Too Frugal

Thursday, July 25, 2013

I wrote recently about my mysterious obsession with Get Rich Slowly. As noted, one of the most interesting parts of J.D’s journey for me was when he decided that he was being “too frugal.”

At the time, the statement reminded me of one of my favorite articles in The Tightwad Gazette where Amy Dacyczyn (a.k.a. the Frugal Zealot, or FZ) addresses that very question: Is it possible to be too frugal?

I considered posting a comment on GRS about it, and I considered putting up my own blog post to explore it more fully, but in the end, I did neither.


Though I did write up some thoughts, because I felt like this was one of the more important concepts that Amy Dacyzyn talked about. And it feels like this is a common theme, for people who want to spend less money but aren’t able to get there, to look at people who do spend less money and say, “Well maybe that works for them but it just isn’t possible for me, it’s too much.” (It sounds like Mr. Money Mustache also gets his fair share of comments from people who think he is “too extreme” and that his approach is not workable for the average person.)

So it seems like this remains a question worth looking at: Can one be too frugal?

As FZ notes:

Most people think of frugality only in terms of saving money. Under that narrow definition, the answer would clearly be “Yes, you can be too frugal.” But if you look up frugal in the dictionary, you’ll find it isn’t defined specifically as having to do only with money. It’s defined as “not wasteful,” “economical,” or “thrifty.” These terms can apply to the expenditure of any resource.

All of us attempt to achieve the highest quality of life possible by balancing four basic resources: money, time, space, and personal energy. Because these resources are interconnected in an intricate way, frugality must encompass more than money; we must manage these four things in relationship to one another.

When people think of frugality run amok, they’re usually reflecting on situations when these resources are out of balance and this imbalance hurts the quality of life.

She goes on to discuss the example of “Thelma,” a person whose brother refers to as a real frugal person who doesn’t throw anything away, instead saving items she might later find a use for — bread bags, egg cartons, toilet paper tubes, etc.

Her brother says, “I just can’t live that way. I guess I’m not the tightwad type.”

FZ points out that the problem with Thelma is not her frugality, but that she is out of balance.

While Thelma may save on having to buy plastic bags, her excessive “pack ratting” will cause her to spend far more time and energy than she would otherwise: she needs a larger house (or even rented storage space) to keep everything; she can’t find things when she needs them and ends up spending time looking for them or having to going out at the last minute to buy new things; she doesn’t have space to work on projects that could save much more money than she saves from not buying plastic bags.

In contrast, “a shrewd, successful frugal person constantly monitors how much is stored, never keeping more than the maximum amount of bread bags or Styrofoam meat trays than might be needed at a given time.”

FZ notes that saving more than you need is not inherently a problem, if you have the capacity to manage it: “It’s possible someone like Thelma may save more things than she needs, but because she has a surplus of space, stacks of meat trays might not cause her to be out of balance. Although she might not be saving money by keeping them, neither is she wasting other resources.”

And FZ explains that this lack of balance is not limited to frugal people: “Spendthrifts are frequently out of balance. If Thelma’s brother doesn’t have time to enjoy his new bass boat because he has to work overtime (at a job he hates) to pay for it, then he is out of balance as well.”

Which brings us to what I think is the most important point of the article:

In observing both the frugal and nonfrugal, this lack of balance is usually indicated by an expression of unhappiness or frustration about some aspect of their lives — when they complain about not being able to pay bills but aren’t making adjustments in their habits. Regardless of their spending style, I don’t worry about people when they are their families are clearly happy with the choices they’ve made.

When someone labels me “too extreme,” it’s usually because they’ve flipped through my books, picked out some obscure idea that doesn’t work for them, and made a judgment about me. But I’ve never had a journalist come to my home, observe the obvious harmony, and write that I’m “too frugal.” Although their values might be different from mine, they can’t find fault with our choices.

Because we all have different amounts of money, time, space, and personal energy and different ideas about what constitutes quality of life, we each must find our own frugal balance.

If you think about frugality as I do, asking the question “Can you be too frugal?” is like asking, “Can you be too happy?”

(The article is called “The Frugal Balance” and begins on page 483 in The Complete Tightwad Gazette. It is worth a read.)

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