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Frugality’s Bad Image: Re-Image It

Readers share their irrational fears of debt-freedom

DH = Dear Husband

Laurie and I have been running with a bit of a theme lately: Fear of debt-freedom. Weird phenomenon, right? But as we’ve explored the discomfort and even panic that have reared their unexpected heads in our own experiences of growing financial fitness, others have recognized and shared similar fears:

  • “It’s weird, but I think I’m afraid to make money,” said Amanda.
  • “We had a bit of fear thinking to ourselves, ‘How could we ever live without credit cards?’ They were our safety net for years,” said Brian.
  • “Didn’t realize I’ve always had this fear, about loss of something familiar…Wow. Wow. Wow,” said Helen.
  • “When debt has become so ingrained in our life it does create a bit of apprehension to think about what life will be like when there is no more debt,” said Nancy.

Money management and identity

DH said a strange thing as we were about to pay off the last of our consumer debt 4 years ago. In a bizarre state of agitation, he said, “‘People in my class don’t have money to buy things. They borrow money to buy things.” Never before or since has he ever used the words “my class”.  Last week, I  asked DH more about the idea of finances and identity.

I asked him about his big spending days in the years after he’d started his career in engineering. His money at that time went to such things as a new car (monthly payments of $750), clothing from Harry Rosen (an upscale men’s store), winter trips to Florida, nice furniture, windsurfing, wilderness camping, and lots of restaurants and bars.

“When I started to earn a real salary,” he said, “I felt a freedom in being that guy that banks wanted to lend money to. When you’re too poor, nobody wants to lend to you.”

“What about people who didn’t need to borrow to buy the things you had?” I asked. “What did you think of them?”

“They were rich. And they also had the option of using credit to buy things that were out of my league.”

“And what about people who weren’t richer than you? People who just didn’t buy on credit?”

“That’s a way of being that I’ve only been exploring recently.”

“But didn’t you know people who did that when you were younger.”

“Yeah,” he said. “And they were weird.”

Frugality’s negative image

The Frugalwoods have made “frugal weirdos” a very positive concept, but DH started working long before they coined that term. The two people he remembers from his peer group who were unusually frugal were also unusually unappealing. One was really odd, and DH says he has become obsessed with money in the years since. The other was really stingy, doing things like keeping his house at uncomfortably low temperatures through the winter, and telling his girlfriend, during a “romantic” dinner at his place, not to have seconds on the chicken because he wanted left-overs for his lunches.

For me too, the concept of “frugality” had negative connotations early on. I considered the frugality of my parents to be dull. And in my own age group, I knew two people who besides being exceptionally frugal were also exceptionally controlling. For each, this control spilled over to an eating disorder. I knew two other frugal types who showed an obvious contempt for people’s over-spending (which looked a lot like “normal” spending to me). Like DH, I had no desire to follow the examples of frugality set before me.

Paradigm shift: frugality’s positive image

In her post this week, Laurie wrote, “For many people, their decision to become debt free happens when they can’t deal with ‘it’ anymore. ‘It’ being paycheck to paycheck living, not having any money for unexpected expenses, stifling debt payments and the stress that comes with dealing with it all . . . For many of us, it’s only when the pain gets too great and we cry ‘Uncle!’ that we start looking for help in learning how to manage our money.”

Like Laurie and her husband, DH and I started on the road to debt-freedom only after we’d cried “Uncle!” Frugality became a major part of the solution to the problem that we had been creating for years through our spending patterns. Our concept of “frugality” changed:

  • from “weird” to  “sane”

  • from “dull” to “serene”

  • from “stingy” to “mindful”

  • from “controlling” to “powerful”

  • from “judgmental” to “humble”

Fear of becoming “that horrible frugal type”

I remember, a couple of years ago, telling a colleague about Mr. Money Mustache. “He and his wife started working at 21, saved hand over fist, and retired at 30,” I told him. Immediately, I could see that my friend wasn’t impressed. “People like that don’t know how to live,” he said.

Clearly, frugality still has a negative image for many people. And every once in a while, I feel a sense of dread: “Oh no! I’m becoming that horrible frugal type!” Maybe I catch myself feeling judgmental about somebody’s spending. Or I feel stingy for not replacing a worn carpet or piece of furniture. Sometimes I feel I’m missing out when I don’t accept invitations to join people at pubs and restaurants.

Re-imaging “frugal”

But just as Laurie got a hold of her panic when she actually put money aside in savings, and just as DH pushed through the agitation that came with paying off our consumer debt, I can take hold of the dread I sometimes feel about that negative image of frugal.

Mackenzie wrote a post about meditation last week, and as I read it, I recognized how important it is to be honest about our less-than-admirable thought patterns. If I’m thinking in a judgmental way about someone for mismanaging money, I can catch it and change that attitude to one of humble respect, or  in some cases, compassion. And if I’m feeling stingy or like I’m missing out on something, I can remind myself of our goal of debt-freedom and gain a sense of patient purpose. When I dread the negative image, I can intentionally re-image frugality: sane, serene, mindful, powerful, humble. What’s not to love?

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Erin Thompson

Erin Thompson spent years managing her own blog about budgeting and debt. Because of that, she has great insights not only about managing spending and borrowing but also about running websites profitably. When she's not writing articles for us, she's traveling and looking for new types of wines to try.
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