Monday, March 9

Through the looking glass: A look at perceived frugality

Originally, I had titled this post “The cost of imperfection” and I asked, “How much does it cost us to be fallible?”

The idea, of course, being that no one is perfect and so we incur late fees on movies, or overdraft our bank accounts, or forget to cancel trial memberships before our credit cards are charged.

But I realized something: These costs aren’t from our failure to be perfect. They arise from our inability to accept that we’re not perfect. We all want to believe that we’re capable of more, especially my fellow Type-A personalities out there. We want to believe that if we try a little harder, we’ll manage to overcome our so-called flaws.

Because we persist in these beliefs, we fail to plan properly. We want to believe we’ll do the most frugal thing, no matter the consequences, whether that’s always cook or keep constant guard against overdrafts. We have “perceived frugality” rather than a realistic view of how we will act. When we have a bad day, we may not be able to talk ourselves out of ordering some pizza. When things are rough at work, we may fail to check in regularly with our bank balances to avoid overdrafts.

In other words, we end up paying for our self-image.

Essentially, we are charging ourselves a premium. Each time we fail to live up to our own hoped-for standards, we’re paying (sometimes dearly!) for the privilege of not facing reality.

I’m not trying to pretend that it’s easy to own up to our limitations. If it were, far fewer Americans would be in debt. They would look at their spending, compare it to their income, and make the appropriate changes.

But that would entail coming clean. It would mean admitting an unpalatable truth about themselves: that they’re chronic over-spenders.

A much better alternative – for the ego, anyway – is to simply justify the spending. They work hard, so they deserve nice things. They don’t spend any more than most of their peers. They’re due for a raise soon. They’ll find a way to pay for it later.

In the case of spending, most of you have probably already faced this and come out victorious. So maybe you think you’re all caught up on self-awareness. But that one battle is hardly the whole war.

Women, ask yourselves whether you still buy (or hang on to) clothing that is too tight. You know the ones: Just a tiny bit too snug – just this side of wearable. And you get it/keep it because you know that any time now, you will lose the extra weight, allowing you to wear it comfortably. It’s a common rationale.

But it’s just another way for us to avoid accepting ourselves as we are. Whether the topic is weight or finance or something else entirely, we all seem to put a lot of time and energy into convincing ourselves we’re equally capable in all areas.

We want to be the people who always return movies and library books on time. We want to be the kind of person who hits all the sales, never overpaying for the sake of convenience. We want to be the kind of person who never gets overwhelmed by life, and thereby lets our finances (or cleaning or cooking) suffer.

Why do we do this? Why do we consistently choose the path that leads (time and again) to frustration, perennial disappointment and, in some cases, self-loathing?

Well, first of all, no one really wants to be the person who can’t do something. It’s not exactly a sought-after position. But there’s more to it. I’ve begun to notice that people talk about things they can’t do with an almost apologetic tone.

Would you do this for some other fact about yourself – say being fond of oranges or preferring flats to high heels? Of course not… at least, I hope! So why do apologize for being bad at couponing or at finding the best sales online?

Because this society applauds achievement, and is suspicious or hostile toward failure. The very essence of our nation’s dream – pulling one’s self up from humble origins to riches – shows this. The implication is that if you don’t achieve the highest highs, clearly you’re not worth noticing, that only winners are worth caring about.

We’re inundated by stories of success. Articles about Olympic athletes’ lives never seem to mention that they have little social life because of the strict practice schedule, or that those 12-year-old gymnasts probably can’t remember what ice cream tastes like.

Any spotlighted article or show you see with a celebrity tends to focus only on what they do well. Note is taken if they decorated their houses single-handedly. But no mention is made of the wardrobe consultant who’s the only thing between that star and one of those “Worst Dressed” pages.

In-depth interviews with CEOs and other high-powered businessmen will never fail to list all their past achievements and accolades. But when have you ever heard mention of the personal assistants without whom these executives would be lost?

I could go through plenty more examples, but I think you get the point: No one is good at everything. And I doubt you’d expect any of your friends to be. Why, then, hold yourself up to that standard?

We’ve already heard a couple theories: No one wants to be the guy who can’t do something, and society applauds exceptional people. But there is a third reason. It’s one of those that sounds ludicrous to anyone who didn’t grow up believing it. Still, it’s a powerful motivator: If you’re not perfect, no one will love you.

I told you it sounds crazy. Hearing it spoken – or seeing it written – even I have a hard time crediting it as a driving factor. But everything in me tenses when I have to ask for help. Because instinctually I “know” that if you need something – especially help – people will treat you like a leper. You have to be everything for everyone at any time – except when it comes to taking care of yourself.

I personally believe it’s one of the main reasons so many people can’t accept themselves as anything less than perfect. But, of course, perfection is unattainable. So, we’re left in an exhausting and endless cycle of exacting standards, disappointment and despair. It’s a drain on time and energy – and, let’s not forget, money.

For years, I played along. When I was bad at a particular thing – due dates, for example – I would regularly scold myself, feel appropriate amounts of shame, and then set myself right back up for more failure. I bought into the idea of perceived frugality. Because I knew that I should act frugally, I believed that I would.

How many fines and late payment fees did I end up with, I wonder, because I simply couldn’t accept I was bad at something as simple as a due date? (Especially as the daughter of journalists, deadlines were supposed to be a specialty of mine.)

How many charges got on my credit card because I swore, swore, that this time, I was going to remember to cancel before the trial membership elapsed? (My success rate is somewhere around 50-75 percent on that.)

How much money could I have saved over the years if I had just altered my approach to coupons – not just tacking them up on the fridge where they inevitably were forgotten on grocery store trips?

How much might I have saved on delivery throughout the years if I had simply accepted that I didn’t like to cook? If, instead of insisting I would do the frugal thing, I had just stocked up on quick, easy dinners that took little to no real preparation?

I’m sure there’s more, but I haven’t got the heart to recount them all. What I do know is that I don’t want to keep adding to them. So I have to just accept that most of the difficulties I have are probably not going to change.

As Modern Tightwad points out, you have to take yourself into account when you plan your life or your budget.

So let’s say you’re absolutely incapable of passing by a “sale” sign in a store window. You can assume that you’re just too weak, and that these flaws should be battled at every turn. It’s certainly one way to go. Though you’ll probably keep backsliding – and spend plenty of money when you do.

Or you could just plan ahead. You can plan with family or friends to try and avoid malls whenever possible. And when you have to go in, take a friend to keep you in line.

I guess the major question here is this: What if we stopped thinking in terms of short-comings and flaws? What if they were just facts? You could say, “I tend to overdraft. I also write with my left hand.”

Certainly, being left-handed won’t cost you $28-32 a shot. So perhaps those two facts will never be completely equal. But when we buy into the idea that there are good and bad traits and skills, we lose sight of the real battle.

If you’re convinced that you shouldn’t be overdraft-prone, you’ll spend your whole time fighting some very basic behavior. Like switching from using your right hand to your left, you can make a big change. But it will always be a struggle against your basic nature.

If, on the other hand, you stop fighting a basic tendency and instead examine the situation, you’re more likely to find a solution. Perhaps you need to leave more money in the bank each payday. Or maybe you need to stop using your debit card, and move to an all-cash system.

But you’ll never figure it out if you’re busy fighting your own tendencies. Instead, you can work to avoid situations in which these tendencies have troublesome consequences.

Yes, some people may see it as accepting failure. I prefer to see it as embracing our humanity.

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Blogger Mrs. Modern Tightwad said...

Thanks for the link love! I know I spent literally hundreds of dollars in late fees because I didn't want to open my statements and come face to face with whatever sale I couldn't miss. And I kick myself now when I look at my credit report with those old late payment flags (not quite old enough to go away). If I'd been more accepting of myself and just opened the envelope and made the minimum payment I would be in much better shape today. But I was too busy trying to be who I was supposed to be, and I made the huge mistake of finding myself in Nordstrom's Rack. :)
Mrs. MT

March 9, 2009 at 10:18 AM

Blogger Funny about Money said...

Good insight! This is really a nice piece of writing, a fresh idea among the usual advice to get out of debt and live within your means. :-)

March 15, 2009 at 7:33 AM


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