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Can We Take Frugality Too Far?

Written by Guest Contributor - 32 Comments

This is a guest post from Kevin Mercadante of Out of Your Rut. Kevin is also author of Lighten Your Load, an e-book focused on reducing expenses while still maintaining a comfortable lifestyle.

At the risk accused of heresy, I’d like to open up a discussion of — for lack of a better description — frugality’s darker side. True, most of us have room for more frugal in our living and spending habits, but is it possible to take things to the point of being counterproductive?

Can we be honest? Free spending is usually about convenience; there may be a cheaper alternative, but we buy what’s convenient so we don’t have to spend time investigating our options. We often justify paying the going rate with the fact that we’re saving time.

As toxic as this approach might be to our budgets, we have to acknowledge the reality that being frugal will in most cases involve a trade-off between time and money. We may have to spend more time shopping, clipping coupons, negotiating, fixing things ourselves, etc. that free spenders mostly ignore.

But how much time should we spend on this?

A real opportunity cost

None of us should make frugality so central in our lives that we spend inordinate amounts of time cutting expenses. If we do, we risk reducing the time available for earning more money, either through primary jobs, side ventures, or learning new skills that increase our earning potential.

For example, if you spend your spare time fixing whatever breaks in your house or on your car, it might be difficult to find the time to run a side business, take on a part time job, or enroll in computer or foreign language courses. In other words, you might be missing out on numerous opportunities to increase your income.

The earning-versus-saving conflict could be a case of “six of one, half a dozen of the other,” but earning capacity should generally take precedence over saving money, if only because there’s a limit to how far you can cut expenses. Earning more money, on the other hand, has no ceiling (at least in theory).

Making ourselves miserable

Part of sound money management is being more deliberate in our spending habits. That largely means putting limits on how much we spend for each expense category, but… If a budget is too tight, we can start feeling trapped.

Since most of us don’t do captivity well, it’s best to budget some money for letting loose and being frivolous from time to time. It’s far better to do that than to let frustration build to a level at which we abandon our budgets entirely. Managing emotions is just as important as managing money.

Taking unnecessary risks

No effort at being frugal is worth endangering yourself. So why is it that people are sometimes so consumed by the desire to save money that they do things like performing major home repairs that should be left to INSURED professionals.

Maybe you can fix that leak in your roof, but what if you fall off, get injured, and can’t work for six months, how much money have you saved? Do what you can within reason to save money, but never ignore the risks that you’re taking in the process. Some expenses may not be worth cutting.

Making others miserable

Do you know anyone who makes a scene when whenever they open their wallet? I’ve been in restaurants with people who insist on a single check, and then do a Jekyll-and-Hyde routine when the bill arrives. Out comes the paper, pen, and calculator, followed by “friendly” disputes with others in the party as well the wait staff.

“I didn’t order this… I only ordered one of that and you charged me for two… I didn’t order a salad, I shared her salad…”

And so on. They’ll even go so far as talking down the tip due to alleged poor service.

Here’s a tip for you… If going to a restaurant isn’t in your budget, don’t go. If your budget is limited, ask for separate checks. Don’t let your budget come between you and others.

Relationships with family and friends should be reciprocal — you give and you get. You don’t want a reputation as the one who is first in line when it’s time to get, but who quietly slips to the back of the line when it’s time to step up and give.

Such people are difficult to be around, and the one thing you need when you’re trying to save money is friends. While good friends don’t cost anything. they’re hard to find. Don’t take advantage of them.

Crossing a forbidden line

I think we can all agree that we need to be on the lookout for different ways to save money. That being said, we shouldn’t take it to the extreme and use frugality as a justification for outright theft, either.

Examples include “everybody does it” activities such as theft of employer office supplies, taking handfuls of condiments from restaurants, exaggerating hours worked, fudging expense reports, or taking things under the “finder’s keepers” rule.

Balance should be the key in all that we do in life. We can and should work to save money, but we need to balance that effort against the costs we may incur in other areas of our lives.

What do you think?

How far is too far? Can efforts to save money have the opposite effect?

Published on August 12th, 2009 - 32 Comments
Filed under: Frugality

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32 Responses to “Can We Take Frugality Too Far?”

  1. 1
    Craig Ford Says:

    I think a key part of this discussion is “do I have the money to be able to afford the time?” It seems as though everyone is paying the money to save the time. I have spent a lot of my life inconveniencing myself because I simply couldn’t afford to save the time. Now that I am starting to be in a better financial position I can afford to save time.
    Thanks for your post.

  2. 2
    Kathryn Says:

    Great post.

    For us, it crosses the line when it negatively effects someone else. Being frugal means it saves you money. Being cheap means someone else has to pay for your financial choices.

    This would include stealing of any kind (including downloaded music and video, taking extras in a restaurant be it ketchup packs or a muffin for later from the buffet) and not paying for your owed portion. I’d rather err on the side of generosity when it comes to splitting bills!

    If it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s none of my business but when someone’s frugality negatively effects someone else’s life, they’ve gone too far.

  3. 3
    Alexandra Says:

    Yes, frugality can definitely be taken too far, and for me the line is when you stop needing to be frugal to make up the difference between your income and your expenses, and you start becoming cheap because you simply do not want to be separated from your money.

    I have a family member who, after many years of frugality, is very wealthy – a millionaire in fact. But he still engages in cheap tricks, like taking extra packets of sugar from coffee shops and leaving 5% tips. His enjoyment of life is so limited because he cannot bear to part with his money. He used to dream of vacations and fine cars and boats. Sadly, now that he can afford these things, his frugal nature will not allow him to fulfill any of these dreams.

    Money has to be seen as a means to an end. Your goals and dreams for the future may require a certain amount of money to attain them. But in the quest to attain that dream, it is important to keep in mind that money is really just numbers on a piece of paper – the VALUE of the money is what you can do with it to achieve a lifestyle.

  4. 4
    RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40 Says:

    ABSOLUTELY! When you drive 20 miles to save 20cents a gallon on gas, or when you don’t want to spend the extra $10 on a cab and rather wait one hour for the bus….. that is taking frugality too far.

    At some point, there’s no point working if you aren’t going to spend your money. Spending for CONVENIENCE is highly important!

    Best,

    RB

  5. 5
    LOL Says:

    Kathryn: Another example of someone being cheap: driving a Prius (or other hybrid) way below the speedlimit so their gasoline engine doesn’t kick on.

    Any savings they are getting is coming right out of my pocket because they are holding me up.

  6. 6
    Kevin@OutOfYourRut Says:

    Alexandra (3)–I’ve seen many examples of the personality type you’ve described, and that’s kind of the inspiration for this post.

    As you said, people who are frugal and amass a considerable amount of money often can’t let go either of being frugal or of the money they’ve accumulated. If having money doesn’t set you free at some point then what’s the purpose of chasing it? It’s certainly not an end in itself.

    But even more important, we all have qualities to offer the people and communities around us, and if we become all about money, all the time, those other valuable qualities never come out and benefit anyone, including ourselves.

    Money should be a servant, but if we allow it, it can also become a cruel master.

  7. 7
    craig Says:

    Yes, I think if we get too crazy we will lose sight of things. You have to determine if the time and effort is worth it. Do you need to drive farther to save a few cents on gas? Probably not. It’s all about if the savings are worth the effort.

  8. 8
    Penny Says:

    I liked your overall message; but I keep any extra ketchup or mayo packets given to me in the drive thru for later use (or should I drive back and hand ‘em over?). By the same token, if I were in a restaurant and took an extra mayo pack manually rather than just being handed it in a drive thru, I wouldn’t feel guilty….I am quite confident I pay an upcharge for this benefit whether I choose to take advantage of it or not.

    Just being honest!

  9. 9
    geo Says:

    Tipping is definitely a place where being too frugal is hurtful to others. Wait staff in a restaurant are paid well below minimum wage because they anticipate the tips. I try to tip at least 20% as long as the service was decent.

  10. 10
    Foxie@CarsxGirl Says:

    You for sure can take it too far. Frugality is great and all, but it’s not the be all, end all of life… When you start acting frugally in ALL areas of your life, then perhaps you’ve stopped living.

    For me, I’ll be frugal in some areas (home decoration, for example) to make up for the areas I love splurging in. (Cars, hands down.) My tiny frugal habits free up enough money for me to enjoy my hobby and not feel like I’m putting my life on hold, if it ever did then I’ve gone too far for myself.

    @LOL: Yeah, I still don’t understand Prius drivers. The ones that really make me lol are the ones driving at 85 down the highway. C’mon now… You can’t seriously expect to get good mileage in anything at 85?! My Miata easily beats a Prius doing 80+ at 70, and she’s 12 years old! (AND a sports car, at that. My S2000 can get 30 MPG, and at the worst gas prices both of my cars combined cost less to fill up than one person’s SUV.)

  11. 11
    Kevin@OutOfYourRut Says:

    Penny (8)–I see your point about the extra packs you get in a restaurant, but I was thinking more along the lines of people who stuff their pockets with packets of sugar or ketchup. It’s certainly minor in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still a form of theft. Someone, usually the restaurant owner, has to cover the cost of that. It isn’t being frugal.

  12. 12
    LOL Says:

    When someone ‘gains’, someone else ‘loses’ by the same amount — It’s called a zero-sum game.

    When somebody steals items (gain for them), then costs go up for everyone else (equal loss for everyone else).

    Just like the slow driving Prius (42mph or lower, STEALTH mode gain for them), but slows everyone else down outside the normal powerband (55-65 Mph) so a loss for every not driving a hybrid.

    I always view the world as a zero-sum game. Stock markets, insurance fraud, taxes, etc. Whenever someone is getting a ‘gain’, look to see who is funding it (they are the ‘loss’).

  13. 13
    Thomas Says:

    Savings taken too far is when you’ve become the person not invited to things anymore because you’re too cheap to be enjoyable.

    I recently went on an obligatory trip to Vegas with friends. While with friends, I picked up a $300 dinner tab, spent $200 on drinks by the pool and cheered them on while they gambled. When alone, I ate at Subway instead of casino retaurants, bought drinks at the liquor store and kept my expenses down. They know I’m “cheap” but they know I’m a good enough time to invite to the party, too.

    Experiences are worth more than savings at the end of it all.

  14. 14
    Peter Says:

    Last weekend I bought a lawnmower, a nice Lawn Boy, self propelled, electric start for $299.00; but before I did I fretted over the price. I mean it’s not that much money, but for the small yard I have the cheaper $180.00 mower would have served me well for years to come. And, I knew that, so I had a hard time spending the extra $119.00, though now I’m glad I did. The point is that my frugality, which seems to increase in intensity with each passing paycheck, caused me a wee bit of anxiety and nearly caused me to settle for less, when I can easily afford the better, and better is usually my preferred choice… usually.

  15. 15
    JoeTaxpayer Says:

    This is similar in spirit to a post I am editing. There’s a line, that when crossed, goes from Frugal to Cheep. Undertipping is not Frugal. Period. Frugal is choosing the Chinese buffet that has a good variety and a $20 tab for 2 plus a $5 tip instead of the $40 restaurant.

    Frugal is knowing what brands of groceries your spouse likes and finding those very brands on sale and along with coupons, a great deal. Stupid is criticizing her for liking that brand and telling her to use generics. Frugal is stealth. My guests don’t know their shrimp cocktail is $8.99/lb from Costco and not $19.99/lb from whole foods.
    My daughter does know that I like to coupon, and learned that you can get nail polish marked $4 for $1 or less on the right deal.
    Like anything, it can be taken to an extreme and bring misery. Misers are not frugal, they are cheap. As above example help show.

  16. 16
    Kevin@OutOfYourRut Says:

    Joe (15)–I completely agree! The reason for writing a post such as this is because right now frugal is “in”, and with anything that’s hot, there’s always excess, as though there’s no limit to the cause.

    This is really a good time to step back and evaluate if what we’re doing is really about finding less expensive ways to live or maybe flirting with behaviors that aren’t so benign.

    I’m also with you on misers. Not only are they no fun to be around, but I suspect there’s a whole battery of issues that goes along with the personality type that may have less to do with money than we think.

  17. 17
    Rosa Says:

    Theft isn’t frugal, though, because you’re still using up the same resources…they’re just someone else’s resources.

    Frugal is doing more with what you have, and not wasting – that’s money, time, energy, all the resources you have.

  18. 18
    Evolution Of Wealth Says:

    There’s been a lot of talk about being frugal lately. In the true meaning of the word, frugal, is to do so economically or finding value. Today it is being used more and more in a cheap or penny-pinching mentality. We are loosing the true sense of the word frugal and because of this creating this negative connotation around it. I like the way this post approaches this problem by looking on that costs of thise new type of being frugal. I think we need to get back to the original definition of the word as I referenced in my post http://evolutionofwealth.com/2.....ng-frugal/

  19. 19
    Corporate Barbarian Says:

    We have a few people at work who “cross the forbidden line”. Every September, the supply cabinet is emptied of pens, Post-it notes, etc. by parents who fill their child’s supply list on the company’s tab. If there’s leftover food from meetings, they’re usually the ones who not only get on line first, but wrap up the sandwiches to take home. To me, this is being miserly, not frugal.

  20. 20
    JoeTaxpayer Says:

    Supplies – agreed.
    Food – depends exactly how it happens. If the next place for that food would be the trash, fair game. I offer to coworkers first, all, or a portion, so not like I’m grabbing from them.
    Last function had so much left over I didn’t even take it home, it went to my local fire station, as the shelter won’t take prepared food any more.

  21. 21
    Drew Says:

    Sometime being frugal means spending more money. I am very attentive to quality, durability, and ease of maintenance of the large purchases I make. I’m willing to spend more on something if I think I will get a longer useful life out of it. I won’t go to walmart and just buy the cheapest thing in the clearance bin just because it’s on clearance.

  22. 22
    Ms. Frugalicious Says:

    This article really resonated with me, particularly the line about how “if the budget is too tight, we can start to feel trapped.” I always thought that it was best to pare expenses down when times were tough, and yes, being frugal is often a smart option. But there’s another option, too…we can try to earn more money.

    As you mentioned, being overly frugal can keep us from finding other opportunities to make money. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Loral Langemeier’s book, “Put More Cash in Your Pocket,” and it was really inspiring. It talked about how to start that side business and “live out loud.”

    If you pre-order the book, you can get free access to her upcoming webinar. Check it out at http://liveoutloud.com/cashinpocket/

  23. 23
    Curtis Says:

    I’m not going to lie…I don’t like tipping, I NEVER tip 20%, rarely anything over 10%, and the service needs to be TOP NOTCH for me to tip at all. I know almost all of you will balk at this and think I am cheap. Oh well. I go out to a restaurant to pay for food, not a waiter/tress paycheque. Is the particular tip for the server to bring me a pop from the foutnain machnie…or hand me the menu? If so, I’ll do it myself. That’s essentially what you are paying for. Truth be told, if society didn’t make you feel like such as ass when paying for a meal, I’d never tip as I am a firm believer that you have the right to choose your own job – and you are aware of the risks associated with choosing a minimum wage job at a restaurant.

    Regardless, I know most will disagree with me and call me cheap and all that – which is fine. I can live with that.

    What I don’t understand, however, is why people choose to tip at a buffet? Is there actually anything useful that the server does? They lead you to your table (I can find an empty table and walk there myself thank you), they get you a drink (I can get that myself thanks), and they take away your dirty plates (last I heard that was part of the job of being a waiter anyway – that being besides the point as they annoy the hell out of me always being at the table). Yes, I realize that some places split the tips with the cooks…and that is great – but does the “server” at a buffet actually do anything to warrant a tip? I think not.

  24. 24
    Caitlin Says:

    People can definitely take it too far!
    I agree with Kathryn’s definitions: “Being frugal means it saves you money. Being cheap means someone else has to pay for your financial choices.”

    I full agree with what you said, Kevin: “Here’s a tip for you… If going to a restaurant isn’t in your budget, don’t go. If your budget is limited, ask for separate checks. Don’t let your budget come between you and others.”
    The waitress thing always bothers me. I was never a waitress, but it makes me livid when people go out to eat, and then say “I can’t afford to tip, I don’t have the money to spare”. Then don’t go out to eat! If you can afford the food, but can’t afford food+tip, then I’m sorry but you can’t afford to eat out. You are screwing someone else out of their hard-earned money so you can save a couple bucks. Not cool.

  25. 25
    Kevin@OutOfYourRut Says:

    Curtis (23)–This is just me, but I’ll usually leave a few dollars on the table at a buffet, if there was a server even in some minimal capacity, but mainly for the bus people.

    A few years ago my wife and I were at a chain buffet, where both the food and the service were awful, and we didn’t leave a tip. We didn’t bother complaining to the manager because the whole operation was so terrible that lousy looked like the order of business.

    But as we left, the server followed us out the door and angrilly insisted on wanting to know why we didn’t leave a tip. I didn’t want to make a scene, but I told her we weren’t impressed with the facility. Then she started rasing her voice, and I had to go farther and tell her that both her service and attitude were terrible, that she hardly came to our table and that we can’t reward that kind of service.

    She kept coming at us, but for the most part I kept my cool, because I assumed that if she was ready to go to battle over a few dollars (that she didn’t earn!) she must have other problems. You never know, maybe her car died and she didn’t have money to fix it, or maybe her husband lost his job. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but this one was tough.

  26. 26
    Curtis Says:

    I hear you Kevin…the problem is the expectation and the “bluntness” of a tip. It’s like if I go somewhere and the server asks me if I want my change back. You are damn right I do – if I want to leave you a tip, I will – don’t expect you are automatically going to get one.

    @ Caitlin – saying if you don’t have change to spare to leave a tip then you can afford to eat out is an opinion I don’t share. I should sacrifice my pleasure and enjoyment of eating at a restaurant because I don’t have the change to leave money for someone who does a job I would happily do myself? I don’t think so!

  27. 27
    Ann Says:

    Re: Curtis – tipping – I think waiters/waitresses should at least make minimum wage. Why are they paid so much less that they have to be dependent on tips? I think when dining at a restaurant the cost of the meal should include the serving of the meal. We shouldn’t have to be paying a server’s “wages.” That should be done by the restaurant that employs them. Are there any businesses that supply a service to the consumer and expect the consumer to tip the employee? When I go to the grocery store or auto shop or bank, I am provided a service by employees, but tipping is not done because the employees there make at least minimum wage.

  28. 28
    JoeTaxpayer Says:

    Curtis – I won’t try to change your opinion, just offer my experience. The Chinese buffet near me was $20 for my 10 yr old and me. When Jane and her mom go to the regular (non-buffet) one, the bill is never under $40.
    My waiter was there, refilling my water, offering tea, asking if all was ok. He overheard me tell Jane 2.0 that I needed duck sauce, and told me not to get up, he grabbed it for me. He cleared my plates 3 times as I tend to take small portions but try a few things.

    After feeling like I was treated like a true guest, would a $3 tip cover it? I left $5. High as a percent of bill but is $2 going to impact me? For me, I’ll save $20 on the dinner and ‘overtip’.

    Yes, Ann. I’d like it your way. It would make things easier on both sides. How do we change the system to have all restaurants include service feee in pricing and pay a fair wage?

  29. 29
    Kevin@OutOfYourRut Says:

    Tipping is kind of a crappy set up. The restaurant relies on tips to pay the staff a decent wage, so the waiter/waitress is caught in the middle, working for a business that won’t pay them fully for what they do, but never certain the customer will either.

    That’s why I don’t have a problem tipping, even though there SHOULD be a differnt way. The reality is that there isn’t another way, so we work within it. If the restaurants paid their staff decent wages the menu prices would be substantially higher, so the upshot is that we have some flexibility on the price if we don’t like the service.

    I do however have a problem with waitstaff who think that a 15-20% tip should be automatic regardless of service.

  30. 30
    Curtis Says:

    @JoeTaxpayer

    “My waiter was there, refilling my water, offering tea, asking if all was ok. He overheard me tell Jane 2.0 that I needed duck sauce, and told me not to get up, he grabbed it for me. He cleared my plates 3 times as I tend to take small portions but try a few things. ”

    Perhaps it is a difference of opinion on that too. The stuff in the above mentioned quote isn’t a benefit to me – rather, it annoys the hell out of me. To me it is similar to going into a store where they work on commission…they are always trying to “offer” that “extra,” whereas, it is more of an annoyance than anything.

  31. 31
    JoeTaxpayer Says:

    Ok, Curtis. I get it. This is the fatal flaw of the golden rule. If I treated you how I want to be treated, I’d annoy you, and vice-versa. Same waiter had me happy and you, he’d really annoy. Part of the problem dealing with random strangers, people can’t read minds and make assumptions. A Brazilian restaurant will have a card on the table red one side, green on the other. That’s how they know to come by or leave you alone. I think that might appeal to you as it’s a simple signal that let’s you maintain your privacy if you wish. (In the future, the table will have a small sensor that will let you call for your waiton when you need something.)

  32. 32
    Curtis Says:

    @JoeTaxpayer

    That is an amazing thing and would work well for me!

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