Are You Just Frugal, or Do You Suffer From Frugality Disease?

by Jessica Sommerfield · 11 comments

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Raised by an extremely frugal parent, I now enjoy freedoms like turning fans on full power when I want to (seriously, how much electricity does that really waste?) and not saving things that are clearly junk but might be able to be fixed or re-purposed in some way. Still, some of that extreme frugality my parents swore by stuck with me.

As an adult, I take pride in being frugal in sensible ways. For instance, I’ve recently started buying the majority of my clothes from thrift stores and online re-sale services, managing to save serious money on either brand-new or only lightly-used, quality-brand items. But sometimes, that’s still not enough to keep me from experiencing spending guilt.

I had a reality check the other day when I felt guilty for spending money on a few items off the clearance and thrift store racks that were for myself. Something that should have brought me joy – finding great deals on clothing I needed and loved – instead had me second-guessing. Why is this?

The Fine Line Between Spending Guilt and Frugality Disease

I think I could be on the border between the spending guilt of extreme frugality and the irrationality of what some term “frugality disease.” Even though you won’t find this term in the medical dictionary, psychologists say it’s a real thing. According to the American Psychological Association, frugality is a common symptom of a mental disorder known as obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD, often confused with OCD, which is different). Individuals who suffer from this tend to be extremely detailed, list-makers, and workaholics. They also exhibit the following behaviors:

  • A tendency to skimp on essentials, even if they have the money to spend.
  • A “miserly” spending style, like Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, except this miserliness extends even to themselves.

Is this ringing any bells yet? Before you rush to schedule a counseling session, it’s important to note that you don’t necessarily have OCPD even if you have some of these symptoms. To decide which side of the line you fall on, look at the differences between the unhealthy type of frugality and the healthy version.

Healthy: Budgeting a portion of money for savings goals and emergencies.

Unhealthy: Hoarding your money because you’re excessively concerned about being wasteful or broke.

Healthy: Being careful with your spending.

Unhealthy: Being miserly, not just in your spending, but with other resources (even affection!).

Healthy: You wonder (like me) if you’re taking frugality too far.

Unhealthy: You don’t think you have a problem.

The ultimate warning sign you might be headed for “frugality disease”? – When the way you handle money starts to negatively affect your relationships with others and your quality of living. For instance, you can never have fun or relax with others normally because you’re unwilling to spend money (or even time, which equals money).

As some say, there’s no point in making money if you’re not spending it or allocating it for a specific purpose. If you can’t enjoy your hard-earned money without guilt, then maybe it’s time to re-examine whether your version of frugality is really healthy. In my shopping example, reminding myself of these truths helped me turn around my thinking so I was finally able to enjoy the things I’d bought for myself… without guilt.

Does anyone else struggle with extreme frugality, spending guilt, or even OCPD?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Caroline says:

    I have known a family who, via the father, definitely suffered from this. He was a successful, high-earning lawyer. They had not one but two big properties in a very expensive, sought-after area, one as a rental, one they lived in. They only had these because at the time they bought, property was very cheap there, and they built themselves, using every penny-pinching, cheap-alternative, corner-cutting method and screwing contractors down to the last cent. As you can imagine, the houses were… jerry-built, to say the least. But the obsession with frugality was all-encompassing and extended to haggling over the smallest, least consequential things, never, under any circumstances tipping generously (or at all if they could avoid it, regardless of occasion), really, really stingy people. And the thing is, it was completely unnecessary. They had really got lots and lots of money, but the very idea of things like new shoes for the kids… well,that was agonising for him in particular. He’d been raised in dire poverty by a single mum (unmarried, which was desperately shameful back then too), and lived in some hideous places while she scrabbled to survive and the fear of ”not enough” haunted him.

    The rental property – amazingly – eventually needed some basic repairs (huge shocker!), but eventually the tenants witheld rent because of the ridiculous level of push back on just doing them. Things like fixing taps, guttering, sorting out a few electric issues, replacing bits and pieces… NO! ”I’m not made of money”… but then got all hysterical when they did an inspection and found various areas in extremely poor repair… illogical, and self-defeating. Holidays were… only ever camping and ideally ”staying with good friends” (ie never chipping in anything they could avoid and never helping with utilities because ”friendship isn’t about money”). They lost many friends that way, Sad really.

    • David @ says:

      I know a few people like that. I feel sorry for them because the money they’ve accumulated should be a blessing but it is instead limiting them.

      • Caroline says:

        Yes, that’s precisely it. They lost friends over the years and even the ones they still have nudge each other when the inevitable poverty-pleading starts or they start trying to wriggle very blatantly out of paying their way.

        My own mother, a very generous hostess, flatly refused to have them over for a (free) meal when they were in her area, and she is the most willing cook and party planner I know!

        • David @ says:

          That’s sad, but hey, at least everyone knows their social life is entirely due to their own actions.

  • Latoya says:

    Ive never heard of frugality disrase before. It certainly makes sense though and thankfully Im nit a sufferer!

    • David @ says:

      The distance between healthy and unhealthy can be surprisingly small. Keep it up though and you’ll reach the promise land in no time!

  • Arminius Aurelius says:

    My parents came from Germany about 1926 . They met the evening before they boarded the ship. My Grandfather told this young man , watch out for my daughter. My father was sponsored by family in northern N.J. and my Mother by family in the Bronx , N.Y. They were about 1 hour apart. Neither could speak English and both had to pay back the cost of the ship fare. About 3 years later they married and in 1931 they had me.

    Father was an Iron worker but in 1929 after the economy crashed, his hours were cut down to 20 hours a week. But that did not deter him, he went to the wealthy areas of town and found extra work. They were very thrifty and within 7 or 8 years they bought a duplex house. They taught me thrift which to this day I do not waste money.

    One day at the dinner table, I asked for a 2nd piece of chicken, my mother said the remaining chicken was for the next days dinner but I could have more vegetables or salad. To this day, I do not eat more than about 4 ounces of meat, not the 8 to 12 ounces of meat some restaurants offer. I take the rest home for a second meal. I always look for good deals, Buy 1, Get 1 Free, etc. or other coupons in the newspaper. I hate to waste money even though I can readily afford it. I bought bankrupt restaurants over the years and succeeded.

    I’m financially quite well off but still HATE to waste money. I do live the good life, have a condo in a high rise overlooking the ocean but to this day, evenings I only have 1 light on in any room. Always remembered the old saying, a SMALL leak [ $ $ ] can sink a large ship.

    • David @ says:

      You have a great story Arminius. You are the testament of “keep working hard” and opportunities will eventually come your way.

  • freebird says:

    I’m one who strongly prefers income over outgo. I’m happy that I earn more than most and spend less than most. Last year my top three expenses were IRS, CA state tax (1/3 of IRS), and apartment rent (half of CA state tax). All of my other expenses added up to less than 1/4 of my rent. Based on these numbers my family calls me ‘financially constipated’.

    But I don’t think of myself as ‘frugal’, because that means I am saving to spend later. No, my standard of living was set in my youth, which some Americans may see as ‘deprived’, but I’ve always been quite satisfied with. I just don’t think spending more makes me any happier– and what’s the point of spending if it doesn’t improve your life? My siblings did the lifestyle inflation thing to varying degrees, and it seems to make them happy, so great for them. But it didn’t work for me.

    Usually people think of spending in its proportion to income, but I see the two as not necessarily linked. Yes it’s risky to spend more than your income, but I think it’s perfectly fine to spend less than your income. I get a buzz from scoring a bonus at work or taking a nice profit in the stock market, but the idea of shopping for luxury goods makes me cringe. Maybe in the back of my mind I don’t think my elevated income entitles me to live better than someone who earns less?

    Perhaps my attitude of being ‘above it all’ may be regarded as arrogant, but I think it’s healthier than stretching to splash out on things to post on Facebook. I see the prevalence of that behavior on social media as a weapon of mass financial destruction.

    • David @ says:

      Facebook IS financially dangerous in so many ways. Some people spend more just to impress others while some look at all those photos and think everyone is living it up and therefore they should too.

      And it’s awesome you have the capacity to live life the way you want to without following the herd of the consumed world, especially when you live in an area with a high cost of living.

  • Paul Karabatich says:

    I suffer from this. Anti-psychotic medication has helped.

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