It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. We often evaluate ourselves based on how we stack up compared to those around us. As much as we may try not to judge others for the choices that they make, judging others is a habit that many of us fall prey to.
The world of personal finance is no different. We judge others for not saving enough, and we judge them for saving too much. We judge “spenders” for buying overpriced lattes, designer handbags, or extravagant vacations. Some personal finance bloggers seem to think that people avoid frugality because they think it means giving up things that they love and value. This leads to judgments about the “extremely” frugal people; we say things like, “If you give up things you enjoy, you aren’t frugal, you’re just cheap,” or “spending bans are bad for the soul.”
Frugality is not one size fits all; it comes in many shapes and sizes. I believe that there is no such thing as “too” frugal. Every individual has a unique situation, perspective, and values. What is too extreme for one person may be the perfect amount of frugality for someone else. How frugal someone wants (or needs) to be depends on several factors: how much debt someone has, how much they earn, their personality, and their long-term goals.
If you’re wondering how frugal you need to be, instead of relying on the opinions of others (whose situations are probably quite different from yours), consider these questions:
How much debt do you have?
My approach to frugality seems extreme to many. At the age of 27, my husband and I live with my parents, we don’t travel, we drive embarrassing 16-year-old cars that are completely paid off, and we are currently on a three-year spending ban. Numerous people have told me that I am too strict with myself and that I deserve to have a little fun once in a while. There are other bloggers who have paid off debt and traveled the world at the same time.
This sounds amazing, but it’s not realistic with the amount of debt my husband and I have. If you have $20,000 of debt, earn a good income, and are willing to take five years to pay off your debt, you may not need to make extreme sacrifices to reach your goals. My husband and I started with $117,000 of student loan debt and low incomes. Our goal is to pay off all our debt in three years, and for us, reaching this goal is only possible if we make sacrifices that seem “extreme” to others.
How much do you earn?
Many of the people who tell me that I should loosen up my personal rules about spending are people who either a) have no debt, or b) make a lot more money than I do. If you’re living debt-free or you earn a high income, you can afford to spend a lot of money and still save a good chunk of money. For those who are buried in debt and/or are trying to get by on a low income, it may be necessary to make sacrifices that may seem “extreme” to high earners or debt-free folks.
Are you an abstainer, or a moderator?
Extreme frugality is often unappealing to “moderators,” but “abstainers” may do well with “extreme” frugality. An abstainer is someone who is more likely to reach their goals if they stick to hard and fast rules. They may put themselves on a complete spending ban or a strict diet. They know that spending $20 can easily lead to a mini-shopping spree, and eating one chocolate chip cookie can quickly lead to eating 10 cookies.
I am an abstainer; I do much better with dieting when I cut myself off from junk food entirely. I’m like an addict when it comes to chocolate and other junk food — once I start, I can’t stop. But if I stay away from certain foods completely, I do an excellent job of sticking with my diet and not indulging in junk food.
A moderator, on the other hand, does just the opposite. A moderator would prefer to spend some money and eat one piece of cake. This person feels restricted when given harsh rules; she will be upset about the idea of never being able to buy anything or have cake, and then she might go on a shopping spree or eat an entire cake. Alternatively, if she tells herself that she can spend a little money or have one piece of cake, she feels happy about this and isn’t tempted to overindulge.
What are your goals? What do you value?
I was frustrated when I heard a friend tell me, “If you give up things you enjoy, you’re not frugal, you’re just cheap.” I have given up many things that I enjoy, like dyeing my hair, going out to dinner, going to movies, and traveling. Have I given up those things because I’m cheap? No. There is a four-letter word that has motivated me to give up many of the things that I enjoy: debt. Without making some sacrifices, my husband and I would not be able to pay off six figures of debt in three years. We may value entertainment and travel, but we value debt freedom more.
A final thought.
Frugality is not one size fits all; it comes in many shapes and sizes. When we’re tempted to judge each other for spending too much, or not spending enough, let’s try to remember that everyone is different. Each person has a unique situation, and what’s right for one person is not necessarily right for another.
Jen is an HR/Finance professional and frugal lifestyle blogger. Jen and her husband are paying off $117,000 of student loan debt in just three years. She writes about healthy eating on a budget, affordable wedding tips, destroying debt, and living frugally on her blog Frugal Millennial.
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