The Discomfort of Being Financially Abnormal

odd one out

In recent weeks I’ve felt a distinct discomfort when listening to the media, the government, and even my acquaintances talk about money. It’s always been pretty clear that I’m not normal and that I don’t fit financially into this society. I’m a saver and a proponent of more frugal lifestyles. I’m not a big spender. I’m the one who suggests game night over a night at the movies, or pot luck rather than a big dinner at a restaurant. Among my friends, I’m considered odd because I don’t find great joy in spending or have the latest gadgets or coolest car. I’m used to being out of touch and considered weird, but the holidays and the tanking economy have only magnified my abnormality and my discomfort with the way this country encourages spending over saving.

The media turned Christmas into a two month spend-a-thon. I don’t think there was one day during the holiday season when I didn’t see a story on the news about consumer spending and holiday sales. One day the buzz was about how bad holiday sales were expected to be. Yet the very next day, they were reporting that the consumer had saved the day by spending more. Back and forth this went every day for nearly two months and it will go on through January until all those gift cards are redeemed and all the corporate earnings are reported. Is this really national news every night? Aren’t there other, more positive things that can be reported?

It’s not that I don’t like to shop or enjoy giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. I do, in moderation. But I also like to save for the future and know that any emergencies will be taken care of without incurring debt. I believe, like most, that there is more to Christmas than shopping, gifts, gift cards, and retailers’ bottom lines. But it seems like this is the only part of the holidays that the media celebrates or even mentions. There are very few mentions of the good things at Christmas. People helping people, truces, family bonding — these are not apparently newsworthy events. The only thing that’s newsworthy is the daily shopping report and a report on the traffic conditions at the malls, in case you want to go. The media’s worship of the consumer makes me very uncomfortable during a season that is supposed to be about so much more.

The government makes me equally uncomfortable these days. The message coming from the Fed and our leaders is that the consumer can save the day. If consumer’s pull back on their spending, the economy will head into free fall. Keep spending, they say, and you will save the economy! Save your money, I say. We’re finding out now that too much uncontrolled spending doesn’t really help anything. When it gets too far out of control, as it has in the housing and credit markets, the entire economy suffers when the house of cards collapses. It makes me very uncomfortable that the government seemingly places all of it’s economic eggs in the consumer’s basket and that the consumer is expected to shoulder the responsibility for securing our economic future.

To make matters worse, it sometimes feels as if the government is punishing those of us who live disciplined financial lives. In their rush to lower interest rates so that more credit can be more easily obtained, they seem to forget (or not care) that the interest rates paid on savings accounts drops accordingly. There is no way for the Fed to lower interest rates on credit without a corresponding drop in savings’ interest rates. So those of us who choose to save our money and who have very little use for low credit interest rates get punished as the government tries to find a way to keep consumers out there shopping. It’s not a nice feeling watching my savings rate drop every month.

Then there are my acquaintances who are wandering around looking shell-shocked because the bills for the holiday damage are coming in. They pour out their sob stories to me, hoping for sympathy and empathy that I just don’t have. They spent way too much at Christmas (and throughout the rest of the year) and now it’s time to pay. Only they don’t have the money. So they’re shuffling things around, trying to pay one credit card with another, transferring balances, getting home equity loans, and falling further behind. The common theme around the water cooler is how bad things are, how much everything costs, how there’s no way to make it today and how hard times are.

I don’t disagree, to a point. Yes, prices are up. Yes, the economy has problems. For some people there are genuine hardships not related to overspending and I have compassion for them. But it’s difficult to find sympathy for the complainer who whines about the price of milk when he has a brand new Jaguar sitting in the parking lot. It makes me uncomfortable to listen to this because, while I don’t enjoy paying five dollars for a gallon of milk or three dollars for a gallon of gas, I can deal with it because I saved my money when times were good, knowing that the bad times would come again. I chose to be prepared. These people complain to me like I’m supposed to do something, or at least share in their misery so they can feel like they’re not alone in this mess. Sorry, I think, but I just can’t help you.

I’m not uncomfortable because of the choices I’ve made. I’m not writing this because I feel like I’m drowning in peer pressure to spend and looking for a justification. I’m writing this because I think my discomfort at the spend, spend, spend mentality of this country is a symptom of a larger problem and I hope I’m not alone. When an economy is built solely on spending and placed on the backs of consumers, it cannot be sustained long term. Eventually the consumer runs out of money, the spending stops, and then where are we?

When our government and our media are encouraging this spending, ad nauseam, what else can we expect but to have a nation of people in debt? Why does the level of debt and the lack of savings in this country surprise anyone? So many people figure that if the media and the government are telling them to spend then it must be OK, even if the money isn’t currently there. It will work out, they’re told. You can get more credit, so don’t sweat it. In fact, some think it’s their patriotic duty to spend more than they have in order to prop up our struggling economy. Just keep spending and everything will be peachy, is the rallying cry.

The problem is that when individuals overspend, it doesn’t help anyone, despite what the government and the media say. The government that told you to spend isn’t going to come to your aid when the bills come due. The media is going to take great glee in reporting about your misery, yet do nothing to help. And when those bills come due and you can’t pay, the economy suffers because unpaid debts are a drag on the economy. Then the very people that were told to spend and did so end up cast aside. What good are you, the government and the media say, when you can no longer spend money? What value are you to this economy when you are in debt, missing payments, and unable to buy stuff?

The flip side to this is that those who don’t overspend, who save and live within their means end up like me: uncomfortable, angry, and feeling punished. We have to listen to our government and our media promote a spending frenzy that we find abhorrent and pointless. We are put in the position of being objectors to the national policy. We don’t buy, so we aren’t patriotic; we aren’t doing our part. In fact, we are pretty worthless to the economy in the eyes of some because we don’t consume enough. We have to listen to people we know moan about how little money they have and feel bad that this surprises them. We get to earn less interest on our savings because we must sacrifice higher rates in the name of the consumer and easy credit. We end up on the outside of the national conversation, unable to relate and secretly happy about it because our outsider status means that we have protected our financial futures.

What’s wrong with this picture? I doubt I’m the only one who is uncomfortable with the current financial picture of this country. Why can’t we find some other way to run this economy, instead of relying on a shrinking base of consumers with money to spend (or credit to spend)? What would be so wrong with an economy built on production, quality, innovation, or knowledge? Why not get excited about finding new ways to make our economy hum instead of dropping it all on the back of individual consumers? Why not open up new national conversations about other things that go on in this country besides spending? Why not advocate the benefits of saving and frugality? I realize that my questions are mostly rhetorical and I don’t expect any answers, certainly not easy ones. Maybe if enough people feel uncomfortable, as I do, and begin to live in new ways that challenge the current spend, spend, spend mentality, there can be a change in this country’s approach to consumerism and economic policy. One can dream, right?

Image courtesy of The_Beast

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16 Responses to The Discomfort of Being Financially Abnormal

  1. Minimum Wage says:

    Aw, that should be a GOOD kind of discomfort – a feeling of superiority, not inferiority or persecution.

    When you are chronically poor and can’t save at all, when you earn far less than everyone else, now THAT is discomfort, and one that is corrosive to dignity and bad all around.

  2. Traciatim says:

    This reminds me of a great video (it’s a little preachy, but has a great point) that I was introduced to through . . . it’s called “The Story of Stuff” and it’s found at .

    It shows how the consumerism attitude is actually not how things should be, but how it was created. It’s a pretty interesting video.

  3. Christina says:

    What new ideas emerge when you replace “media” with “advertisers’ mouthpieces” and “government” with “corporate puppets”? Do you sense collusion? A sense of creeping fascism?

    People who are concerned about saving and their salvation are not as likely to fund government pockets. Go see how the “I don’t take corporate money” candidates are faring in Iowa. I doubt they had double-digit percentages.

  4. Brooke says:

    All my friends think I’m nuts, and you’ve pretty much summed it up well here. You’re right; it is much worse during this season, and I often feel jilted, especially right now with the government “bailing out” all the subprime mortgage borrowers. I guess I’m not going to change, I just hope others can become a little more responsible!

  5. Spokane Al says:

    You comments are valid and definitely on target. When we attempt to keep up with the neighbors and/or the prevailing ideas of spending we loose in the long run.

    We must follow our own direction if we hope to succeed.

    I would disagree with one comment you made concerning “. . .the government is punishing those of us who live disciplined financial lives.”

    I don’t believe it is the government’s job to manage fiscal/monetary policy to ensure that savings accounts are paying high enough rates for those who choose to save there anymore than we should expect the government to ensure our home prices and investment portfolio values remain high.

    Our job, as savers/investors/consumers, is to be nimble and smart enough to seek out opportunities wherever they may be. If savings interest rates are low, then we search elsewhere. I expect markets to drive rates and returns and must maintain a diversified portfolio to meet current and future challenges.

    Take care and Happy New Year to you.

  6. I agree with minimum wage that at least it is a good kind of discomfort.

    It is not much different from other aspects of our lives whenever we do something different from the herd. Like in high school, when we spent time studying rather than trying to fit in and be cool and were called nerds as a result. Or paying extra in insurance due to those who don’t care about their health and so on. Well, we may pay extra or be made fun of, but today we’re the healthy ones with the nice jobs. The crowd can only do so much to protect itself. Bailing up the sub-prime borrowers and the banks might ease their pain and create some pain on “our side”, but it’s pain nonetheless and we’re still in the plus.

  7. J says:

    I hear you and I even agree with you just a little. However, the media only reports the behavior of the consumer in this case. People are more than happy to go out and spend money around this time of year, and the media is merely reporting how much is being spent. People are not choosing to go out there and boost sales so the media can report on it. The media is reporting on it because people are doing it. It is sad that there aren’t more stories about the other aspects of the joy and togetherness that the holidays bring about, but that’s just the way it is.

    I am a big saver to, as are most of the people who frequent this forum. I believe in “live and let live.” I know and concentrate only on what I’m doing with my finances. If someone else wants to save a dollar, then that’s great. If someone else wants to spend a dollar, then that’s great too. To me, its all about what I choose to do with my dollar. The sad reality is that consumer debt is a huge driving force in our economy. The fees that are tacked on to defaulted loans, credit cards, etc. mean big dollars for lenders. Someone else on here mentioned collusion and, frankly, I believe he or she hit it on the head. Why would the government encourage people to save? How do they truly gain from that? The simple answer is that they don’t. That is, my friend, the bottom line.

    Kudos to you and your saving. I hope you continue to do so. I suggest that if all the talk of spending is bothering you, then you should just tune out because its not going anywhere for a while. Heck, you should be used to it since I’m assuming you’ve lived through upwards of at least 10 holiday seasons since you started realizing the consumerism that has become associated, and even synonymous, with all of our most precious holidays, especially Christmas.

  8. Henrik says:

    I can see your point of view but you got a few things wrong.or at least a few things I disagree with..

    * Spending does help the economy… The more money the businesses earns,the more jobs are created and thus the better the econnomy has it. (Or so it is here where we have a comprehensive social security system)

    * saving interest might go down, but savings accounts are not meant for long term “getting rich” planning. They are a means of short terms storage where Much higher they grow slightly more than the inflation, so you dont loose money like you would if you kept them in cash

    If you want your money to work for you, invest in something like stocks or bonds.

    If you dislike the situation in the US so much, why not consider moving to a better suited place ?

  9. Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances says:

    I admit, I love shopping and having nice things, and I love helping people find things that they can enjoy.

    But even I am disgusted by the way the news media has covered the holiday season. Actually, I think I’m just disgusted with the news in general.

    On the plus side, it may have turned me off to spending just a teensy bit. I’m trying to change my habits and at least buy more wisely.

  10. baselle says:

    I feel the same way. I especially feel the discomfort in being a saver when everyone else is a debtor and the prevailing attitude is spend at any cost … well, the extra cost is additional fraud and crime. Some debtors will suffer in silence, many will not. I find I have to act as if I am struggling because if I don’t I’m a target.

  11. Minimum Wage says:

    Early Retirement Extreme’s comment gave me an idea:

    In the consumerist context, frugality is countercultural, so could young people be attracted to try or even embrace frugality if it were presented as countercultural?

  12. Paula W says:

    I understand the scenario you are describing and we’ve all seen it from time to time.
    But a lot depends on the geographic area where you live and what social circles you circulate in.
    Headlines in southeast Michigan during the 2007 holiday season included food pantries running low on supplies, and record number of requests for the Christmas charity drives. (There also were assorted non-financial holiday stories.)
    Conversations with friends and relatives have included who was waiting for a layoff notice, “we have to cut back on holiday spending this year,” and nervous waits for homes to be sold.
    So … your frugal lifestyle choices would not be so out of place where I live.

  13. d.a. says:

    I would add that the spend-spend-spend mindset also adds to waste-waste-waste, and massive depletion of resources.

  14. Norma Walker says:

    Glad to see this post. Papers amd tv make it sound like the econmy is in bad trouble if a lot is not spent on Christmas. I think a lot of people are spending what they can afford. It seems better for the econmy that people with credit card debt.

  15. Jay Gatsby says:

    As a saver rather than a spender, I agree with your points. Frugality should be seen as a virtue, but it does come with a price. The more people save (and not spend), the less growth in the economy. Consequently, I believe that a “balanced” approach should be followed. Judicious spending on necessities, with a few luxuries, should be the general mantra.

  16. Darlene Bolesny says:

    I have recently discovered your website and am enjoying it a lot. I also track “Marketplace” from American Public Media:

    I would love to see your comments on their show – reaching the people who *really* need to hear it. Marketplace encourages such commentary:
    Marketplace Productions
    261 South Figueroa Street, Suite 200
    Los Angeles, CA 90012

    Phone: (213) 621-3500
    Editorial Fax: (213) 621-3506
    Administration Fax: (213) 621-3508
    E-mail: Use Contact links above.

    If you are interested in submitting a commentary, please send your piece to [email protected]. Pieces should be no more than 400 words in length, have a clear economic or business theme or angle, and should be written in a conversational style. Please allow 3-4 weeks for a response.

    I hope you’ll consider submitting this particular commentary. It is timely, totally appropriate, and I think that Marketplace might well accept it.

    BTW, I am a legal secretary, but also a published author – when I say that I think they might use your material, I really do mean that. And I know that if they use it, they will have you read it for them and they will announce your website address at the end of it – it would be worth it just for that. IMHO….

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