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Frugality Is Not A Moral Imperative

Frugality Is Not A Moral Imperative

[singlepic=43,750,750,,center]Photo by slaneder

I’ve identified an alarming trend in the world of personal finance blogs: it’s not a new phenomenon, but apparently marginalizing people based upon the fact that they live paycheck-to-paycheck is gaining more traction in the context of the Great Recession. I think most people know intuitively that they’re not supposed to make generalizations about people simply for being poor, but perhaps it’s time to gently remind people that this doesn’t change just because it is your perception that someone has spent themselves into the poorhouse.

For example, there is this post, which enumerates the characteristics of the “not so well to do,” a group of people who live paycheck-to-paycheck and who may also be identified by the fact that they are “overweight,” do not “exercise,” as well as the fact that they do not “own a home.”

Among my other favorites are these characteristics of the “not so well to do”:

  • They have “little or no college education”;
  • They buy a “new computer every couple of years” and “go through computers like my two year old goes through diapers!” (?!);
  • They are “quick to pick up tab and tip” because “it’s like they are trying to prove they have a lot so they become over generous”; and (of course)
  • They have “no personal responsibility.”

But why stop there? There are more insights in the comments, such as:

  • They lack “an overall purpose or vision to their life”;
  • They “use payday loans”;
  • They “can’t skip the daily Starbucks”;
  • They “move further away from work and public transportation.”

At last check, this post had 31 votes on Tip’d, which is a kind of Digg-style rating site for personal finance blogs. People are just eating it up.

Here’s what I think has happened:

  1. A group of people decided to adopt an overly simplistic personal financial plan (or two) with rigorous standards for maintaining zero personal debt as its moral or quasi-religious philosophy;
  2. added into the mix an average income with little possibility of an increase;
  3. have become true believers in frugality as a cause, and have spent a year (or more) really going after debt with conviction, like getting rid of it is the greatest thing they could ever accomplish in life;
  4. a year or two of this debt repayment activity has passed, and the newness of the venture has worn off, so they have become frustrated; and
  5. They have started to notice people who have things that they want but have been refraining from buying.

Frugal people sometimes get frustrated. Particularly if they are more frugal by necessity than frugal by nature. There is little room in some financial programs to allow for the possibility that people buy things within their means. If somebody has a luxury item, then they must be living paycheck-to-paycheck. If they live paycheck-to-paycheck, then they must be moral degenerates.

Here’s a history lesson: there are many people who don’t have college educations because they cannot afford to go to college, and there are very real social, economic, and racial institutions that contribute to and propagate these realities. Similarly, I don’t believe that we can say there is a causal relationship between living paycheck to paycheck and being fat. Or not exercising. Or using payday loans. You know why they put payday loan businesses in poor neighborhoods? Because desperate people will use them so that they can eat. Maybe we should think about the integrity of the people running these businesses, rather than the people patronizing them.

Being frugal and thinking about your family’s future is a worthy goal. But there is not just one way to do it, and budgeting is about making choices, not about denying yourself. If you’ve forgotten that, it might be time to rework your budget so that you do get to make choices that enrich your day-to-day life. That’s what separates a money “diet” from a money lifestyle.

Comments (5)

  1. May 20, 2009

    I agree with you that there are many paths to personal finance. What I listed in the article were only traits I observed. No single trait listed will make a person poor. But in my experience I’ve noticed that people who exhibit many of these traits tend to be in debt and living paycheck to paycheck. This is no rag on someone without a college education (I don’t have a finished degree myself). Just observations.

    I don’t think I’m frustrated about seeing other people with stuff. If something is important enough to me then I’ll save to get it (DSLR, Macbook, Minivan). I try to figure out what is truly important to ME though and not important to show off to other people, trying to live a lifestyle that isn’t true.

    What I am frustrated about is people who spend freely but lack the personal responsibility to accept that they are broke because they spent all of their money! I see way too many people complain about getting by while their “stuff” piles up. they don’t make the connection.

    Yes, frugality can go too far. You should enjoy your life. But being stressed about making a payment isn’t quality living in my opinion (I’ve been there).

    I totally agree that a budget is making choices. But we should be active in making those choices. Look at your budget and decide what you are going to spend on. Find what is important to you. I doubt the people I’m observing in my article are looking at their budgets making a conscious choice.

  2. May 20, 2009

    This is a fantastic post, and it’s something I have noticed too. First and foremost (evidenced by the first comment), there are too many people concerned with what other people have. This recession and the credit crisis have suddenly made it OK to be busy bodies and judgmental about how much other people have, how much they’ve charged, what they own and how much they fail to save. Why are so many frustrated with people who spend freely? When did it become everyone’s business? Unless your free-spending neighbor down the street with “stuff piled up” comes to you for a handout, you know, it’s not your bidness. (And don’t give me the hooey about how “the responsible ones” will be paying for the irresponsibility of a few with higher credit card rates. A low APR isn’t an inalienable American God-given right.)

    A few factors are at work here. One is the second-lowest on the totem pole phenomenon – the lower middle-class is always the most vocal about what the lower classes have. You never hear rich people complaining about the poor buying steaks with their food stamps. It’s always the people one rung above poor who are keeping such close tabs on what the poor are doing. They’re the ones making a point to tell you they *save* to buy their Macbooks, minivans and DSLRs (huh?) instead of buying on credit impulsively. (Sort of how the just-barely-white-trash watch Maury Povich and those other shows. You never find people who read the New Yorker watching that crap. They seem to have better things to do. But people for whom that lifestyle is a little too close to home are forever tsk-tsking the hair-pulling and paternity test showdowns. I know someone who does this and I can’t understand why, if this lifestyle is not YOUR lifestyle, why does it bother you so much?)

    Another factor is plain old fear. It’s scary to hear about record numbers of foreclosures and bankruptcies, and it’s human nature to try to insulate yourself from these very real problems in some way, so you trumpet about how much you save and scrimp while demonizing those who don’t. If you start to think of those on the margins as somehow “bad,” then you can tell yourself these awful financial fates could never happen to you. It’s a way to make yourself feel safer.

    Frugality has replaced environmentalism as the new evangelization. It’s the new gauge for measuring how responsible and enlightened one is.

    And speaking of evangelization, the tone of some bloggers is downright religious. I don’t read many personal finance blogs, but I know one blogger who treats frugality and the principles of Dave Ramsey as a religion and it’s the boringest shit you’ve ever set eyes on. It’s colorless, grim and schoolmarmish, and her followers are equally boring. I’m as concerned about money matters as anyone right now (more than most, I’d even venture to say) but the puritanical, shaming tone turns me right off.

  3. May 20, 2009

    I hope I never come across as evangelic. I think a lot of PF bloggers (myself included) become so passionate about the issue is because we’ve been in debt ourselves. In no way to I ever intent to demonize anyone though I have seen some stick to ideas pretty hard. I have friends who don’t get why they can’t get ahead. I hate seeing them struggle to make ends meet when they already have the means. Sometimes there’s not a whole you can do about it. I remember the Ramen noodle days when I was te low rung on the ladder at work. Life was paycheck to paycheck because I didn’t make much. But my spending habits didn’t help things either!

    Frugality has become popular as the economy has gotten worse. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the trend reverse when the economy comes back.

    Not sure what you mean about your 2nd lowest on the totem pole thoughts. I think the rich do complain about what the poor buy. They certainly don’t want to pay taxes that go to helping the poor who aren’t responsible.

    No, it’s not my business what someone else spends on unless they come asking. Know what? I’ve had cases where they came asking! Friends and family.

    This is a great post. Open discussions are great!

  4. May 20, 2009

    @eliz, a lot of the people who follow Dave Ramsey are Christian, and he puts a lot of scripture into his show/book/etc. He advises people to tithe, also. I tend to ignore that element of his stuff, and there are a lot of offshoots of this in the personal finance blogging community. I think where it becomes confused is when you start talking about thrift as a virtue–that goes along with some kind of fundamental Christian thinking. It’s easy for the moral stuff to creep in when there’s that close of a tie, for some people, I guess. I agree that many personal finance blogs are boring because they are colorless. I try to live my life responsibly when it comes to money, but damn if it isn’t a daily struggle. I guess I’d rather blog about that: my failures, my extravagances, trying to get back on track, rather than always offer tips or whatever. Because I’m still figuring it out, for one thing. And though I did get myself out of debt, I still have things I want to do and buy, petty jealousies, career and income goals that seem out of reach. I guess that seems more interesting to me than homemade detergent.

    @FFB, I definitely agree that the passion for getting out of debt is contagious. I had it myself when I was paying off all of my debt. It’s intoxicating, really. The only time I worry about what somebody is spending is if it’s somebody I care about and I see them headed into trouble, or if it will directly affect me somehow. I do think living in LA I am just so used to exaggerated conspicuous consumption that I don’t even notice it anymore, or something.

  5. Snakey
    May 21, 2009

    There are aspects of frugality and discipline that run on the same endorphins that brought us hair shirts and self-flagellation. It hurts so good! And it’s like explaining runner’s high to a couch potato.

    I think eliz hit it on the head with “there are too many people concerned with what other people have” and “the second-lowest on the totem pole phenomenon.” We can all be pretty damned judgmental, looking at what others have and thinking they can’t afford it/deserve it, or looking at what they don’t have and thinking it’s a form of neglect/disrespect of self and others. As to the totem pole idea, there must be some hierarchically-wired glob of brain tissue that loves monitoring status, and as long as there’s someone BELOW, it’s ok, we aren’t doing too badly. Could be “below” is defined by sex, race, financial status, I’m not sure it matters: there’s something soothing about not being the omega of the pack. And who harasses the omegas? It’s not the alphas, it’s the ones at risk of becoming omegas, who are one or a few rungs away from dropping to the bottom of the pile.

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