The Benefits of Saving Habits that Make You Look Poor

think rich, look poor

Several years ago, my husband paid for a pizza entirely in change. It wasn’t that he didn’t have any money left at the end of the week; on the contrary, he had just deposited his paycheck in the bank that evening. He simply wanted to use his change and save his bills. Had I been along, I might have been a bit embarrassed to see him counting out his quarters and dimes, but the pizza shop clerk didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he expressed sympathy with another young man who appeared to be just barely scraping by.

My embarrassment over counting out so much change comes more from holding up those behind me in line than from appearing cheap. (I don’t worry nearly as much about appearing cheap as many people do.) I am, however, often aware of the reactions of those around me when I act frugally in public. The assumptions others make about my frugality — usually that I have much less money than I actually do — can be a benefit to me.

Even those who are not pinching pennies know that it’s wise to dress down when shopping for a car. Appearing too rich can make the prices go up in a bargaining situation. In fact, appearing poor can help you negotiate as a buyer — if the seller thinks you can’t afford much more than the lowest price he’s willing to give, he is likely to offer you that price rather than lose the deal.

Sometimes, people who observe my family’s frugal habits take pity on us and offer us freebies. I think that might be what happened recently, when a couple at a neighboring table at a fast food restaurant offered us a kids’ meal toy after seeing our family of four share two sandwiches, six pieces of chicken nuggets, and a large cola among us. We had based our order on the typical appetite of our children and a desire not to waste much money on overpriced drinks or kids’ meals, but it probably looked like we had cleared out our wallets to pay for the meal. Others might have been embarrassed to appear unable to afford kids’ meals for their children, but the knowledge that we were saving money to benefit them in the future outweighed any fear of looking poor or cheap.

Occasionally, appearing poor can backfire, with salespeople ignoring you completely. However, it can be very satisfying to see a good salesperson earn a big commission from your purchase right after someone else snubs you. My husband and I chose our realtor at home show because he took the time to talk with us, even though we appeared too young to have saved enough for a down payment on a house. I sometimes wish that the realtor in the neighboring booth, who dismissed our initial questions to talk with a wealthier-looking prospect, could have seen us signing closing papers on a mid-priced house shortly thereafter.

Like my husband getting sympathy from the pizza clerk, I can use my frugal habits to build rapport with others who like to save money, no matter how much they have in the bank. Whether it’s someone behind a counter who offers me a special deal that she knows a frugal person would appreciate or a fellow shopper who is eager to pass on news of other bargains in the area, like-minded savers are good acquaintances to make.

Though I don’t act poor or play up my money saving habits just to get sympathy from others, I am not offended if someone offers me a lower price or a freebie as “charity.” After all, I can never be really sure that the motive was anything other than simple generosity. If I do receive a bargain out of pity, I graciously accept the gift as an act of kindness, and when I am able, I do a favor for someone else, as well.

Image courtesy of gordasm

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69 Responses to The Benefits of Saving Habits that Make You Look Poor

  1. eener says:

    After reading this article, I think my boyfriend and I must be the epitome of frugality. We bought a foreclosed home that is now significantly appreciating in value despite the economy, we sleep on a little single mattress on the floor, we only buy food from discount grocery stores (Grocery Outlet) and stock up like crazy in our 3 freezers. We have one car–an old Nissan Sentra that was paid for the day we bought it ($2,000 bucks) (thoroughly thrashed and paint-chipped), and my boyfriend only uses the bus system to commute to work. We do not have cable. We keep our temperature set at 60 degrees throughout the winter. We both wear older, mostly deteriorating clothing (especially him) and love the occasional, once a year item of clothing at good will. The irony in all of this we are only 26 and 27 and make almost 150K each year. We haven’t a penny of college debt or any other debt except the house and haven’t received a penny from our parents or from any form of inheritance. We have literally thousands and thousands of dollars in all sorts of bank accounts and when people see us and our crappy car and dress style, they treat us like complete paupers. It is so fun being able to trick people and/or watch people judge us. What’s really fun is being young and knowing that we have so much disposable income–don’t get me wrong, we splurge on things here and there–but for the most part, we like unduly frugally. It takes two united minds to living a frugal, financially disciplined lifestyle.

  2. Tee says:

    Wow, another one who thinks like I do! Yep, I also do the sharing meals thing, and for those who turn up their noses at it, I say, it’s my money, not yours, and I have learned not to care what others think.
    I also don’t shy away from reporting poor service, which can garner its own rewards (like free coupons).
    What it comes down to are what are your values–are you going to be insecure like the women of Wisteria Lane–or are you going to dance to your own drummer and do what’s right for you.

  3. wealthman says:

    My point is that there is no reason to look poor if you have money. You don’t have to spend a lot of money not to look poor. You can get designer clothes at a consignment shop if you want, or even decent clothes. The only reason that people dress to look poor when they can afford it is to feel superior to others. I think that is totally wrong.

  4. rene says:

    I just don’t care how ppl look at me (rich or poor). I wear whatever comfortable and do whatever I feel like to. I don’t pretend to be poor or acted like I am rich but I just be cheeky and get my own way. I enjoy saving money and getting bargains it’s like a hobby or sometimes a challenge/game/target for me. Also set a good example for my children.
    But sometimes being rich is a good bargaining point. When I buy my second house, I told the seller i don’t need mortgages, you give me 10% discount, I can do a bank transfer today before 5pm…(They want to sell ASAP). The person worked in the estate agency thought I was joking and asked for my bank statement to prove it, I rang the bank and tell them to fax it through. He looked at the statements and looked at me again(30 years old wearing a short trousers, dirty t-shirt and slippers, lived not far away, just finished gardening). And his hand was shaking and said ok. I got the house. It’s not the most expensive house in town, but it’s the largest and one of the best location in town.

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  6. Amber says:

    Poor is often a state of mind, and by over-focusing on appearances and others’ reactions, I would say you are certainly not wealthy. I have a healthy respect for frugality, but it is as ugly to flaunt unecessarily as is wealth. I have lived poor most of my life – 3 kids with one below-poverty income in the 80s. “Looking poor”- I assure you from experience- is far far less prosperous than thinking and looking well-off, but doing so gracefully within your budget (classic well made clothes purchased at Goodwill, for example). Grace here is what is lacking, and grace will earn you respect and trust well beyond perceived your income. I have managed to get out of the poverty my parents and theirs were in, and I also learned the value of a rich, thoughtful life lived with dignity, regardless of income. I try to treat others in this way, and I accept nothing less, garden clothes or no. But I never, ever “look poor.”

  7. Quant says:

    I perfectly agree with the idea of being debt-free, I have never been in debt and will never hopefully be. But this is just taking it to extreme. You can’t take your wealth with you to the grave. What’s the point of saving that much for retirement? You’ll have kids for that to support you. Well, that depends on the family, I guess.

    What worries me most of all is how ‘frugal’ people view wealthy ones. They automatically start to assume that that guy just has a lot of debt, etc, etc… That’s a real bad attitude. As some ‘wealthy’ people think bad about those who are frugal, some frugal think bad about those wealthier, is that better?
    Especially about clothes, that’s the first thing people see. If someone is in good clothes I think that he has a good job and overall a smart man. Yes, I ideally continue to believe that wealth is inherently connected with intellect, abilities, etc… And to be successful you need to look successful, period.

    And receiving any freebie from other people, that would have been just so embarassing for me.

    For me, being rich is being able to afford whatever you want without going into debt. If you can’t do it without debt, you can’t afford it – simple rule. But trying to save on groceries, well, that really loooks poor to me.

  8. Aviva says:

    Nice article.

    We rarely go to fast food restaurants, but I started ordering kids meals at them long before we had a munchkin of our own. It’s plenty of calories for an adult, and often cheaper than buying the sandwich, fries and drink separately. Back in those days, I often would offer my toy to a child in the restaurant not because I thought they were poor but because as an adult, I had no interest in the toy(s) and figured I might as well give them to someone who did. These days, on the rare occurrences that we hit McDonald’s or Wendy’s, I still order a kid’s meal for myself but now I make a point of asking for two different toys so my daughter gets two instead of one. When they only have one toy available, I again try to give the extra one away to someone else.

    As for the looking poor part … well, we don’t do it on purpose, but my husband is often in yard clothes on weekends and I dress for comfort and the knowledge that I never know when my kid is going to throw up on me. 🙂 When we were vehicle shopping a couple years ago, we stopped at a Lincoln dealership hoping to gather some brochures and information. The salesman was so rude to us; he told us to wait while they “looked” for a brochure to the vehicle we were semi interested in. After 40 minutes of waiting (I don’t know why we waited so long except they kept telling us just a few more minutes), we finally left. My husband explained to me in the car that when the salesman was asking what other vehicles we were looking at and I named things like the Dodge Grand Caravan we ended up buying, the salesguy was judging us as not being able to afford the Lincoln. Little did he know that my husband earns well over $100,000 a year and we fully intended to pay cash for whatever vehicle we bought.

    Because my husband does woodworking as a hobby and we were replacing his pickup with a more family-friendly vehicle, we needed something big enough that he could haul plywood in. so we needed detailed dimensions of the cargo areas of vehicles. The salesmen at the Lincoln dealership just couldn’t seem to conceive of the idea that someone who wanted to be able to haul wood and plywood could afford their precious vehicle and apparently didn’t want to “waste” the brochure for it on us. His loss!! My husband actually really liked the look of the Lincoln we stopped to check out and, if the cargo area was wide enough, may well have been willing to fork over the extra cash for the nicer car.

    I’m *so* happy he didn’t get a commission off us, but I regret that I didn’t have time/energy to call the dealership owner/manager and explain what his employees’ snobbery had cost them.

  9. Jenne says:

    I’ve been on the “giving” end of the kid’s meal toy transaction.
    We try to be fruga, we’ve discovered that for our kid it’s cheaper to get the kid’s meal at a fast food restaurant when we do eat there than order the items separately. We don’t usually want another crappy toy though.
    Sometimes she asks for the toy anyway, but then admits that she doesn’t want it– and will volunteer to give it to another kid in the restaurant. We always make her ask the adult with the kid if it’s ok first (rather than dump the toy on another family who is trying to reduce clutter) but it’s wonderful that she’s interested in giving it away.

  10. Chris says:

    As a divorced Mom I always lived very simply while focusing on my son’s education, my own retirement, and a little fun along the way. I bought one of the least expensive houses in a good school district and saved fairly agressively for my son’s college. We never had a lot of the toys that other familes had – fancy TVs, big SUV, etc. Other kids did sometimes comment on our lack of goodies. “Hey, these speakers are really lousy!” And I even had one Mom who wouldn’t let her child ride in my compact car.

    My son just graduated from an out of state school known to have a good program in his major. He’s debt-free and got a job making more than I ever did! Appearances can be deceiving. Quite a few of the children from those other familes had fewer college choices or their kids graduated with a lot of debt. I wouldn’t trade my proud Mama day (my son’s graduation) for all of the fancy clothes and expensive gadgets in the world. And I’m enjoying some fun, though frugal vacations with a lot fewer worries than I’d have if I hadn’t learned to live below my means. I know that there is some luck in every success story but for all of you young families starting out with a frugal outlook, it does pay off.

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  12. Dave says:

    Similar to a few other posters, I had an experience where I was ignored for “looking poor”. About 20 years ago I walked into a store to buy a stereo with my girlfriend (now wife). I was dressed normal for summertime (t-shirt/shorts) but the salesperson ignored me in favor of an older, well-dressed couple. Had the salesperson merely acknowledged me I would have been fine, but he never did. I knew what I wanted, all he would’ve had to do was say “Can I help you?” and I would have said, yes “I want this stereo”. They didn’t have any others on the floor other than the display model, so I couldn’t just help myself. After about 10 minutes of waiting, I went to leave.

    My wife and I were talking about it when another salesperson overheard our conversation and said rudely, “He’s with a customer, he’ll be with you in a minute!” I replied by walking up to him and saying: “I waited for 10 minutes without even being acknowledged.” I then pulled out several hundred dollars in cash, waved it in front of the salesman and 2 other salespeople that he was with and said, “Hopefully he sells those people a lot because he just lost his commission!” and walked out and bought the same stereo for $20 cheaper (and got 3 free CD’s) at a place that had just opened nearby called Best Buy.

    This chain had about 10 stores in the Philadelphia area and closed up about a year after this incident. While the emergence of Best Buy and Circult City might have drove them out of business, I’m sure their customer service didn’t help either.

  13. brooke says:

    I don’t try to look or act poor, i wear expensive clothes and have a newer car, but because of my age, i’m only 21, sales people often assume i’m poor, and don’t help me. I have bought two cars at the nissan dealership in town, i had a wreck last summer and when i went to look for a car they snubbed me it was pretty obvious that i was serious about buying, i was bruised and cut all over. i went to the next twon over. Car salesmen always get a suprize with me bc i have great credit and actually know about cars unlike a lot of girls my age. I just bought a house too and the first realtor we worked with was less than helpfull…sucks for them.

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  15. Bob says:

    To start us on the same foot, let’s agree that one would not wear an Armani suit and tie to weed the garden in (unless perhaps, one had a few to spare, and it was one’s only 5 minute opportunity to get the weeding done….). Further, let’s agree that, if one has the means, one would not wear gardening clothes to church, or to a funeral. But already, the discussion’s gotten minorly complex.

    The reality is: there are a whole ton of factors contributing to “I’m wearing this at this moment in this setting.” Some of those factors include “how will this outfit make me feel? how will it make other people feel? how will it serve the physical needs of what I’m about to do? Do I have time to change clothes between my last activity and this one? between this one and the next? Is my ideal outfit clean right now? Am I feeling particularly cheery today? social today? quieter than usual today? fat today?” etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately, all of us prioritize each of these factors differently and differently at different times. Some of us place a lot of importance on how our clothes make others feel. Sometimes it’s “I’d like to make people feel this way” and sometimes this is good (I’d like people at a funeral to not be distracted by my clothes and I’d like them to feel like they I have a listening shoulder to cry on) and sometimes this is not so good (I’d like to deceive people into thinking X about me). Sometimes instead we focus on how the clothes make us feel, and again, sometimes this is good (I like to wear clothes to exercise in which make me feel positive and confident) and sometimes it’s not so good (e.g. when I try to dress in a way that makes me feel better than others; which I should not do). And sometimes I show up at the bank in my garden clothes because I’m just stopping off there between working in the garden and helping a friend move some stuff to storage (i.e. the situational context may be more important than other factors; or the utilitarian context; etc. etc.).

    And, every time we make decisions, we can make them with the right motivations and the wrong ones; as we all know. It’s great to have this discussion, and to be thinking about these things, and to see what others are thinking about them. It’s good to be aware of our motivations for what we wear, and the influence they may/not be exerting on other people.

    Now if only we can use this knowledge in the right way. Unfortunately, the earlier comment “people dress to look poor.. to feel superior to others” is right more often than we’d like to admit. And the right dress at the right time can open very important doors. Let’s make sure we’re being wise, and not damning ourselves by choosing the wrong priority at the wrong time.

  16. Bob says:

    All those words and I forgot this bullet point: If you’re dressing to manipulate someone, including yourself, you’re being manipulative. If that’s good or bad in a particular situation is up to you to decide, just know that it’s what you’re doing.

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  18. Lisa says:

    I am not poor, but I think I look it because I hate shopping for clothes. I’ve never had anyone offer to pay for my food, though. I would be mortified, and would definitely force myself to go shopping. I wonder how article writer’s children feel about being pitied by strangers, especially when there’s no need? How anyone with money can accept charity from other people in a situation like this? That seems pretty immoral to me!

  19. uh says:

    you sound poor

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