The line between frugal and crazy

by Philip Brewer on 13 January 2008 14 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

You don't have to go very far down the path of being frugal to reach the point where people start questioning your sanity. (You bicycle to work? Even though you have a perfectly good car?) On the other hand, there's no idea so crazy that there aren't some frugal folks out there who swear by it. (I hesitate to suggest an example, for fear of offending some of our committed readers.) Still, there is a line where frugality becomes pathology. In fact, there are two lines. We have names for them.  We call them stingy and miserly.

The English language is rich with words to describe personal economic behavior. There are words people use when they're happy that you're not spending too much: thrifty, frugal, provident. There are words people use when they're not so sure: sparing, parsimonious. These are the words people use when they're unhappy that you're not spending more: stingy and miserly.

The fact is, though, that these words work pretty well for marking the dividing line between normal behavior and crazy behavior.

Does it make you happy?

Miserly is the easy one. The word miser shares a common root with miserable, and the classic misers in literature (Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge, Robert Louis Stevenson's Ebenezer Balfour) are wretched, miserable creatures--desperately unhappy despite their wealth. Misers aren't just normal people who choose to hoard money. Being miserly is a pathology akin to anorexia nervosa--a miser refuses to spend money because he feels his life is out of control; refusing to spend money is a futile effort to take control.

The nature of the pathology, though, is that this behavior doesn't produce happiness. You sometimes find parodies of happy miserly people (Scrooge McDuck, for example, takes great delight in his swimming pool full of money), but real misers are just sad and lonely.

So, that's the first "frugal or crazy" check: Does it make you happy? If you do the frugal things you do because you like living that way, then they're normal-frugal, not crazy-frugal, no matter what other people think of them.

Riding my bicycle for transportation gives me great joy (as does walking for transportation). I really like going to the library. (There are some things I like better, but it's a short list.) My wife spins and weaves and knits because she likes it--the beautiful, warm hats, sweaters, mittens, and scarves are something of a bonus. Either one of us can make a better lunch than any fast-food joint. Neither one of us lets the other hog all the fun of baking sourdough bread.

Most of these things are frugal, but that's not why we do them.

On the other hand, you may be doing things because you think they're frugal, but that you hate. Maybe you buy cheap shoes that hurt your feet because they're so much cheaper than good shoes. Maybe you keep on using a bar of soap until it's just a tiny sliver, because your mom always did. Maybe you reuse tea bags. Any of these are fine frugal ideas if you like the results. But if they make you unhappy, and yet you do them anyway--that's when you start getting into the area of crazy-frugal.

Other people may think your frugal choices are crazy. But the test of crazy is not whether "normal" people do stuff like that. The test of crazy is whether your choices support the sort of life you want to have. Be especially wary when your friends and relations start saying things like, "Why are you still doing X? You make good money--you can afford to do Y!" If doing X makes you happy, stick with it.

Are you deciding for yourself?

Stingy is tougher. The word stingy turns up when people talk the effect on them of spending decisions made by someone else. A boss can be stingy with raises. A husband can be stingy with money for groceries. A father can be stingy with an allowance. A cook can be stingy with meat in the stew.

I read an article once about a family where the father was a scary, controlling, frugal monster. He micromanaged every detail of the family's budget, with his wife acquiescing to all sorts of bizarre rules about where money could and couldn't be spent. Reading the article, though, I was disturbed to find that, although the guy was clearly a crazy person, about half of his supposedly crack-pot frugal notions seemed perfectly normal to me.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Once I gave it some thought, though, I realized that what made this guy a crazy person was not the extreme frugality, it was the scary, controlling monster part. Reasonable people can differ on whether washing and reusing plastic bags is out on the lunatic fringe. But yelling and screaming at your spouse because you found a used plastic bag thrown away in the trash--that's scary crazy. Buying the cheapest brand of toilet paper is fine (as is buying a more expensive brand, if you like it better and can afford it). Monitoring how many sheets of toilet paper your kids use and punishing profligate use--crazy.

If you're choosing for yourself, you can be just as frugal as you want without crossing the line into being stingy. But when you're making decisions for other people, their opinion counts too.

Of course, just disagreeing with your spouse, children, employees, neighbors, or friends about how much money is the right amount to spend on any particular category of purchase doesn't make you crazy.

What is crazy is trying to resolve these sorts of disagreements through means other than communication, negotiation, and compromise. Even with children, where the parent has to make the decision (even if it's just the decision to let the child have its own way), communication and negotiation is the way to go. Insisting on always having your own way, even if you're right, is crazy.

But you can afford it!

People who want you to spend more money will often point out that you can afford whatever expenditure they want you to make this time. But the fact is, the question of "crazy or just frugal" never comes down to whether you can afford something or not.

This is asymmetrical, because the opposite question does come down to what you can afford: it's almost always crazy to spend more than you can afford. (I say "almost" because there are exceptions: necessary medical care, food when your family is hungry, shelter when they're homeless--it's not crazy to provide the necessities.)

Just like English has plenty of words for thrifty behavior, it also has plenty for the opposite: squander, prodigal, spendthrift. Those words, though, seem to have fallen into disuse.

We live in a time and place where the concept of "necessities" has been redefined up to the point that people consider you as abnormal--as a crazy freak--if you don't spend money on things that all humans got along without for a hundred thousand years of human history, and that most people in poor countries still get along without.

What you can afford is not what makes your choices frugal or crazy. The right question to ask is: What makes you happy? If you want to stay happy, you'll want to follow up by asking your spouse and children what makes them happy. And you'll need to give at least a moment's thought to what your friends, neighbors, colleagues, and even passing strangers think. But don't do it because you think their opinion of your lifestyle has much to say about whether your choice is crazy; do it because people's opinions can influence their actions, and their actions can affect you.

Lifestyle choices that make you and your family happy are never crazy, no matter how other people choose to live.

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Jabulani Leffall's picture

Jabulani Leffall here...............Were we thinking the same thing or did you take a big bite out of my apple? (Smile) RE: My Saturday Evening Post: Miser v. Stunna

Whether it's the former or the latter, keep doing what you're doing. It's all good, I enjoyed your post and it kind of shows I'm on the right track and that I'm not alone in my thinking. Stinginess is often a worse pathology than frivilousness. 

 

Jabulani Leffall

Monetary Gadfly, Common Currency

00000 Broke Blvd. Kitchenette #68 & 1/2

Lowcash, CA 90000-0000

Guest's picture
Jim

One thing that keeps me on the sane side of frugality is regular scheduled giving to charitable organizations. Watching my contributions make a difference helps keep the true value of money in perspective.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks Jabulani! I'd had the pieces of this one kicking around for a while, then saw your post and was inspired.

Guest's picture

Great post Phil. It's all about the balance! I like how you distilled it down to two easy questions we can ask ourselves to see if we're in balance or if we're drifting into the crazy zone.

Guest's picture

I've only just begun my journey into frugal living and I've been careful not to drive myself (or anyone else) "crazy". I've linked to this post from my latest blog entry.

rstlne's picture
rstlne

Now that you mentioned it, it's funny how many habits came from my Mom. Not only do I use bar soap until it's a sliver, but I also stick all the slivers together to make a new bar of soap. I also don't throw out plastic bags from the supermarket because I can reuse those as garbage bags.

Guest's picture
Lynne

Great post...

The first part of this (does it make you happy) and the second (does what you do make other people unhappy) made me stop and think in a way that blogs don't usually. I've been living in extreme frugality with the little money I can get from odd jobs since I lost my job three months ago, and I thought I was doing great. This reminded me that just because I'm paying all my bills and contributing to savings, even without a job, if I'm not happy and my partner is not happy, I'm not doing great.

Thanks for the reminder to bring the balance back into my life.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words.

Guest's picture
Guest

love to read the article on the crack-pot guy

Philip Brewer's picture

The article about the crazy, controlling father and husband was years ago. It dates back to the days when such things were in print, rather than on the web, and don't remember enough details to track it down.

Guest's picture
Darlene

Imagine my surprise when I see a photo of a statue at Allerton Park displayed on this article!!!!!!

Hello fellow Chambanite

Guest's picture
Guest

While the questions you suggest we ask ourselves are helpful, I don't think they're the last word on crazy/not crazy.

Part of the problem is that we are so prone to rationalize our behaviour. The workaholic thinks his/her kids are happy and that they're happy. They convince themselves that the kids are happier because they have a bigger house and more toys than they would be without those things and an involved parent.

I think another couple of questions that help us determine health might be a wider & longer view:
1. If everyone did what I am doing, would the world be a better place?
2. If I had just one year left to live, would I change my behaviour? (Many times we convince ourselves it's short-term pain for long-term gain [and then go on to live in short-term pain for a long time], but this question forces us to re-evaluate.)

Guest's picture
Hannah

Well said, I've gone to the crazy side several times. I was recently on vacation in Paris and would walk for several blocks every day just to find the cheapest deals for lunch. It isn't wrong to be frugal, but it becomes annoying when we are frugal at someone else's expense. The suggestion I would make is to learn to compromise and go out for dinner once in a while or get movie tickets even if it is a "non-essential purchase", if only to avoid driving everyone around you absolutely crazy.

Philip Brewer's picture

Of course, the key word there is "just." If you're on vacation in Paris, there are a hundred reasons to walk several blocks every day. Walk as many blocks as you like to follow the footsteps of Hemingway (or your favorite writer, artist, or philosopher). Walk as many blocks as you like to see the sights, or to take in the Paris air, or soak up the Paris milieu.

If you save money doing it. . . . Well, that just keeps you in the footsteps of Hemingway (and no doubt a hundred other starving Paris writers and artists) who had to pay very close attention to their spending.

But if you're doing it "just" to find the cheapest deals. . . . Well, then you may well not be getting as much out of your Paris vacation as you might.