 13 November 2008 (Updated 16 April 2010) 36 comments

Wise Bread is stuffed almost to bursting with suggestions on how to live large on a small budget.  We've got suggestions on how to spend less, how to earn more, and how to take control of your finances and your career.  There are certain suggestions, though, that trigger a particular kind of negative reaction:  The one where people say, "I'm not the sort of person who" does whatever it is that we've suggested.  It turns out that lots of people think that way.  Don't do that.

You can find them in the comments on practically every post.  There are readers out there who say, "I'm not the sort of person" who:

  • rides the bus
  • wears used clothes
  • takes in boarders
  • rents a room in someone's house
  • has a roommate
  • borrows things
  • lends things
  • does manual labor
  • follows a budget
  • tracks every penny
  • buys food on its sell-by date

The reason I say not to do that, is that none of these things really have anything to do with the sort of person you are.  For stuff like this, when someone says, "I'm not the sort of person who," what they really mean is, "I'm so rich I don't need to" do whatever it is.  And, if they live in a rich country, they're almost certainly right--even if they're pretty poor, just living in a rich country means they're so rich they can imagine that they're some particular sort of person who doesn't need to economize in some particular way.

The thing is, there's a problem with this kind of thinking--with imagining that "you're not the sort of person" who does certain kinds of things:  You can start to believe it.

If you really believe you're the sort of person who doesn't do certain things--when the truth is simply that you're so rich you can afford not to--what happens if you go through a rough patch?  In particular, if you go through a patch rough enough that you're not so rich any more?  Answer:  That kind of thinking can turn a mere rough patch into a financial catastrophe for your entire family.

I'm not trying to tell you to take any particular bits of Wise Bread advice--this isn't a post to urge you to sell your car or to move in with your brother-in-law or use some web tool to manage your finances.  Rather, I want to urge you to do just one thing:  Be honest with yourself.

There's power in being honest about this sort of thing.  Just go ahead and say, "I'm so rich I don't need to take the bus, wear used clothes, or have a roommate."  There's a certain kind of satisfaction in that for someone who's never going to own a Rolex or a Maserati or a third home in Aspen.  More important, though, it puts you in a much better position to make the right decision if times get tough and you're not so rich any more.

As for thinking, "I'm not the sort of person," save it for things that are real and true.  "I'm not the sort of person who betrays a friend or takes advantage of a stranger or abandons a puppy."  That's the sort of person you are.  That other stuff you either do or don't depending on the circumstances.  It's got nothing to do with who you are.

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Guest's picture

I appreciate these comments. Your point is well taken. Also, don't forget what "I'm not the sort of person who..." seems to say about the people who DO choose these alternatives you are rejecting. It's one thing to reject a choice for yourself, but it puts you in a much different position if you feel that you also have to reject the "sort of person" who makes that choice. We don't need more division as we move toward sorting out economic realities in a changing world.

Guest's picture

on frugality that I've seen in a while.

I think that most people who say "I'm not the sort of person who..." have not had enough hard times to know what they would or wouldn't do. And good for them. But as you say, what a person will do in the name of frugality can change with circumstances.

I think the same holds true for people who say "I'd never give up (cable TV ... manicures ... getting my hair done in a salon ... my cell phone ... etc). If they were in a big enough financial bind, I hope they would give those things up before ruining themselves financially.

Guest's picture
Amy

This may sound negative, but it seems to me a lot of times that comments like "I'm not the sort of person.." has a lot to do with pride. People may think those sorts of suggestions are "below" them. They may not be rich and might still think that way and very well may be going into debt.

It reminds me of a post on the forums a while back. Someone posted a link to an article about a guy who didn't tell his wife that he had lost his job and kept re-financing his home "to keep up appearances." In that case, it seemed like pride had a lot to do with it, in addition to not wanting to let down his wife.

I would agree that saying you're not that sort of person isn't a reflection of who you really are. Rather, it's most likely a reflection of how you want other people to see you.

Guest's picture
Rhonda

Another great post Mr. Brewer!

Guest's picture
Guest

And a good reminder. I myself am guilty of saying this exact thing sometimes.

And I liked what loveandsalt said - by saying 'I'd never do...' you are putting down those who do.

Guest's picture
dianna

i don't think this is necessarily true for everything, though. while i'm pretty willing to try most anything, i think for some people, the "thing" they don't want to do is not because they don't have to moneywise, but because it just conflicts with some basic thing in them. like, i know people who would never buy clothes from goodwill because they are kind of germaphobic and really can't bear the idea of used clothing from strangers, the ick factor is just too high for them.

and i know that many people with children would be very hesitant to take in a roommate out of a sense of insecurity about having a strange person in the house. as a single mom with a young daughter, i think this would be my biggest "can't do" thing. of course, a friend or relative would be a different matter.

but i do agree that in many instances, the "can't do" is really more about pride and saving face. everyone has a line below which they are reluctant to go unless they really, really have to, and it's amazing sometimes just how high that line is for many people!

Guest's picture

Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I agree that it is hard for people to move out of their comfort zones to be honest with themselves.

Guest's picture
Beth

Thank you for this post. I'm probably not the only one out here who needed to have some assumptions challenged today.

Guest's picture
Juliana

I don't have much to add to what others have already said. I just wanted to thank you for a very good post about something that I believe really does have a lot to do with the culture of over-spending in which we live. So thank you!

Guest's picture
Catana

Excellent post. You could add shopping in dollar stores and thrift stores to the list, since they come up so frequently on the forums.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ dianna:

I'm sure you're right:  The "ick" factor is exactly what makes people resist all sorts of simple, easy things to save money.  And, as long as you acknowledge it--saying, 'I'm so rich I can indulge my "ick" factor to the point of only wearing new clothes, only buying new cars, only moving into new houses...' then all is well.

But if you let the ick factor take control--if you make it part of who you are--then you become terribly vulnerable.  After all, which would put your child more at risk?  Choosing a boarder after getting an application, checking references, and doing an in-person interview?  Or becoming homeless and finding yourself and your child living in your car because your income dropped and you got evicted?

The key is to keep your identify separate from your preferences.  Then you can do what needs to be done without first having to get over the hurdle of completely changing your image of the sort of person you are.

Guest's picture
Kiri

I bet hearing that hurts a few peoples sensibilities. Sometimes it's hard to accept that you are the sort of person that does thing just to impress. How many people people who say "i'm not the sort of person who wear seconds clothes" also says "i'm not the sort of person who trys to impress".

Guest's picture

"The key is to keep your identify separate from your preferences. Then you can do what needs to be done without first having to get over the hurdle of completely changing your image of the sort of person you are."

I agree with this SO much. For a long time, I had a partner who felt his choices were his identity; thus, if I didn't like an apartment he liked, he took it personally.

I do ride the bus and wear used clothing (especially after Hurricane Katrina, when I was given a lot of quality used clothes). People seem to like how I dress.

Guest's picture
Guest

I pay $650 to rent a room in a house with nine people in a lousy location with crummy bus service. To escape, I need to earn more money, but how can I do that? I've looked for months, nobody wants to hire me (actually, someone DOES want to hire me if he ever gets an opening - his current employees are staying put), and if I don't reply to a Craitgslist post within 15 minutes, I don't get a reply.

So I need ways to make more money.

Guest's picture
theFrugalUser

This post brings to mind a much bigger issue which is the need for a fundamental shift in attitude wherein using less, and reusing, and recycling is viewed positively, and as a personal statement towards doing what one can to help save this planet. We need to develop a pride and honesty around the choices we make - choices we make not because we can't afford to, though that may be also sometimes true -- but because we *choose* not to... buy new clothes, or a new car, etc, and continue to use far more of the world's resources than we actually need.

There's a lot of baggage that comes with frugality... I for one, am ready to subvert it. :)

Guest's picture
jill

Sounds like my mother and her sisters..sigh...they were so afraid of 'backsliding' into the place they had escaped from that they created so very many myths about the sort of people they were/had become. Much of this nonsense was passed on to my cousins and one of my siblings. They are limited in their response to unusual cirsunstances. This latest downturn must be very frightening for them.

Guest's picture
Guest

"When someone says, 'I'm not the sort of person who,' what they really mean is, 'I'm so rich I don't need to' do whatever it is.

Actually, I think what they mean is "I'm not so poor that I need to." And that's a very different thing. (Not that it's better or worse, but it takes the discussion in a different direction.)

Guest's picture
Guest

to the comment above that knows people who could never wear used clothes, I suggest that if it were that or go naked and freeze to death, they would.

Guest's picture
Hans

I like this post because it touches on something bigger: It's important to tell the right story to ourselves about our lives. We all run a constant narrative in our heads defining who we are, and some of the narratives really restrict us. If we say "I'm not the sort of person who" out of fear of losing status in the eyes of others, which is usually the reason for such thoughts, then we limit our possibilities. I think it's important to always say to ourselves, "I'm the sort of person who is open to new thoughts and new ways of doing," or "I'm the sort of person who is a survivor, who can do what it takes." Then shopping for used clothes, getting a roommate or whatever is just one of the things we do to weather a storm--it doesn't define who we are. In fact, those things would be points of pride, examples of our resourcefulness.

Guest's picture
Kaitlyn142

I don't know. The take on a roommate/rent a room ones I really can understand. My SO rented a room in someone's house. Person ended up being a creep who got drunk and tried to molest me. He kicked out another renter (female) because she refused to sleep with him. There is no way I would go through that again. My safety is more important.

Guest's picture
Olivia

As usual a thought provoking post. It's helpful to realize our value as people is separate from what we do to make ends meet. In a society that values appearances so highly, it's good to consider. As things get tighter for all, creative problem solving will be a great asset. Some of us have had the opportunity to practice it ahead of time. Perhaps we frugalites can encourage others not to be as afraid as they tackle their rough patches. One thing an older friend said sticks in my mind, "There are times we thought we wouldn't make it, but we're still here."

As far as not buying used clothing, unless you purchase something in plastic wrap, someone tried it on already. So no matter where it comes from you need to wash it before wearing.

Guest's picture
Leslie

I do almost all the things on your list - it's not a big deal for me but for my husband it's been quite a push to get outside his comfort zone. He's done splendidly, I think because of his exposure to me and the positive attitude and adaptability I display. I think exposure to positive people making such choices really helps.

I worked on a neighborhood committee planning to bring in speakers for a series on ecological living. I wanted us to sponsor a talk about home sharing as an advantage for seniors and a great way to reduce each individual's carbon footprint. Everyone in the room booed the idea. That's sad because we need to open our minds to alternatives, now more than ever. Seeing what others do can make a difference in the choices available to us.

Guest's picture
Linda

I agree with the comment by Hans - it's often caught up in status i.e. "What would the neighbours think if they knew .....

This recession should be a wake up call to everyone. Consumerism has gone mad!

Guest's picture
Guest

I think sensibilities ARE changing in this regard. I recently was given a car and have begun driving to work although it’s totally possible to take the train. I am often embarrassed by this non-frugal/ecological choice when telling people I know. At least I’m honest with myself in knowing that I’m making the choice because I CAN. I have the luxury to indulge my motion-sickness on public transport. If I didn’t have any other way (which I didn’t for several years), I’d deal. But after becoming debt free and getting a used car as a gift, it’s my treat to myself.

Guest's picture
Mom of 6

I'm not the sort of person who'd ever say ANYTHING like that!!

lghbob's picture
lghbob

Might be interesting to read the results of an informal survey I posted here

 

http://readerrant.capitolhillblue.com/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=86581&fpart=1 

 

a few days ago...  had some interesting replies, I think

 

my opinion only

Guest's picture
RDS

I think I agree with you, but I am not quite sure. If you are "being honest" about being rich enough not to take the bus, do you need to "be honest" about spending any money that elevates you beyond a subsistence lifestyle? Should we tell ourselves things like: I'm rich enough that I don't have to sleep outdoors in nice weather, I'm rich enough that I don't have to eat whatever food is available when it is available because I don't know when I will have the chance to eat again.

It is absolutely true that even the less well off in modern America are among the wealthiest people ever to walk the face of the world. It is good to remind ourselves of this and keep this in perspective. However, I think that one can also get carried away and fall into a "frugal-er than thou" attiditude if one takes this too far.

Just my two cents.

Philip Brewer's picture

@RDS:

Yeah, I'm certainly not suggesting that people be smug about their wealth.  I just want to urge people not to confuse their preferences with their identity, as that sort of confusion can lead people to make very bad choices when they're under stress.

I've written before that there's a big difference between living frugally and living in poverty--even if the standard of living is about the same:  See, for example, Voluntary simplicty versus poverty.

Guest's picture
Guest

Sometimes, this kind of thinking is useful self-motivation to earn more money. That's not a bad thing if you come from a rough neighborhood. A lot of people coming from distressed situations have similar ideas, except they're different. Consider... "I'm not the kind of person who..."

* sells illegal drugs for money.

* performs sex acts for money.

* drops out of school.

* buys stolen goods.

* believes the sarcastic teachers at school.

* gets high to deal with life.

Thinking like that can save your life.

With the economic downturn, 'hoods will go to gangs and police are looking the other way. People are resisting, but there's going to be more poverty, more organized crime seeing opportunities to sell the fantasy of intoxication and consumer goods to downwardly mobile middle class, and people getting caught up in negative self-destruction.

Thanks for nothing Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Reagan.

Guest's picture
Lauren

Well-said!

Guest's picture

* rides the bus
* wears used clothes
* takes in boarders
* rents a room in someone's house
* has a roommate
* borrows things
* lends things
* does manual labor
* follows a budget
* tracks every penny
* buys food on its sell-by date

Nice post. I've done all of these things at one time or another, except for taking in a boarder.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Guest:

You're right--there are plenty of things that really do define who you are.  I tried to list a few relatively universal ones there at the end, but you're right that there are plenty of others (like not being the sort of person who earns his living as a pimp) that are just as important, but that (depending on circumstances) can seem either urgently relevant or so far out there as to seem not worth mentioning.  For the people for whom they're on the radar, they're very much worth keeping in mind.

I spend so much of my time around people for whom a statement like "I'm not the sort of person who trades sex for dugs" would draw perplexed looks, that I probably don't think as much as I ought to about the people for whom it would draw approving nods--so thanks for the comment.

Guest's picture

This kind of thinking is exactly what has got so many Americans (and people all over the world) in deep trouble, financially speaking. People wind up seeking the image of wealth, as opposed to to actually building it.

Guest's picture
Cyllya

Kiri:
>>>I bet hearing that hurts a few peoples sensibilities. Sometimes it's hard to accept that you are the sort of person that does thing just to impress. How many people people who say "i'm not the sort of person who wear seconds clothes" also says "i'm not the sort of person who trys to impress".
-------------------------------------------------------

While the "trying to impress people" line has always looked a little overused to me, this time it's just silly. How does buying new clothes impress people? I buy most of my clothes new at Wal-mart; not only is no one impressed, but a few years ago I was occassionally mocked for it. Meanwhile, Goodwill commercials claim they have a lot of name-brand stuff, and undamaged used clothes look the same as new clothes. Therefore, if you want to impress people, you can easily do so by buying used clothes.

Guest's picture
pamphyila

I have done all sorts of things an Ivy League grad is not supposed to do - in order to live on an artistic shoestring all my adult life. The designer clothes I have all come from thrift shops! I have found that I can dress much BETTER that way than by shopping at KMart. Ironic, isn't it? But I have also learned the lesson that some will sneer if you are too candid - so in the company of such, I just keep it to myself. And then let them wonder how we afford a BOAT.

An acquaintance commented to a friend after she heard about us having a boat and so on - "Are they RICH?" Certainly not - but by making choices about what we spend our money on (and realizing that boats depreciate like MAD) we are able to keep up what is a pleasant lifestyle for us.

I have known people who would rather spend money they didn't have on clothes with Saks 5th Ave. labels rather than go to the Garment District and get the same level of dress for what they COULD afford. That's madness. Why pay for anyone else's taste? If yours is good enough - you can get lots of great deals. The Calif. landscape painting I bought in Ventura for $15 could sell for hundreds in L.A. - but I paid what I could afford.

I think people who....are smart - and know how to work the system to their best advantage - within moral and legal limits! Why is that less glamourous that, say street life? Beats me.
But conspicuous consumption might have something to do with it - but rich people usually don't make their fortunes by throwing money around - only nouveaus do THAT. My millionaire uncle who once lived in Montecito used to go the McD's in his Rolls - but that's another story....

Guest's picture
Bontempfeline

As a middle-aged woman, I either hear, or hear implied, this statement very often. It always feels to me, when I hear this, that I'm talking to someone that's, well, OLD. Isn't this what old people say? Would you ever hear a child say this?

To be "not the sort of person who..." is limiting oneself to an ever-narrowing range of possibilities. It applies to so much more than frugality. This is "I've never been artsy", "I like to walk outdoors, but I'd never go backpacking because I couldn't bathe", "I couldn't possibly put together a web page", "I'm math-challenged", and so on.

The most interesting people I've ever met are those that continually redefine themselves. I strive to be one of those people, so that leaves the topical phrase off my list of things to say.

Thanks for another great article, Mr. Brewer.