Sunday, December 27

What is a "true" frugal blogger?

I wrote a rather-too-glib post yesterday about spending. I was called on it by an anonymous commenter. I think (s)he had some good points that brought me up short. On the other hand, I also think some of the charges were not entirely accurate.


For example, the iPod Touch we're planning on getting will be entirely through rewards program points, just like Tim's PSP. We won't be paying a dime out of pocket. So I consider that pretty frugal.


There is also the issue of video game purchases. Tim got some birthday money from his mom, which he spent on video games. The rest of the games he gets by trading in old ones.


But junk food? Clothing? Yeah, those are my own screw-ups. I eat too much junk food. I try to only buy with coupons, and I've cut way, way back on how much we get. Still, it accounts for more of our grocery bill than I would like.


And clothing: I got three new shirts that cost $60 after tax. It was a complete indulgence. It wasn't one I felt terribly justified in (though it certainly comes across that way in the post). It would be easy to rationalize it away. For instance, the only clothes I have gotten in the better part of two years were when old ones no longer fit. So this particular expense doesn't come up often. But, the fact is that we're in debt; we're working to get out. So that money could have been used in a much more strategic way.


The main point of the anonymous comment, though, seemed to be that the things I talk about -- iPod Touch, junk food, Cheesecake Factory (where we each get a slice of cake on Tim's birthday) -- did not resonate with "true" frugal bloggers.


Ouch.


I make a couple of missteps during the holiday season, and I'm not a true frugal blogger? I suppose everyone is entitled to his own opinion; but I'd be curious to know exactly what the parameters are for that position.


I proclaimed in one of my first posts that I was not the Martha Stewart of frugality. I can't be. Anyone who has ever wrestled with severe depression can attest to just how hard basic tasks are. (Seriously, why can't I make a call that will take two minutes? I don't know. Some days, it's simply an insurmountable goal.) You add in severe fatigue, and you find your options are more than a little circumscribed.


Perhaps some people believe that I'm using my health conditions to rationalize being less frugal. It's not true, but it's hard to prove a negative. Really, I can try to explain until I'm blue in the face, but it doesn't do much good. People who don't understand depression or chronic fatigue simply can't understand how much it impacts your life. So, to them, I'm malingering.


Whatever you believe or understand, the fact is that there are few people in this world with the exact same situation as you. And so it's easy to believe that a couple of details make all the difference. Of course, sometimes it's true. But a lot of the time it's just wishful thinking. Grass is always greener, etc.


I'm guilty of this line of thinking, too. There have been plenty of times in the past that I've become judgmental. You read enough blogs, enough posts, enough "how I got here" profiles, and it's bound to happen. You get frustrated by all of the benefits that other people have.


Most PF bloggers make a fairly decent living. Many of them are in two-income households -- or have voluntarily become one-income situations. Meanwhile, Tim and I have only once ever hit $40,000 a year combined. A lot of people make that much (or almost that much) with just one salary.


Or how about those couples who got tens of thousands of dollars in debt by buying to their hearts' content? Must be nice. Our debt was earned mainly because our basic expenses exceeded our income. Health conditions are expensive.


Tim also brought $20,000 of defaulted student loans into the relationship. After a year, we had to pay $7,000 for oral surgery and dentures. In and among that, there have been plenty of medical bills. At least $5,000 a year -- though much, much more when we got his oral surgery.


In other words, the grass looks a lot greener on the other side of our fence. Even with all our problems and limitations, we've paid down more than $30,000 in three and a half years. Imagine what we could have done with two full-time salaries!


So, yeah, I get frustrated. And judgmental. I have even been known to get into snobby moods where I dismiss other people as having it easy. I get annoyed by how many more corners I have to cut just to get anything like the results enjoyed by people in more traditional situations.


Then (eventually) I snap out of it. Because this line of thinking isn't fair. People with more money get themselves into more obligations. Tim and I don't have a mortgage or car payments. Until recently, we had free use of a car, without any costs, thanks to a very generous parent. That's quite the little leg-up we had. (Now, we are paying for insurance, car repairs and gas, which has definitely affected our budget.)


And I really shouldn't go casting stones. I'm frugal -- but not to the same degree that my mom is. And she's not as die-hard as people who separate their two-ply toilet paper. Meanwhile, neither of us have a garden to grow food in. So, despite being ardently frugal, we can both be shown up by others.


My point? Everyone has different benchmarks for acceptable frugality. I, for example, have no problem with spending $40-50 for a birthday or anniversary meal. Or the occasional pair of cool t-shirts for $18. (Which is, of course, not the same thing as $60 on clothing.) On the other hand, I also make sure we take advantage of freebies, discounts etc. I milk all of the free birthday offerings I can find.


Most avidly frugal folks cook a lot, often from scratch. It's cheap and it can be far healthier than convenience foods and pre-made fare. But I will probably never cook as much as I would like to. I just don't have the energy or wherewithal to deal with it. Tim's stomach doesn't help matters. It's very finicky. If he tries to eat something he doesn't like, he stomach sends it back from whence it came. So he can't just eat that last bowl of leftovers.


Our solution, then, was to keep a few different convenience foods around. Maybe he can have some canned stew and feel better. Or a hot dog. Or some frozen pizza. So long as we don't end up going to the grocery store (which adds up quickly) or ordering out (which adds up even faster), we've saved a good chunk of money. So, we've found an option that's cheaper than the alternatives. But few people would look at it and proclaim it to be frugal.


Really frugal people go to the store to hit key sales. They do sales, coupons, rebates and Register Rewards. So far, I'm only up to coupons. I do the occasional Register Rewards, but my energy problems mean I'm never sure I can use them before they expire. Meanwhile, rebates are just somehow beyond me. I never get around to mailing them off, no matter how good my intentions are. Eventually, I'll get there. It took me awhile to work up to using coupons; now they're second nature. But, for now, people might decide I'm not trying hard enough in those areas.


Then there are the times that I do something dumb, like fall in love with (and buy) some shirts for $60. There is really no excuse for it. I actually tend to stay out of department stores because of the problem of temptation. This time, though, I didn't. And I paid for it -- quite literally.


I am in the process of trying to find a balance between constantly living for the future -- when the debts are paid off -- and enjoying myself a little in the present. Often, I fall too far onto one side or the other. It's yet another work in progress, and this last shopping spree was a not-so-gentle reminder that I'm not even close to finding the solution.


So, yeah, I'm not a paragon of frugality. But I think I do okay, especially considering my limitations. I certainly think I do better than a lot of people, assuming that counts for anything.


I talk on here about free and/or cheap entertainment. There are the movie passes from My Coke Rewards. I have discussed various rewards and cash-back programs, which allow for big purchases (especially electronics) for free. And I mystery shop to get free dinners or other entertainment. Sometimes, I even make a couple of bucks off the endeavor.


For now, that has to be enough for me. That's not to say, though, that it's enough for other people. We each have our own version of frugality, a standard that seems, to us, right and fair. It's not something you can easily get someone to change. And given my recent talk of spending, I'm not really in a position to argue anything anyway.


I guess I just bristle at the term "true frugal blogger" because I happen to think too much of frugality is a case-by-case basis.


If that's not true, then where do we draw the line? What is the objective basis we use to delineate frugal from non-frugal? How much do you have to save? How much debt must you pay down each month? How much leeway can you give yourself for entertainment or indulgences before you are booted from the club?


And while you consider those questions, remember that I -- who am not a true frugal blogger -- got our debt down by $1,200 (38% of our income) this month. Actually, we paid $1,800 (57% of our income); but $600 of that covered new charges like car repairs and a vet visit for Sandy.


Now, if I can just go back to avoiding department stores, we may be set after all.

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16 Comments:

Blogger FrugalCityDweller said...

I found this post very interesting and it made me think maybe I am not a "true" frugal blogger either. While I like to save money and pay back my debt, I also have vices like the occasional Starbucks *gasp*. I like to think that people are human who sometimes make mistakes and that even frugal people experience burnout. I can also relate to the junk food, because I am an avid chocoholic. However, I still enjoy using coupons, free/cheap entertainment, and the local library. So, hopefully occasional indulgences don't boot us from the frugal/PF blogger community.

December 27, 2009 at 8:18 PM

 
Anonymous Nicole at Breaking Even said...

I've noticed that some 'frugal' bloggers like myself in the last year or so have made a switch more to a lifestyle blog than a personal finance blog (myself included). I think being mindful of money, and being willing to talk about it, makes us all at the very least money bloggers. Frugal, well, that's a word we all define individually and I say if you watch your money and splurge on what matters to you, that still falls in the lines of frugality (at least my definition). :^)

December 28, 2009 at 7:50 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My intent was not to imply that you should be kicked out of some non-existent cyber “club”, but it was to make you aware that, to me, you rationalize quite a bit of spending for someone who has a frugal blog.
There are no rules to being frugal, as one can lean as much to one side or the other as they feel comfortable with. I am not meaning to berate you for purchasing department store shirts, whether they are a terrific deal or even full price. It is your money. However, I feel in having a frugal blog, you become part of what I’ll refer to as the “Tiger Woods scenario”.
It is acceptable insight that everyone is human and makes mistakes, or even just makes decisions that other people wouldn’t make. However, I feel that once you are in the public eye trying to represent things like good morals, smart decision making, frugal practices…etc. you are held to a higher standard. It is only logical that this would happen as you are the one who put yourself in that position of “celebrity” (used loosely in this case). I know it sounds ridiculous to compare you to Tiger Woods, but I’m just using the example because it’s fresh in my mind. You are not accepting millions from Gatorade to be a role model, but you are the author of a blog that promotes and exemplifies (?) frugality.
Junk food, iPod Touch (when that free money could go to purchases that would otherwise need to be made with ‘real’ money), punching bags (when there are hanging bags in parks all over the city to be used for free, and I believe you mentioned a fitness center at your complex), xbox 360, waxing, Dave and Buster’s, Peter Piper Pizza, smoking, DirecTV…none of these things promote frugal living. You certainly have the right to them, but they are neither necessities nor cheap.
My intent is just to make you aware that, as a frugal person myself (one with health problems that make me more than familiar with energy constraints) it is a big turnoff when you read a blog that is supposed to be giving frugal advice but instead talks about purchasing luxuries that many of us deem unaffordable. Perhaps you are much more frugal than I am giving you credit for, and if that is the case I apologize. But, I would love to see you write about HOW you are making sacrifices. Have you started cooking at home more often? Have you mastered shopping with Register Rewards and Extra Care Bucks to minimize your out of pocket on home items? Has splurging on cases of Fiber One bars prevented you from spending money on candy and Dairy Queen?
Personally, I read frugal blogs to inspire and help me to realize ways I can better save money. I want to hear how other people do it without feeling deprived, but without spending unnecessary dollars. What I don’t want to read is how the person with the frugal blog just bought things that we tell ourselves no to on a daily basis, even when they are in a self-proclaimed ‘dire’ financial situation and we are more than comfortable.
But, perhaps I am nowhere near your target audience. And that’s okay too. In a world where perception is everything, I just thought you should know how I perceive you.

December 28, 2009 at 8:29 AM

 
Anonymous Donna Freedman said...

Anonymous: If you read frugal blogs for inspiration, surely you've noticed that there's a HUGE variety of money management styles out there.
The author of this blog has never said that she exemplifies frugality. For that matter, I have yet to find a PF/lifestyle blogger who sets himself/herself up as an exemplar of thrift. It would be tough to do that because we all have different ideas of frugality. Sometimes those ideas are *way* different -- you'll read about people who still eat out fairly often but use BOGO coupons and think that's good enough. But you'll also read about people who haven't been inside a restaurant in years, because they don't think it's worth it or because they simply don't have the scratch to pay for it.
Both are legitimate points of view, whether or not others happen to agree.
Frugal bloggers invoke the name of Amy Dacyczyn fairly regularly. Some wish she had a blog because her newsletter, The Tightwad Gazette, was so influential back in the day. What they may not remember (or may be too young to have experienced) is the fact that she was frequently lambasted for being "too" frugal, for "depriving" herself and her children. Yet others admired her and thought she exemplified frugality.
These days a lot of young people are graduating deeply in debt. No one could deny that student loans could be paid off much faster if the new grads spent the next three years living in their parents' basements, walking to work, wearing only their college clothes, brown-bagging every day and holding two full-time jobs.
They *could* -- but few people would be willing to put their lives on hold like that. Instead, they work a job (if they can find one) and make "loan repayment" a budget category. Right up there with "car insurance," "groceries" and, oh yeah, "fun."
Some people, like you, would think that a punching bag is an unnecessary extravagance. (Are there really "hanging bags in parks all over the city" where you live? Wow.) Others would say, "Good for him for looking for a way to try to improve his health and deal with the stress of illness on HIS schedule, vs. the hours that the fitness center happens to be open."
And hey, I hate smoking. A relative of mine died fairly horribly because of it. But I also know that quitting is HARD. It can be done, but they say it can take an average of seven tries. (A friend of mine has been quitting and relapsing over and over for about 30 years.) So the author spends money on Nicorette to try to get her husband off the coffin nails.
Incidentally, I do have a dog in this hunt because I'm the author's mom. But I'm also a frugal blogger/columnist myself (for MSN Money) and, more to the point, a recovering "Don't spend a dime! Don't! Don't!" type of frugal person. We live in a world where some dimes MUST be spent, for necessities -- but I'm learning, slowly, that dimes may also be spent for other reasons.
I spent many, many years "without spending unnecessary dollars," as you say. And I missed a lot during those years.
I still struggle with irrational guilt when spending money on basic items. What I've learned is that the old saw "Moderation in all things -- including moderation" is a pretty useful way of looking at life. Otherwise we run the risk of a living-in-the-basement, working-two-jobs MENTALITY, one that prevents us from enjoying life. For example, you could save a ton of money by never traveling, never going to the theater, never eating chocolate. Personally, I'd like to be able to do those things. I do them as frugally as possible, of course, but I *will* do them.
You mention being "more than comfortable." You get to decide how to spend that money. What you *don't* get to do is choose a "higher standard" for PF bloggers.

December 28, 2009 at 9:52 AM

 
Blogger Abigail said...

Anonymous,

As I said before, I do think you have some valid points. Personally, though, I do also think I have addressed some of these things in posts before. Such as the fact that I use the rewards programs as a way not to feel deprived. Still, your point is taken and I do admit that my blog hasn't been as much about doing without lately.

Part of this is something I talked about in a several posts: making compromises with your spouse. Especially a spouse with severe ADD. Because if Tim doesn't have an outlet for his energies, he often ends up wanting to go out. Which invariably leads to spending money.

As for the hanging bags, I'm new to this city and had no idea there were any in parks. I have never heard of parks with heavy bags. Our fitness center has four aerobic machines. Not helpful to Tim, who doesn't find it a way to work out aggression/frustration/anxiety.

Anyway, again, you have a point about rationalizing spending. I certainly spend more than I would like. I've talked about that more times than I can count. Because issuing edicts to Tim doesn't work. He is his own person, and he quite literally thinks differently than I (and many people) do. And if I didn't start respecting that and adjusting some of my expectations, this marriage would be untenable. And I'm not sure a marriage failing because one partner refused to accept her spouse as human is a good enough reason for a divorce. Perhaps worse, Tim wouldn't ask for a divorce anyway, so it would just be years of my making him miserable and feeling like everything he does is wrong. I decided that wasn't worth being debt free sooner.


I guess we all have different priorities. Mine is to pay off debt as much as possible, while still making life bearable for my husband. And that does include spending that other people might view as rationalization. And I, too, struggle with my mood disorder (I've been officially diagnosed Bipolar II, inasmuch as a title does any good) which can lead to some small versions of the manic of manic depressive. One of those symptoms is spending more. Actually, sadly, I just put that together as I was typing this. Hmmm...

But you have reminded me that I haven't done many posts lately about finding tricks to do without. And that is something I do need to get back to. I veer away from it from time to time because I get tired of reading the same bullet-pointed list that appears on every frugal blog. Still, I'm sure I can come up with some that haven't been repeated quite as often as the basic ones.

And while I may come off as purely defensive in this post and reply, I do appreciate your feedback and you have given me some points to consider. So thank you for leaving the comments. Even if I don't agree with everything you say, I am glad that you feel you can say it.

December 28, 2009 at 11:38 AM

 
Blogger Abigail said...

Frugal City Dweller,

I appreciate your reply. And support. Though, to be fair, I think Tim's and my version of frugality/debt-reduction is more than just the occasional Starbucks. (Though we do save money by disliking coffee. It's amazing we weren't kicked out of Seattle!) We spend more than the average "frugal" couple, on things that some would consider "luxuries." And some are necessary, from my standpoint at least, because of our situation. Others are missteps. It's a mixed bag.

Nicole,

You're right, the line between money blogger/frugality blogger/lifestyle blogger is a blurry one. I find myself going in and out of those stages, I suppose. That said, I did start this as a frugality/debt reduction blog -- though one that discussed these things in the context of disability. So I would like to move back toward that a little. Like I told Anon, some of this is definitely food for thought.

December 28, 2009 at 11:44 AM

 
Blogger Shevy said...

I think you and Donna (aren't mothers great when they're defending their young?) have both ably spoken to the anonymous commenter, so I'll move right to the money/frugality/lifestyle blog issue.

I think of myself as a Personal Finance Blogger but, if I'm honest, my posts are probably more lifestyle with a fair bit of highly personal finance thrown in. I'm certainly not writing a blog about how to find the best index fund or which drug store has the best coupons. Nor am I writing about how to make laundry detergent at home (I'll leave that to Trent Hamm).

Since I'm not positioned as a "frugal" blogger, does that mean I don't need to feel bad when I spend too much money or buy something instead of paying a bill or whatever?

Really and truly, being frugal isn't about being cheap or a miser. It's about spending money in a way that makes sense to me and takes my values and circumstances into consideration. When I spend money on something that's important to me, even if it's a lot of money, it doesn't mean I'm not frugal. It means I've made a conscious choice to spend on that and cut back somewhere where I don't care. Messing up, therefore, is when I buy something that *isn't* important to me and then can't do something that's truly important.

I hope that makes sense.

December 28, 2009 at 10:28 PM

 
Blogger Abigail said...

Shevy,

I think you summarized it better than I ever could have.

December 28, 2009 at 10:35 PM

 
Blogger Zella said...

I'm glad that you're honest about how and why you spend money, and how two people with different priorities and wants make it work. My husband and I have the same negotiations on different items.

I *gasp* don't always read your Freebie Friday posts, because often as not, the items aren't of particular interest to me... on the flip side? I make my own laundry detergent and air dry my clothes.

And yeah, debt reduction is awesome, as long as you don't wake up every morning dreading life. There has to be balance.

December 28, 2009 at 10:39 PM

 
Anonymous frugal zeitgeist said...

Wow, I missed a lot while I was away! There's not much I can add to the debate other than to echo the sentiment that frugality to me means being a good custodian of my money and spending according to my values.

Beyond that, I really try to avoid giving much in the way of clear-cut advice. I can write about what does and doesn't work for me and why, but that's about it. Reading vastly different perspectives from commenters is great, and sometimes I end up changing my own perspective as a result.

December 28, 2009 at 10:54 PM

 
Blogger Monroe on a budget said...

There's certainly room for diversity and opinions in what equals "frugality."

If the iPod touch, for example, is used as a tool to help the family save money ... why would that be any different than buying the Sunday newspaper to get coupons?

December 30, 2009 at 11:33 AM

 
Anonymous Heather said...

I'm really glad I stumbled on your blog today. This is a fascinating topic for me - I don't believe you have to give up everything to be frugal. We are frugal in a lot of areas but spend a pretty penny on date night each month. I figure it's cheaper than marriage counseling, and I do use coupons as available.

It's about how you can spend less, not what you can give up. In fact, I just wrote about that very topic today: http://inexpensively.com/articles/lower-your-budget-not-your-standards/. Don't let someone else define who you are, especially when they won't admit to who they are in the first place!

Do what you do, and know that you're making progress on your financial goals, even if you do buy a new shirt now and then!

December 30, 2009 at 11:38 AM

 
Anonymous leslie said...

Being frugal does not mean being cheap!

Being frugal, at it's essence, means being resourceful. By looking for deals, using coupons, buying in bulk, you are being resourceful.

It doesn't matter how much money you make, what you buy and why you save, it just matters that you are being resourceful to your needs.

December 30, 2009 at 11:45 AM

 
Anonymous Meg said...

Girl! Don't beat yourself up! You and Tim are making a good life for yourselves and paying back debt with very little income. Don't stress out over an occasional indulgence! Or a single anon comment.

Remember, though, that very few people are in huge debt because they just spent endlessly w/ no thought of paying it back. Most people made what they thought were the best decisions they could with the info they had. In retrospect, it's always obvious that re-re-refinancing expecting housing prices to keep doing what they've been doing/buying things we need (or "need") on the credit card/taking a family vacation, expecting not to be laid off right after/etc. was not the right decision, but I don't think anyone just buys recklessly and stupidly.

December 30, 2009 at 11:59 AM

 
Blogger Abigail said...

Zella,

I think it can be hard to understand from the outside just how much negotiation goes on (and has to!) in a relationship. I tried the road of making Tim adhere to my priorities only. He did it, but it wasn't pretty and neither of us were terribly happy.

And, if it makes you feel any better, I don't use all of the Freebie Friday stuff either!

Frugal Zeitgeist,

I have to agree with you. While some input can be hard to take (or agree with) usually there are at least pieces of it that show you something you otherwise wouldn't have seen.

Monroe on a budget,

That is certainly a good point. (Especially since we pay for the Sunday paper and not the iTouch!) But seriously, in this case, it will be going to helping Tim function better. Most people with ADD find PDAs to be absolute life/sanity savers. In addition, he's promised to download some expense tracking apps (free ones, natch) and try to keep a better log of his spending.

Leslie,

I like your outlook. I agree that frugality -- especially in the long-term -- has to be tailored to the individual. It's all well and good if you're depriving yourself for some short-term goal. But if you're in a marathon, you have to pace yourself. Some might say I'm going too slowly. But Tim and I have to go with what feels right.

Meg,

I actually have met quite a few people who buy recklessly and stupidly. That said, they are in the minority. I guess it can just seem to be rampant because you tend to read blog posts on frugal sites about how they sold off all of their toys -- in one case, a wave runner -- to pay down their debt. Or all their couture clothing and purses. But generalizations are dangerous, so thanks for reminding me.

December 30, 2009 at 12:19 PM

 
Anonymous Donna Freedman said...

ALL generalizations are bad! All of them! ;-)

December 30, 2009 at 2:45 PM

 

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