The Dark Side Of Frugality

There’s something to be said for sacrifice, but scrimping can become an obsession.
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The Dark Side of Frugality
The Dark Side of Frugality

“Never was a miser a brave soul.” - George Herbert

Debt stinks. I’m all for paying things off and managing our money wisely, but I can testify to there being a dark side to frugality, too.

In 2007, our family of four sold nearly all we owned (a 2,500 sq ft home, most of its contents, and a minivan) to pay cash to fund our dream of living overseas. It was as wonderful an adventure as it might sound; no regrets at all.

Never could I have imagined that, upon returning to the U.S. in 2010, “frugal” would become the popular, over-used f-word in my vocabulary.

When our family moved back to America, I saw it as a good opportunity to monitor which items I felt we truly needed before adding things to our home.

We had few belongings and I made it my personal mission to not over-stock pantry shelves or bedroom closets.

Let’s just say things became legalistic very quickly.

For some time, I operated our kitchen without some basic essentials then finally yielded to buying a hand mixer so I could so some baking for my daughter’s class party. It was a measly $5.99 to purchase. The hand mixer worked for a few months but sparked and smoked while being put to use on a bread mix one day.

Had I been willing to spend a little more money (which we had), I’d have saved the ruined bread recipe, my time, and our money to replace the busted mixer with a better model.

The discovery? There was no secret panel of people applauding me for having gone without a hand mixer as long as I could manage and then paying bare minimum for one that wasn’t reliable. It was foolish, and I began to see that I’d been wearing my frugal badge proudly for no true benefit.

There’s something to be said for sacrifice, but scrimping can become an obsession whose payoff is minimal compared to the many hours spent couponing, attending garage sales, limiting healthy food purchases due to their associated costs, and generally injecting stress into the home environment.

Even though our family has experienced seasons of unemployment, financial loss, and a very tight income over the years, I’m learning to shift my frugal focus toward buying what’s necessary and purchasing items that will serve us well. In many cases, I’ve discovered, quality actually does count. And buying cheap food to squeeze a few more dollars out of the grocery budget can reap a variety of poor returns down the road.

As a stay-at-home blogging mom who’s active on Pinterest, I see pins about frugality, saving money, and penny-pinching pop up in my feed regularly. Minimizing or selling your belongings is a great idea, and keeping a close watch on spending money is necessary when paying off debt or living on a budget, but I’ve discovered the hard way that living a lifestyle of saying no to acceptable expenditures often can eventually put a choke-hold on everyone in the home. Can you relate?

When I find myself getting to the point of wanting to be too frugal, recalibrating things all comes down to revisiting two simple life choices:

Life Choice 1: Be frugal or be generous.

I’m not saying frugality and generosity are complete opposites, but the warning symptoms of being overly frugal are easily remedied by a perspective change in the direction of generosity.

We can let the practice of gratitude shift our mindsets from holding tightly to every dollar to being more relaxed about money and thereby parting with it for the benefit of others more often. This doesn’t mean we have to give our last dollar away, but the freedom of being open and willing to give generously can be life-changing.

We win when we focus less on frugality and more on generosity.

Life Choice 2: Control everything or be open-handed.

No one’s asking you to stop managing your money well. But I am challenging you to surrender control of it. Some day you’ll leave this planet (hopefully much later than sooner), and you won’t be able to take anything with you when you go. Stop and ask yourself this question, friend: Would investing less time pinching pennies or trying to afford something you don’t need and spending more time relaxing and enjoying what you already have improve your day?

By now you might be wondering what the big deal is and asking yourself, “What’s really at stake here?”

Well, if you’re a mom like me, I think our kids are catching a lot of what we’re saying in those moments we choose being too frugal and controlling over being generous and open-handed. If we’re speaking most often about not having enough or seeking applause for our efforts to save every last dime, we might be unintentionally creating a culture of financial anxiety in our homes.

Think about it this way: Would you want to be led by a person casting the family vision that we’ll never have enough and that’s why we don’t get to do fun things? Your financial circumstances might be tight and might not change in the near future, but the way you speak about it and lead through it will directly impact your children’s opinions on money and their spending habits.

Consider that the way we talk about money is seriously shaping our children’s financial futures. Do you want kids who are super thrifty or super generous? When it comes down to it, they won’t likely choose both equally. One will win out.

I believe we all want our children to steward their money well and to be generous above all.

My kids are of middle school age now so - let’s be honest - I have plenty of examples where I’ve fallen short of leading with generosity. Once our dog had an emergency and I complained about the vet bill. (Even though we have an emergency fund, it’s never fun actually having to use that cash.) But when my daughter asked me if we were broke after I paid the vet, I realized my words caused worry in her heart.

Sometimes, thankfully, I manage to avoid the dark side of frugality by not trying to control the details of our expenditures. The last time we needed to buy some athletic shoes for our kids, a wonderful discount offer arrived in the mail. Did I pass it up? Of course not. But the real win for this formerly too-frugal mom was in not controlling the pair of shoes chosen or a too-low price limit. The shoe buying trip was a breeze: My kids each picked out shoes they liked within a fair price range, and it was an enjoyable outing together. Money wasn’t the central topic, so that’s a win.

Let me ask you something: If garage sale shopping were an Olympic event, would your friends suggest you compete for the gold medal? Is there a financial loss or goal that’s got you so wrapped up today that you think of it more than your loved ones?

I can testify to the seriously bumpy ride on the long road back from living as a perfectionistic, too frugal mom to being more relaxed about money. And I can also testify that it’s a journey worth taking.

The next time you find yourself drawing pride from frugal efforts, look for opportunities to be more generous and open-handed with your money. You won’t regret releasing control, friend.

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