Are Americans Experiencing Frugality Fatigue?

A recent post in Sharon Astyk's lovely sustainability blog mentions the idea that Americans are suffering from "frugality fatigue." After a year of tightened belts and tighter fists, we're reaching for our wallets again and returning to our bad old ways. Or so the theory goes.

On the one hand, the idea seems laughable. Almost 10% of us are unemployed, the highest percentage of unemployment in my adult life. The weekend's news was that consumer spending fell slightly in September, and no one is expecting much shopping this holiday season.

Could we really be tired of being frugal? Surely we all see the need to keep saving. I doubt anyone is looking at the economic news and thinking the crisis is over and we can resume shopping where we left off.

I can see why some people would be breaking out of their frugal habits a little, though. My own spending went up in September and October. Not because I was tired of saving. I spent more money because my stuff started to break.

In the past six weeks, I've replaced my family car, my home heating system, a chunk of my wardrobe and part of my computer system.

I wasn't partying — just maintaining. I only formally joined The Compact to buy nothing new six months ago, but like many Americans I'd been shopping lightly if at all for a long time. A lot of my key possessions hit their breaking point all at once.

In the bad old days of credit cards and financial blindness, I probably would have replaced that stuff sooner, more gradually and with more fun.

For instance, I would not have waited until I was in a wedding party to buy some new clothes after having a baby and losing my baby weight. I'd have celebrated fitting back into my skinny jeans by going out and buying more skinny jeans. Instead, I literally tightened my belt to keep my pants up until I really *had* to go shopping.

I suspect a lot of people are in my shoes: after eschewing shopping in favor of saving, you're finding out you do occasionally need to buy some Stuff.

What have you spent money on in the past few months? Have you found creative ways to replace things that break or wear out? Has your spending crept up recently, or are you just as frugal as ever? Let us know in the comments.


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Guest's picture

I wonder if the new found increase in spending is due to the holidays? Usually around this time of year, people travel to visit family, purchase more groceries for those long awaited feasts, and gifts for the upcoming holidays. These are all reasons there would be an increase in Americans' spending habits. I didn't read the article you mentioned, but unless the time of year was already discussed and the spending averaged out to account for this, then I would think this has something to do with it.

I too have neglected replacing some items I now need to replace. So, I will be one of those people out shopping this weekend!

Guest's picture

I think I've gone through these same swings my whole life. Frugal, frugal, frugal, then suddenly I just can't make do anymore. Most frequently this hits me with clothes.

This weekend I'm going to have to buy a new cell phone. I made due with the damaged screen for over two years. The fact that the case no longer stays consistently joined together (especially not if I plug in my headset), the screen is sometimes going blank, and I sometimes can't turn it on or off has gotten to be a problem.

I'll look like a big trendy spender as I will likely go buy a new Droid when it comes out Friday - using my corporate discount, the upgrade credit from Verizon, and I believe there may even be a rebate. My philosophy is that when I buy electronics, I buy something cutting edge with advanced features that has a good chance of holding up. Then I run it into the ground for as long as I can. That has served me well on cell phones, computers, and digital cameras.

Guest's picture

We are by nature frugal in our household but recently have also spent money. However as you stated it was for necessities. Home repair, and most recently a BIG car repair bill. We have the emergency fund in place but had to tap it for these expenditures. It is a bit shocking to see how fast it goes.

One thing I have come to believe is.. the stories you read about people losing their income and home no matter how carefully they plan can happen to me. Not trying to be a downer just saying I believe it's a new ballgame.

That being said I still get a thrill when I find a great buy, put money in savings and find a money making hobby. It's a good life!

Guest's picture

That is the kind of purchase that Makes us Money, because it elevates our mood, we get much more out of it than just the jeans! Worth more than the purchase price!

John DeFlumeri Jr

Guest's picture

Great piece. I'm experiencing "tight-budget fatigue" as well as frugality fatigue (and general fatigue, but that's a different story).

I think I'm actually experiencing "frugality resignation," whereby I realize I'm going to have to be tight-fisted for a good long time. I've never been a big spender, but now that I'm unemployed and hit with recent car repair, vet, and heating oil bills--as well as an end to our COBRA subsidy...

Here is how my spending has changed recently: I used to eat a lot of When Pigs Fly bread, from the little shop they have in town. It's good bread. I love good bread. I always thought it was reasonable to splurge on good bread. I haven't bought their bread in a while, eating cheaper (and less-good) bread. Yesterday, I actually bought sliced store-brand bread at Shaw's. I think I need to start making my own.

Guest's picture

This month I've splurged on a pressure canner and a new wireless mouse/keyboard to replace my old one.

The canner is a "splurge" but since we'll use it to can beans, chicken stock and other items we pay more for now, eventually it will be a money saver. It was cheaper than buying a second freezer!

And my mouse/keyboard splurge is a necessity. I tried everything to get my mouse working properly again, including reinstalling drivers, installing freshly recharged batteries and hitting it with the compressed air can to make sure dust wasn't causing it to jump around. The purchase was a last ditch resort.

I'm planning to upgrade to Windows 7 soon, but I will be keeping my computer instead of just buying new. My computer is about 2 years old and previously I always bought new computers every couple of years. Not so this time. Not so for a long while.

Guest's picture

Have also had to spend money recently - much to my dismay. My 16-year-old TV set finally bit the dust. Since it's my main form of entertainment, I did replace it - with a small $219 flat screen, the same price as the original set cost 16 years ago. Also had a major but unavoidable plumbing repair, and have a car repair scheduled for next week. I'm grateful to have emergency money put away for things like these.

Guest's picture

We've had to tighten our belts recently and I'm finding myself having two reactions. One, I definitely would like to be able to spend some money on a few things (a new phone, new computer, etc). But I'm also enjoying the challenge of finding other ways to make do. I asked and received a ton of new clothes from freecycle, and I figured out how to replace my dying cell phone for only $20. We've cut our grocery bill in half by stockpiling, menu planning, and just eliminating certain foods from our diet.
I imagine that if we start to do better again, our spending will creep up, but I also have some new habits that I hope will stick.

Guest's picture

Our existing deck was having issues with rotting support beams so we tore it out and are in the process of having a new deck installed. At least we're helping to support local businesses (landscape architect, his staff, contractor/carpenter) in the building of our new deck. Wouldn't have chosen right now to do this construction, but when the deck started bowing under the weight of the spa, we didn't really have much choice. And we had the money in savings with which to do it which is a good thing.

Guest's picture

My husband and I have been frugal what seems like forever- bought small house in 1981 drive second hand car paid off house.Neither of us make big money I am a nurse working 2 jobs he is a security officer at a large hospital.Both of us have been working before age 16 and have been with our employers for 30 plus years(yes we are dinosauers)both of us 55 planning on working full time till 65yrs old.But I gotta tell you I am tired-Bone health problem just so tired of falling behind even with using cash-coupons-recycling-reusing everything you read in the blogs we do.We have paid off the house at age 50, paid for college under grad and grad, wedding,2 cars paid for and driven till 200k then donated.We both always get the highest raises for "outstanding" perf reviews but that is 2-3%.Anyone else out there burn out like me?

Guest's picture

Our spending went up the last two months but there were reasons. I stockpiled a huge amount of food. Winters can be brutal up here. I also loathe the insanity at the stores around the holidays. So we stock up on as much as possible so we don't have to buy it for the next few months. This cuts down to just having to get milk, eggs and fresh veggies.

The rest of the extra spending was on clothes. One of our kids outgrew their winter coat and boots so we had to buy new ones. The other needed winter clothing, a coat and shoes due to wearing out. So that was a good deal of extra spending.

I have to say I think our buying behavior has permanently changed. My hubby sent me a recipe he found for a home made cleaning product last week. We realized we are close to having a bunch of things paid off, car, medical bills and some other costs. This is freeing up a significant amount of money each month. So instead of getting the compulsion to go shopping we were discussing how we could save most of it and do some things to make extra money to add to that. So instead of taking out another loan when the car is paid for we want to try to pay cash for the badly needed replacement for our truck. We are both so sick of being broke that we don't want to go back.

Guest's picture

Had to spend about $3500 (not planned) to repair damages to a 4-bedroom home a renter left after a 3 year lease. It included having the woodfloor sanded because of cigarette burns and cats in the house. All done with "landlording" - will put units up for sale and enjoy retirement -

Guest's picture
Dr. Dean

No increase in our spending here in Georgia-people here are still quite concerned about the economy. I was talking to a local bank president last week, and he feels we haven't hit bottom locally-our county's unemployment rate is already 13%, but several more businesses are rumored to be on the edge of closing.

So probably will be a "light" Christmas, but we will focus on family and have a great time being together.

Hopefully, things will turn around soon.

Guest's picture
pam munro

My husband is more burnt out than I am - but he pays the bills...It really bothers him that he can't afford just to buy a new car - & we had major car problems. I am used to nursing along old cars & suggested transmission goop to help the transmission the mechanics said could go at any time - which worked for "my" old Merc & he ended up buying an almost vintage Tbird real cheap, which he is actually enjoying "restoring" (fixing up).But we are really babying the transmissions in both! Our mechanics, with whom I have been for yrs. also seem a bit money hungry & rather than fixing things up, more & more suggest just dumping the car! I had to take my Soc. Security early because we need the $...Luckily I just did a commercial, but the money is slow in coming - & I work at home, which is extremely frugal, if a bit housebound...I have lived on the frugal edge for years before we got married - so I am used to this - but it makes my husband nuts that he's middle class & having such a hard time paying the bills, even though we keep them down as much as possible!

All this on top of the fact that his employer is gypping the employees out of time wherever they can & they pay hourly. I am not sure this is all strictly legal, but what can we do? The lack of work in August (unplanned for by us, who had been led to believe that the schedule was normal)really put us back financially, as we ended up thousands of dollars down...How long can employees make bricks out of straw?

Guest's picture

Advertising plays a big part in our "frugal fatigue." It shows us nice shiny things that we must have to play with! I mean, has anyone noticed how even this site (from a few months ago) is full of ads for "deals!" Most of the things in these ads here are useless. I know that's part of where WB gets its revenue, but at least it should put things that match the philosophy behind the site. I stop reading this site for a while, this is my first time back in a few weeks... I just wished quality content would be the rule and not the exception.

By the way, this was a good article. Thank you.

Guest's picture

I just think of the extra stuff I have to bring into my home, and that is more than enough to make me NOT want to buy anything

Still, I definitely own more than I should.

Guest's picture

My family and I already live frugally by most standards, but things have gotten really tight in the last 8 months with cutbacks on the job. We've never had cable tv, we used to eat out twice a month or so, and shop at resale store as often as possible. Lately though, even those things had to be trimmed back considerably. Christmas will be a little slimmer, thankfully the money is already set aside. I do have things that have broken or worn out, but other than taking money out of our emergency fund, I'm going to have to live without them for quite a while longer. I just keep hoping that things will turn around soon. But with the unemployment rate over 15% here and prices going up, it is a little scary and unsure. The only thing I really want to replace is my cooking set. I need to replace 2 pans, but buying a set is actually cheaper. Still swithering on whether it is a necessity or a want on this one! Cooking every day at home has been challenging with no large pans and a broken lid for the one I do have. Decisions, decisions... Isn't that what life is all about? Making good decisions even in the hard times. I'm just really thankful above all for my sweet family!

Guest's picture

The posts in this area refect the heaviness Americans are carrying today. Keep on frugaling and we'll all wake up one day with a smile because of it. We will see we have saved enough for that wonderful 'whatever' we've always wanted.

Guest's picture

I ended up needing some teaching clothes, so I went to Ross and such and managed to get slacks pretty cheaply. But no shirt I needed, so then I went to the resale shop that supports rehabilitating female addicts, and managed to score a lovely, new-looking shirt for $1.08 w/ tax. I'll be going there from now on instead of Ross. New (ish), and still frugal.

Other than that I'm still on my frugality thing.

Guest's picture

We actually put off our new countertops so long, the local place we were going to get them from went out of business :(

My computer died, and I bought a new one - my first ever. I had previously owned 1 purchased used and 1 hand-me-down from my boyfriend's office - when they upgraded 5 years ago, they just gave the old machines to the employees.

Well, that machine died dead, wouldn't stay booted up for more than a few minutes even after we wiped & reinstalled the OS. So I bought a new desktop - I kind of wanted a laptop but the price difference was too much for me.

Guest's picture

We were really hurting from the debt of medical bills. I finally realized that I could get most of it paid off by cashing in an annuity I had started before I got married. Now my retirement is tied into my husband's but his is better anyway. I distributed the payment to pay off most of the high interest debt, put a down payment on a used vehicle and restock our emergency fund. The car dealer got us 4.9 financing and what is left of the debt is on a 0% account. I do online surveys and use the points to "buy" new stuff and gift cards to give out at the holidays. I used a gift card that I won through a work contest to get a new toaster oven. My husband is a real spender and all the frugality has been hard on him but he has learned to shop harder and not just accept the full price.

Guest's picture

I save money by not buying new clothes for 5 years, I just buy like 50 clothes when they are 90% of for $1000 in 5 years, rest of money goes into savings account.. it compounds nicely.

Guest's picture

No, not fatigue, but like the original author and others, some postponed expenses are coming due. Necessary clothing purchases (like replacing last year's falling-apart boots), minor household repairs, other preventative maintenance (like car and vet bills). And, realistically, I'm anticipating catastrophic failure of either my computer, my sofa, or my car (hopefully not all three!) sooner rather than later.

Still, I've been able to save plenty this year while still having more than I need and being able to help those who don't, so I can only be grateful. Also, I've already finished all my holiday shopping on the cheap. :)