When the Poverty Mindset Threatens Family and Fun

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.

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16 Responses to When the Poverty Mindset Threatens Family and Fun

  1. Myrna Garren says:

    I think your relative has an insecurity that has made her(his) miserable and as a consequence the rest of your family. It is unfortunate because she(he) cannot enjoy life and because of the problem you can’t enjoy your functions when she attends. I wouldn’t expect any change in her behavior unless you can convine the person to have therapy.

  2. Maureen says:

    There is a difference between frugality and cheap/tight.

    I really admired this woman until the second paragraph. She may well have a psychological disorder as this behaviour can not be tolerated otherwise. I am extremely frugal (as many readers are) but when it comes to those life occasions (which don’t happen everyday) then I loosen up a bit. Obviously I don’t go too far but I will pay for a round of drinks for my friends (if I stay with them). It’s no way to live clearly. I am tight with myself but with others I know that presents can bring such joy and help a friendship. (Not in a materialistic way but show the thought and consideration that I’ve put into it)

    I think this woman needs to chill out.

  3. Joan says:

    How is it that you know so much about her actual finances? Or are you making assumptions? Have you yet tried kindly and privately talking to her about how she is coming across? Hope she will not read or hear of your blog, as that is probably not the better way for her to hear your thoughts.

  4. Annie Jones says:

    I could have written this post. I have a sister and niece who are just this way about spending, although they usually don’t complain about driving to a family function. I have a brother who isn’t hesitant to spend, but won’t attend any family events that aren’t in his hometown. I feel for you…it’s very difficult to get the whole family together, and then sometimes because of these family members, it isn’t any fun anyway. :(

  5. Diane says:

    It is truly a shame when frugality is taken to the point that you can’t enjoy your life – and prevent your family from enjoying theirs!

    I’m not advocating being a spendthrift, but this sounds extreme.

    Sorry I don’t have any advice to help with it, but I wish you luck!

  6. The post truly depict many of lives of people out there.The best part to encounter the money related issues is through proper money management. One need to strike a balance with the actual need and the available finance.Neither one should not sacrifice the basic amenities of life nor he/she should be spendthrift in their habits.
    A family should involve themselves in regular financial meetings to overcome the basic issues and lead a smooth financial life.

  7. Pingback: Monroe on a Budget » Jennifer Derrick: When poverty mindset threatens relationships

  8. Texas Girl says:

    Some people just worship money. She would probably be mortified if you were to suggest that to her, but when you worship money you just can’t bear to let go of a penny. Clearly she values money more than the relationships in her life. Sad.

  9. Susan says:

    Or she’s a “depression baby”. My parents were born in the Depression, and an entire generation grew up afraid they would one day go to bed hungry again … Although I doubt she’s old enough to have been born then, you make no mention of her age. Yes, the situation is sad. I also have a brother for whom money and saving it at the expense of another is more important than people. Just don’t become a victim of them.

  10. tynana says:

    My grandmother who is 101 year old is the same way. She has over 50K in stocks. Lots of money in the bank yet will not spend any money on things that would enrich her life. She will spend money at resale shops on junk that other people neither want or need but depends on her children to help her pay utility bills and buy groceries. She is also a horder so has enough food stuffs to last for months. We all wish she would spend some of her money for central heat and air for her home, redo her bathroom to make it easier for her to shower but it’s like talking to a brick wall.

  11. Texas Girl says:

    How funny; we bought our last house from an old lady like that. The house was CRAMMED full of canned goods and empty margarine tubs ~ she never threw anything away ~ but no central air, and nothing worked because she ‘couldn’t afford to fix it.’ She died with over $1,000,000 in the bank, and I got a great deal on a fixer-upper….and took many dumpsters-full of her old junk to the city dump. :)

  12. Jen says:

    When did you meet my grandma? And how are we related?

    Seriously, you described my grandma to a tee. I think her sense of financial insecurity comes from living through the depression in Oklahoma. She grew up very, very poor, and she has never been able to shake that mindset.

  13. Carol says:

    I think you are right, this borders on some type of psychological disorder. To people like your relative, money means something other than just a way to acquire things. It’s sad because they will probably die with tons of cash…that someone else will get to spend and enjoy!

    Here in my home state, a 93 year old man froze to death because his utilities were shut-off for non-payment. Come to find out he had an estate worth over a half-million dollars and he left it all to a local hospital.

  14. Gail says:

    There are several currents running here, and the one I am interested in is why it seems so important to other family members that when a relative claims to be too poor, that the others feel the need to chip in for them when they are aware that the relative has the money to go or do whatever is costing the money. Why the expectation that all family members have to join in? What is wrong with basically saying “Aunt Sally we would love to have you with us for such and such but we understand if you can’t afford to come.”

    Why does the family continue to keep paying for this relative and putting up with the whining? There is no reasons not to invite them for the occassion, but if they don’t want to pay to come, the others shouldn’t be paying for them. If they continue to pay for the relative, they have no cause for complaining as no one was holding a gun to their head and making them pay.

    I do think that if your relative truly has the assets you think they do, they do have some mental health issues. As long as they are taking care of themselves properly it isn’t anyone else’s business. Now if they were skin and bones and wearing ratty clothing with the utilites being shut off, someone has to step in.

  15. rochelle says:

    This is a sad example of how a person has allowed money to become their idol.
    It’s biblical, I’ll pray for her and hope she can overcome this terrible obsession. I think your family should pray for her too, but we may also have to consider her age? There just may be a lot of psychological problems here too. In all your message is a good one to those who maybe just like your relative. Hopefully if that person should read this or get a copy from someone they will recognize themselves and make a change in their attitude too.

  16. I think the main idea is to find that balance between frugality and rational spending. Let’s not forget that money is not the goal itself, it’s just the instrument to make our dreams come true.

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