Here’s a case study to think about: A member of my family has large retirement funds and savings accounts, a good income, no mortgage, and no other debt. She does not buy the top of the line in anything and is as frugal as they come. She buys very little that isn’t necessary and gets the best deals on the things she needs. She doesn’t even own a credit card because she’s afraid of them. To top it off, her house sits on a large piece of land that she could, should things go south for her, quickly sell for millions of dollars. (The property contains valuable oil and gas deposits that various agencies and companies have been trying to get their hands on for years.)
Just by reading the above you would, rightly, assume that this person has it made as far as finances go. She is comfortable and well off, and will be able to take care of herself for years to come. So what’s wrong with this picture and why am I telling you this story? Despite all of her success, she considers herself poor. This person is convinced that she does not have enough money to live on. She lives in constant fear that she will soon be broke, that she won’t have enough to live on, and that every penny she spends is leading her closer to her doom. (I don’t know whether there is a true psychological disorder here or if it’s just a mindset or a way of being she could change if she wanted to so I try not to judge, but I tell you this story to illustrate the point that sometimes frugality can go awry and make life miserable instead of happy.)
As a result of this poverty mindset, she is very difficult to be around. So difficult is she at times that other family members have begun to ostracize her. She constantly complains about how little money she has and balks at anything that requires an outlay of cash. If any family gathering centers around spending, such as dinner out, a family reunion, funeral, or wedding that must be traveled to, a group vacation, or a party where all the family members contribute to the cost or purchase a gift, the complaints get louder. She makes no secret of the fact that she doesn’t want to spend, yet she still wants to be an active participant. As a result, someone usually covers her share just to get her to shut up. She insists that all events take place in her town so that she doesn’t have to pay. When things don’t go her way and the event is scheduled somewhere else, she reluctantly attends but criticizes everything at the destination and complains about how much everything costs, sometimes loudly enough for servers and other staff to hear. It’s embarrassing.
Now, I certainly understand not wanting to spend frivolously or too often. If this were a situation where the parties were lavish or every weekend, I could understand her upset. However, our family rarely does things together so any time to get together is special. We’re all so scattered that any sort of gathering involves some level of spending, be it for travel or food or to chip in for a 50th anniversary party. But when we do get together, the events are usually low key buffets or small, garden type weddings. Nothing extravagant or costly and we try to be fair and schedule things in various and neutral locations so the same person isn’t always traveling the furthest distance.
In my view, with a group like this, you can either cheerfully join in and spend what you need to (applying bargain hunting tactics wherever possible to reduce the cost) in order to participate, or you can simply say, “Count me out this time. I can’t afford it.” Whining about how little money you have until others give up and pay for you is not cool. Neither is expecting and insisting that all reunions and parties occur in your town so that you don’t have to spend money to attend. It is especially uncool when the person making these demands has the money to comfortably participate.
The problem here is that while this relative is saving money, she is making herself and the rest of the family miserable. It has gotten to the point where some relatives are simply refusing to invite this person to any gathering, or to even mention to her that something is planned. I’m all for frugality and saving money, but not when the cost is your friends and family. There comes a time when frugality can cross over into obsession. When you are comfortable financially yet continue to act as though poverty looms, you cheat yourself out of fun and valuable experiences and you distance yourself from others. If your frugality is making people avoid you and hide things from you, it’s time to rethink your priorities.
There is a balance that must be struck between being frugal and fiscally responsible and not cutting yourself off from family and experience in the name of saving money, particularly if you are well off financially and the demands on your finances are reasonable. Even if you don’t like to spend, there are times when you need to simply suck it up and spend in the name of being a good family member. No, you may not particularly thrill to the idea of shelling out for plane tickets to Aunt Emma’s funeral in Minnesota, but you go because it’s the right thing to do. And you do it without complaining to anyone about it. You go because this is your family and you want to be there for and with them. When a fun reunion is scheduled and you want to go, you get the best price you can and you go, without complaint. If you constantly complain about the costs and embarrass others, you can be sure that no one will invite you next time and you will miss out on valuable family time.
Of course, if you hate your family, then this can be a valuable strategy for getting out of things. But for most of us, that isn’t the case. If you’re very frugal, put your poverty mindset aside for a little while, relax and have fun. You’ll be a joy to be around and your family and friends will appreciate the time you spend with them, rather than dreading your appearance at the next gathering.