Frugality is good. Saving money is good. But unless you’re in a tough financial spot, making your friends and family uncomfortable by holding your personal budget over their heads is not good. The problem is, a lot of us have trouble avoiding this.
Over at The Billfold, one such cheap-o—the aptly named Luv2Save—writes in for tips on becoming less miserly. The advice-seeker has a good salary and healthy savings, but refuses to splurge, which has caused trouble with their partner. Luv2Save writes:
I have a partner who makes significantly less than me, but who has no debt and has some savings. He is by no means careless with money. He thinks I save more than I need and that I should enjoy my life more, since I won’t be in my twenties and childless forever. I think he’s right! We’re moving in together and have had lots of conversations about money and financial goals. He refers to my savings as “my dragon hoard.” I fear my frugality will become something we fight about once we live together.
I’m not super cheap! I do travel! I do tip well! I just balk at appetizers and name-brand cereal not on sale. Okay and fine, I also balk and travel and tipping costs. I do it, but I balk.
First, I just want to say: whatever you “think” you’re going to fight about with someone once you live together is exactly what you’re going to fight about. (Doesn’t mean you won’t also have the distinct pleasure of unpredictable fights, too—and perhaps some unexpected good times, as well.)
But back to the battle between the spender and the saver—who is more correct? The trouble with Luv2Save is not the saving, it’s the balking. Oh, the balking. People often think grumbling is a sensible reaction when faced with a price tag, but the result, if you’re making the purchase anyway, is counterproductive: if you’re fretting over rather than enjoying that nice thing you just bought, it kind of ruins the whole point of splurging.
What’s more, that Luv2Save’s boyfriend is right: There are certain things worth springing for if you’re financially healthy and still relatively free of responsibilities: Going to Europe, snagging a hotel room for the night, buying a delicious meal, dropping everything to spend a weekend on ‘shrooms. We all regret purchases, sure; but just as often, we’re grateful for them—especially when they involve the people we love.
But this got me thinking: What does it really mean to be cheap, anyway? Do just put this label on others when they don’t want to buy the same stuff we do? For instance, there is an ongoing debate in our house over what lunch should cost. Is $30 for two people too much? That seems to be the going rate in these parts, and no matter how hard my husband tries, he cannot will it back down to $19. Is he cheap, or am I nuts? (Answer: We are both both.)
And, just to be clear, I’m not talking about when you actually don’t have the money. Everyone has a right to restrict their lifestyle in accordance to their budget—and no matter what your budget is, no one should feel pressured to drop major bones just to hang out with friends. But when a person has money, and savings, and is still having trouble living, that’s reflective of a deeper issue. At a certain point, refusing to have a little fun or spend some cash on things you want to do means you’re not really taking good care of yourself.
Some might argue that many of life’s most pleasurable purchases are best cut out entirely. Luckily, financial experts have made a compelling case for why your latte, for example, is probably worth still getting, and that you can still save money in other, less painful, areas. Writing at Business Insider, Lydia Dallet notes that such kill-the-latte advice “assumes that coffee drinkers value the money they’d save by not buying expensive lattes more than the amount of time they save and pleasure they get by doing so.”
Wang argues that if buying that latte makes you happy and more productive, it doesn’t make sense to cut it out for the sake of a few extra dollars a day. What’s important, he says, is to be intentional about your spending: “Save in the areas you don’t care about so you can spend in the areas you do care about.”
But in the areas where you do choose to save, how can you avoid those awkward “Um, I’d rather not split the check evenly” moments? This is tough, but the only way to do so completely is to keep the cheap to yourself. If you choose to attend a big birthday dinner, assume you might be paying more than you’d like. Don’t be a cheap evangelist. It’s one thing to pass on a good bit of financial wisdom you’ve picked up, but if you refuse to ever indulge with others, you’re not just taking the air out of their tires—you’re holding yourself back, too.
The Rambling Man’s advice is salient. He recommends that Luv2Save make a very important distinction:
When you buy only Honey Nut Jolly-Os and Archduke Chocolinis for yourself, that’s frugality. When you insist on them for your partner, who fondly recalls his wholesome Iowa childhood by gazing on the Cheerios or Count Chocula box while shoveling cereal into his mouth in the morning, you are being miserly.
He tells the advice seeker to spend a month indulging on food, movies, little things, all without thinking too much about it. Not to break the bank, but to understand that sometimes, you can do this sort of thing and it works out fine—even better than fine.
The thing about money-saving talk is that it nearly always preaches the gospel of, well, religion: Suffer now, reap the rewards later. Of course, the other end of the spectrum is making it rain like there’s no tomorrow, and that’s not going to cover your blood pressure meds two decades from now. But find a happy medium, and you’ll get both security and a reasonably good time.
Part of the trick with money, so long as we need it to survive, is finding a way to live a life worth having and still be prepared for later. This is never explained enough—how to enjoy your actual time on earth, the longer part, the part up front, and still be able to cover the back end. The conventional wisdom rewards that librarian who never left the house and reused her sandwich bags or whatever, only to retire with millions in the bank. But I don’t want that life, and you shouldn’t either. Because I don’t want to spend my time re-washing goddamn sandwich bags.
There’s an Oscar Wilde quote from Lady Windemere’s Fan about cynicism: “A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” So it is with a miserly person, as The Billfold defines it. For that person, the relevant issue is an item’s cost, rather than value in experience. And this can really suck the fun out of a good brunch.