Why You’re Failing at Frugality

I received these napkins as a gift 9 years ago.

Image and caption by Anne Taintor

“I’ve tried to be better with money but it just doesn’t work. I was shopping at ALDI, but then I bought some strawberries that were moldy. So I’ve started using coupons. We replaced our weekend night out with take-out so we don’t have to pay a tip. I had to get a car payment because I can’t break down on my way to work. But now I’m saving on gas because the car gets better mileage. Plus I get fuel discounts from my grocery card. And I can’t get out of debt because I don’t want to wipe out my savings. If only I made more money, then I could follow all the financial advice I hear.”

Sound familiar? We’ve probably all heard or made some of these statements. If to err is human, so is to make irrational excuses. Don’t worry, I’ve erred and excused with the best of them. We nursed our student loans for a couple years (and went to Europe, and bought a house) before deciding to decimate them. I withdrew funds from my retirement account after leaving my first real job at age 21. (Doh!) We all make mistakes, and we all have different priorities. But I hear a lot of people who are completely mystified about their financial frustrations because they genuinely believe they are pretty frugal.

So how is it that some people cut coupons, shop sales, eat Meatless Mondays, even give up cable (!) , but just can’t seem to get ahead financially? Chances are, they’re only pretending to be frugal, which is a world apart from pretending to be poor.  In a materialistic culture that masterfully markets the financial fallacy that we save money by spending money, it’s almost impossible to resist the pitfalls of faux frugality. The point here is not to feel guilty, but to wake up and get clarity about our financial decisions so we can take charge. I can’t sit back and let comrades Pretend to Be Frugal, when they should instead Pretend to Be Poor. Let’s explore the difference.

Pretending to be Frugal Pretending to be Poor
Finding less expensive ways to inflate lifestyle Finding ways to deflate lifestyle
Views spending as a way to “save” Views spending as something to minimize; actually puts “saved” money into savings
Seeking luxury, comfort, and convenience at a discount Minimizing luxury while increasing usefulness
Views spending as a game to get “more for my money” via coupons, sales, “freebies,” tax write-offs, etc.  Challenges oneself to increase savings and generosity by reducing expenses
Focuses on small savings areas instead of big ones Ruthlessly prioritizes savings on the big three (car, house, food); continually finds new small ways to save
Lacks consistency in frugal practices Has a detailed plan and focuses on results
Lacks goals and purpose of frugality Focused on financial goals & bigger purpose of frugality—understands why
Makes excuses for lack of savings, blames lack of income Tracks own progress toward goals
Fights with spouse/SO over spending. Competes for resources with spouse A frugal team, work together to find new ways of saving
Stuck in survival mode Generous

So are you frugal or just pretending? Are you simply finding cheaper ways to inflate your lifestyle, or taking concrete steps to deflate your lifestyle? In other words, are you looking for discounts on luxuries, or continually searching for the bottom boundary of how little you can be content with? You are either pushing the upper limits of your budget with excuses to spend, or challenging yourself to spend less and less.

Faux frugality views spending as a way to save. Do your “thrifty” habits belie spendthrift problems? We’ve all been tempted to spend extra to get a “free” gift, “free” shipping, or a tax write-off. But spending $50 to save $10 doesn’t mean you saved $10. It means you spent $50. On a larger scale, someone might upgrade a vehicle to “save” on fuel costs. But many times the cost of that upgrade can’t be recovered by the gas savings in a reasonable amount of time. People even buy houses because the mortgage payment looks cheaper than rent, and fail to consider the hidden costs of home ownership.

Those who Pretend to Be Frugal see spending as a game that consumers can win. If people who Pretend to Be Poor see spending as a game at all, it’s how little they can spend. Not how much crap can I accumulate while shelling out hard-earned cash. Instead, they want to spend in order to secure real needs and carefully chosen wants for as little as possible. I’m thrilled to optimize spending, but I’m not optimizing my money if I’m indulging in discounted luxuries that I don’t truly value. Materialism is a losing game, and I’m out.

Another big distinction between faux and true frugality is a willingness to tackle the big expense areas. The top three cost of living categories are housing, transportation, and food. If you can get these under control you are well on your way to financial progress. Often people stop at smaller areas like clothing or cell phone plans. I believe no budget line is safe from frugalizing. And people often need to start with something smaller and more manageable. But if you’re unwilling to delve into the deepest savings potential, you’re only playing at frugality, and it won’t get you anywhere. You can shop exclusively at ALDI and Goodwill, but if you’re unwilling to get rid of your car payment, slash your $300/month dining budget, pay off your student loans, or stop paying outrageous interest on credit card debt, you will not get ahead financially.

The Faux Frugals also lack consistency in key frugal practices. For example, they may shop at a discount grocery once in a while when it’s convenient, but mostly end up over-spending in unplanned trips to the Big Store. Until you are truly committed to the bigger picture of why you’d Pretend to Be Poor, you’ll lack the motivation to plan ahead and build frugal habits into your routine. Whether it’s hanging laundry to dry, packing a lunch, saving up for purchases, or paying off debt, consistency is key. You can’t practice frugality only when you feel like it; you’ll never see a difference. It’s those who give up too soon who say, “I tried being frugal, it didn’t really help.” The problem wasn’t the advice, but the lack of perseverance.

And this brings us to the issue of motivation. Pretending to Be Frugal has many possible motives. If you find yourself constantly comparing spending to friends, fighting with your spouse about money, or making financial decisions out of guilt, you probably haven’t latched onto lasting motivation. Understanding why you want tosave money is going to get you a lot further than just knowing how to save money.

Why the heck would I wash poopy cloth diapers or go camping for vacation with two tots in tow? What keeps us going is our purpose. Pretending to Be Poor is not about being a miser. There’s nothing actually impoverished about our lifestyle. But we are essentially pretending to have less money than we do, so we can have the flexibility to take opportunities that come our way (like my trip to India), prioritize people, and practice generousity . Authentic frugality increases your usefulness as you learn new skills, get creative, help others, strengthen your relationships, and enjoy it all as a fun adventure.

So stop playing at being frugal. Unless you make a ton of money, if you want to make progress financially, you have to go all-in. That doesn’t mean tackling your entire budget at once. But you have to be willing to challenge any area of spending, one at a time, big and small. You have to quit the materialistic game of spending to “save.” You’ll need to give up some preferences and be consistent. And you must get your reasons in order to secure lasting motivation.

Consider Proverbs 14:23: All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

What other differences do you see between faux & real frugality? What motivates your frugality?

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38 Responses to “Why You’re Failing at Frugality”

  1. Holly says :

    I’ve been pretty frugal for a long time now, but we are slowly loosening the reins. I’m trying to be intentional about it so that it doesn’t get out of hand. With that being said, I think it’s important to be honest with yourself. Are you spending on things you truly value, or just telling yourself you are?

    • Kalie says :

      Once you’ve reached big financial goals it can make sense to loosen the reins if you have the means to do so. It’s when you can’t make progress that you need to evaluate how much you really want your Wants. It is surprisingly difficult to discern this sometimes.

  2. Hannah says :

    I love these- I think the most important is the point regarding fighting with resources v. being a frugal team. This isn’t very easy even if you come into the marriage with a fairly frugal mindset. A good question to ask is if you respect your spouse’s desire to spend on X, even if it comes at a sacrifice of Y to you.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point. We both have a frugal bent but have had plenty of disagreements about our finances. Communicating trust & respect goes a lot further than nagging and arguing. There’s no way around sacrificing in marriage.

  3. DC YAM says :

    While we do a few things to save money (okay, many things), I do think that increasing your income can have a bigger impact on your finances than cutting costs. I’m pretty staunchly in the “make more money camp” and try to suggest practical ways to do so on my site.

    With that being said, notice I didn’t say “higher standard of living.” I certainly sacrifice some of my standard of living to increase my income. with that being said, I think you have to balance things. Right now we are really focused on paying down student loans, having money for renovations, saving, etc., so I think both my wife and I are willing to give up a little quality of life in the short term for a long-term better financial outcome.

    • Kalie says :

      I certainly see from a numbers standpoint why increasing income can have more impact. I guess I hear the “it’s not working line” a lot from people who aren’t working either angle. Sounds like you are doing great from both angles!

  4. Luke Fitzgerald says :

    Whoa – this is an amazing post. Said so well. Such a nice way to say “You’re not being frugal; you’re being an idiot” 🙂

    I was always under the impression that frugal was synonymous with cheap, penny pincher, boring, etc. I now know that’s not frugality at all. To me, frugal is just another word for intentional and directional. Thats’s what motivates us – to properly manage money so we can do more of the things we like and less of the things we dislike.

  5. Janet Fazio says :

    So now that I’ve realized I’m a frugal fraud, I guess it’s time to go all in. Thanks for the post.

  6. Mr. SSC says :

    Well put! We’re fairly frugal but it took a while to get there. The biggest way was asking if we wanted or needed something before we bought it. That broke our mindless spending. Then we started with allowances for each other so we weren’t constantly asking “can I buy this?”. Then we started adding more and more into the “comes from allowance” category like, clothes, eating out, hobbies, and basically anything that doesn’t benefit the other person.
    This works well for us. While we may not be frugal in every aspect of our lives, we are frugal enough to hit our savings goals, and still feel comfortable with our lives. It’s allowed us to shoot for early retirement in a few more years, even if my wife gets laid off soon.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for explaining your process of becoming more frugal. It’s different for everyone, but we can learn a lot from each other. That’s great you’re able to work toward early retirement.

  7. Mrs. SFF says :

    What a great post! One of my favorites has always been the person who is so excited about saving whatever% off a purchase without looking at the fact that they had to spend money to get that benefit.

    Often I find myself thinking “I can’t afford that” when in truth I do have the money I just have other goals. Trying to live off less and saving first really do help.

    • Kalie says :

      I think there is a lot of power in realizing you could afford certain things, but that they’re just not worth the trade-off of bigger goals. This gets us a lot further than feeling deprived.

  8. Kurt says :

    That’s an excellent distinction you make. I particularly like “views spending as a way to save” vs. “views spending as something to minimize; actually puts “saved” money into savings” because it echoes one of my household mantras: Buying stuff we don’t need on sale does not save money!

    • Kalie says :

      That’s definitely a helpful mantra, especially since there are so many ads and even whole television series devoted to spreading the opposite message.

  9. DP says :

    I never thought to draw the distinction between the two. Finding cheaper ways to inflate your lifestyle vs. deflating your lifestyle. Interesting concept that I think more people should consider more often!

  10. Avia says :

    I think people who are frugal are value-driven, wanting the best return on the dollar. Pretending to be frugal, without one’s “heart” in it is a waste of time and money.

    I’m value-driven and don’t like wasting resources. I don’t think when degree of wealth rises, a frugal or value-driven person changes drastically as far as standard of living or acquisitions. As things get better financially, I get a taste of an exhilarating sense of freedom – though it is merely a taste at the moment 🙂

    I’m afraid that pretend-frugality brings pretend-success!

  11. Our Next Life says :

    I think that everyone needs to read this post! I’ve never seen anyone break it out side-by-side like you did, and it’s so powerful to see it put this way. I do think that most “frugal” people are pretending at frugality (just this AM a whole bunch of “frugal shopping” posts popped up on Facebook), and aren’t really asking themselves the hard questions about what they really value in order to scale back their lifestyles. For sure we’re not perfect at practicing simplicity, but we get better all the time. It’s all about that journey, but this post really helps crystallize the differences for me. Thanks!

    • Kalie says :

      We’re certainly not perfect at it, either! It really is about the bigger picture of which direction you’re headed, and if that’s actually where you want to be going.

  12. Tawcan says :

    Love it! Pretending to be frugal is a short lived experiment. You can’t pretend to be something forever. Either you’re frugal or you’re not.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point that you can’t maintain something if you’re just pretending. I think people can become frugal, but you have to pass the threshold from pretending.

  13. Leslie says :

    New to your site via Frugalwoods. Your content is great. Your title, “Pretend to be Poor,” makes me deeply sad. I wonder why you would choose it. Because a lot of people ARE poor and don’t need this.

    • Kalie says :

      Please check out our welcome post, pretendtobepoor.com/welcome/, which explains the proverb we took our title from, its tongue-in-cheek tone, and our practice of charitable giving to the truly poor.

    • Leslie says :

      Tongue in cheek time at the expense of how genuinely poor people would feel to come across your blog, sorry, that dog won’t hunt. I did read your religious explanation, and I think you’re over estimating how many people on reading your blog, would get the reference or the joke. And again, when the joke is on the poor, I just think it’s unnecessarily (if unintentionally) mean spirited. I worked with the real poor for years, it hurts to be poor. And they don’t think it’s funny. Just contributing honest feedback.

  14. Avia says :

    I absolutely love the name of your site; it resonates with me on more than one level. I had not previously read your Bible verse reference, and I like that connection as well. After reading that, I actually shared your site and the verse from Proverbs on G+ and Twitter!

    As an aside, I was so poor years ago that I was homeless, and my first major “step up” was a welfare/AFDC check. It was instinctive to me that it would serve me to always “pretend” to have less than the reality.

  15. Ms. MyCountdown says :

    What a great post. I agree that many people are pretending to be frugal (I was very guilty of this, and still am guilty of this on occasion). I like you pointed out that you have to ready to evaluate and change every line item in your budget; not to leave anything off of the table. Only then, can you really make changes in your lifestyle and relationship with money.

  16. Jen says :

    Great article. I really struggle with being frugal especially when it comes to my kids clothes! I go a bit overboard and need to get back on track. We have been debt free most of our adult lives other than a mortgage we had for 1.5 years (sold the house) I use to always tell myself “I can’t afford it” but I think I have lost that mentality recently 🙁

  17. Mike Earl says :

    Kalie (and Neill) — This is a remarkably insightful post. I have never thought about it this way. Thank you for sharing all of your insights. As a fellow Christ-follower, it’s a blessing to read someone in the “FI World” writing from an explicitly Christian perspective.

    I found your blog via Our Next Life’s blogroll, and I’m so thankful I did.

    – Mike in MN

  18. Prudence Debtfree says :

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a post about this concept. Well done! I think I’m crossing a line into the “Pretend to be poor” camp. My brother was expressing concern to me about my plans for “early” retirement. “You’ve been scrimping to get out of debt, but think about the lifestyle you’ll want to live in retirement,” he urged. I was struck by the fact that I don’t feel like I’ve been scrimping and saving. My (relative) frugality is my new normal. And I’d be happy to live my retirement years in it.

    • Kalie says :

      The story about your brother is neat because it shows just how much you’ve changed and deviated from what your family (or society) views as the norm. That’s great too that you’ve found new normal that feels like an entirely reasonable and comfortable way to live long-term.

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