Can You Be Too Frugal?

by Katy on April 19, 2009 · 26 comments

Credit Cards

Sometimes I think I might be going over the deep end. I host potlucks, garden exclusively with free plants, attend swaps, hang laundry in the sun and compulsively keep an eye on my family’s food waste. (Tonight was the last of the leftover chili baked with cornbread on top.)

But has my obsession with frugality gone too far?Β 

I’m going to say no, because my frugality is tied to a goal, and that goal is to live debt free. I currently have some credit debt that is tied to some large unexpected home expenses, (Brand new $5000 sewer line plus $2000 to de-commission the old oil tank.)

Tell me again why home ownership is the American dream?

But the act of getting this debt paid down as quickly as possible makes me feel great, like I’m in control of my finances andΒ my life. And we are motoring through getting this paid off. And every time I make a choice to save $3 here or $1 there, it’s a concrete step towards living the debt free life I want for myself.

And my next goal?Β 

Create an emergency fund to deal with the never ending emergencies that seem to be tied to owning a 95 year old house!

At what point do you think frugality goes too far? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy April 20, 2009 at 7:15 am

It’s going to far if you find that you are cutting back on having fun in order to save, especially if there is nothing to save for. In your case, paying off debt is a great idea, especially quickly if there is interest involved. It seems like you put a lot of effort into making sure you still get some trips in, and doing fun things with the family all on the cheap – and that’s important. As long as you keep those up, I’d say being frugal is just fine.

You’re in a good position though being able to work per diem. I know people who work full time, make much more money than they need to live by, and then just waste it on junk because they have the money. Somehow they are also the ones buying things more expensive than they can afford because they think they are well off and can pay it down quickly, even if they can’t.

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Stephanie April 20, 2009 at 7:42 am

Do you think people who work 40+ a week and make good money buy “things” to replace what is missing in there lives? Which very well could be fun. My Aunt did that very thing, and still does really, she is just being careful not to “run” her cards up again. It is crazy to just assume because you have credit available to you, and because you have enough money to make the minimum payments every month, that buying “things” is a good idea…my Aunt lost her dream home because she had to sell and pay off debt. But she still has 3 house loads worth of furniture to furnish with. CRAZY!!
I definitely agree that you do still need to have fun with your family, and do things for yourself once in awhile. I think we need to re-write our ideas on what fun is and what has to happen or be bought to have fun. πŸ™‚

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Meg from FruWiki April 20, 2009 at 8:13 am

I think it is hard for a normal person to be too frugal (i.e. “not wasteful”). However, if you have obsessive compulsive disorder or tendencies and can’t get rid of anything or spend far too much time trying to fully empty containers then there is a problem. Though, then again, I’d consider those wastes of space and time, respectively, and therefore not really frugal.

Of course, there are definitely people who are CHEAP. That’s when you save money at the expense of others and it can also be very wasteful of resources other than money (or often even money in the longer term!).

Anyhow, nothing you mentioned doing sounds like something to worry about! I applaud your efforts! And it’s great to have goals to help motivate you!

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GLM April 20, 2009 at 8:56 am

Can you go into WHY you propose the question? If the answer is obviously no, it seems a bit silly to ask in the first place.

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Angela April 20, 2009 at 10:11 am

I think the question is partly rhetorical, in that it is making each of us think about it. I would agree that a person can be too frugal, if it takes over your life and makes you consider every single little thing through that lens, what I would call penny-pinching. Or as Meg suggests, being cheap, which can be at the expense of others.

I like Stephanie’s point about rewriting our idea of what fun is. Fun activities certainly don’t have to cost a lot of money, and that is one thing I love about Katy’s blog- the whole idea of having a rich and fun but frugal life.

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Kristin @ klingtocash April 20, 2009 at 11:39 am

I agree with the first poster. When you get to the point where you aren’t enjoying life to be frugal and save for tomorrow, you are being too frugal. After I was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I reevaluated out lives. While I am still very frugal, if friends of ours are going to dinner and I haven’t seen them in weeks, we find the money to go without charging it.

My husband worked with a guy who saved his entire life and worked long hours so that he and his wife could enjoy their retirement. A week before he was scheduled to retire, his wife passed away suddenly. He spent all those years sacrificing only to lose her right as they were about to start enjoying themselves.

Don’t be so frugal that you don’t enjoy yourself today. Those of us who are frugal tend to find fun very inexpensively.

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marzapan April 20, 2009 at 12:26 pm

In my case, sometimes time is more valuable than money. By this I mean, I’d rather spend a little bit more grocery shopping in just two stores that I really like (TJ’s and a local greengrocer) rather than schlepping all over town with two small kids in tow to try to score the best deals.

Also, sometimes the lure of really cheap or free stuff causes me to acquire stuff I don’t need. Which is a waste of time and closet space.

Lastly, I would say that the clothes in my closet that have lasted the longest, and given me the most pleasure, have been on expensive side. You really do get what you pay for most of the time. I love buying clothes second-hand now, but I am trying to go for the quality items that aren’t as subject to the whims of fashion, and that are durable, even if they cost me a few more dollars.

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Kristen@The Frugal Girl April 20, 2009 at 12:58 pm

I think that it’s gone too far when you start to be really selfish with your money(which could show in a lack of generosity or in things like feeding your family cheap foods they hate so you can save a buck).

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blackgirlinmaine April 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Like another poster stated, I think frugality goes too far when you feel you aren’t living or enjoying life. This is something that I grapple with, I strive to be frugal but at times I have what I call a let go day. Recently this has involved taking an outing with the family, just something as simple as hitting up a museum or having lunch.

I have a ton of debt and with a self-employed spouse money is always tight but when it reaches the point when we feel like all we do is work and stay home, I know we need a brief break.

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Ducky April 20, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Frugality goes too far when you are willing to trade in quality or personal ethics, for a good deal. I don’t mind spending more money on canned food at the co-op then I would at a big box store (produce and dry stuff is cheaper at the co-op) because I know that my money is going to a good cause, and the food is being grown by well compensated, ecologically responsible farmers (and that my tomato sauce isn’t part of America’s corn glut).

Frugality also goes too far when it leads to buying and replacing used or super super cheap products that you don’t like rather then paying a little extra for something that will last. I felt more financially responsible spending $50 on a pair of well made vegan dress shoes to wear to work, then I did back in the days where I spent $5-10 on ill-fitting flats from Payless Shoes that fell apart every 2-3 months.

I’m not sure how one hits the point of frugality where life becomes unenjoyable (to me that sounds like being super broke, not being super cheap), but hitting that definitely qualifies as too frugal as well.

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Yoshemi April 20, 2009 at 5:18 pm

I think it’s very possible to be too frugal. When I was in my early twenties I didn’t fly to some of weddings of college friends because I didn’t have the money and never wanted to have credit card debt. I still regret that choice. A few hundred dollars of credit card debt would have been worth being there and showing those friends how much I care about them.
Frugality is just a means to an end. We have to keep that end in sight–whether it be having fun, nurturing our connection to the planet, or cultivating our relationships with others. I try not to let frugality get in the way of what I truly value anymore.

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Kate@AnExerciseInFrugality April 20, 2009 at 5:44 pm

I found myself in a coffee shop this weekend and after adding some sugar to my coffee, I looked down and saw a used stir stick lying atop a napkin on the very tippee top of the trash heap (well within reach). I thought about picking it up and using it, but then thought – Nah! “Too frugal!” πŸ˜‰

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Tracy April 20, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I think that I would start on the emergency fund RIGHT NOW, before another emergency happens that causes you to go into more debt. That is assuming that you’re making more than the minimum payments on the debts you already have. Take some of that more-than-minimum and sock it away for an emergency, so you don’t add to your debt at a bad time.

I just got laid off, and I have substantial debt, but I also have some money in an emergency fund, AND I have a fully-stocked pantry. The only things I’ll want for, food-wise, are fresh produce and dairy. And unemployment insurance will pay most of the bills.

I understand completely wanting to become debt-free, but you really need to think of what else could go wrong and whether or not you have enough cash or savings to deal with that possibility without going deeper into debt.

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Klara Le Vine April 20, 2009 at 8:51 pm

Katy, you are so amazing in always finding topics that are meaningful to me. We have had a car, sort of like your house, that has been costing us a great deal in repairs, but I love (loved) that car. The last few months it had a water leak that the garage could only repair with great expense, so I decided I would just refill the water every morning. Yesterday it burst and I was told the engine went, something costing way more than a ten year old car is worth spending on. The intentions were to sell the car a few months back and get a little money out of it, as we had just bought a new (one year old used) car – but I was so excited to have my own car that I wanted to hold on to it. Now I can’t.

One of the things I used to do was carry boxes and boxes and boxes of vegetables that our local market were going to throw out – but my husband has warned me that I’m not to do that with the new car (sometimes some old vegetables “leak” and can get into the carpet – pretty horrible smell) – so I sit here now bemoaning that I can’t get the old vegetables (I composted them) – for my husband that’s frugality going too far (yes, I do compost all of our peels etc, but still I know lots more is going wasted)

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Betsy at Married with Luggage April 21, 2009 at 12:14 am

Frugal does not mean cheap. Frugal is defined as “economy in the use of resources.” Whether you are saving money, time, or the environment, frugal is the way to go. I don’t think you can become “over-frugal” (or is that under-extravagant?), but you can easily slip into “cheap” territory, and that can go wrong fast. The lowest price is not always the best deal.

We paid off our credit card debt a few years ago and live well below our means now. I don’t want to live a cheap life, but I’m enjoying the heck out of this frugal one.

Happy to have found you through the Year Without Spending Blog.

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Gerard Kiernan April 21, 2009 at 3:59 am

I think that you know you’ve gone to far is when you notice that all you are thinking about is money or how to save it!
I am thinking that aligning spending with income so that the amount of mental real estate that money occupies is small is a good goal, not that I am there.

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Jessica April 21, 2009 at 7:35 am

I think frugality has gone too far when you are no longer enjoying yourself. Everyone needs to have some positive reinforcement and sometimes when you are being frugal to reach a goal it is a goal that takes some time to achieve. Not that anything is wrong with that and one should not give up for that reason, but sometimes when you are feeling a little down and out, it is time to enjoy yourself and the fruits of being frugal. I believe there is such a thing as being frugal and enjoying life. Some people are frugal because they have to be and for those people, I think it is easier to become depressed about having to be that way. For those who do it because they want to, and don’t necessarily have to, this doesn’t happen as quickly or even at all. Either way, no matter what the sitution, I think it becomes too much when you stop smiling and feeling good about being that way.

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tammy April 21, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Katy, what a great point to ponder today. I think frugality backfires if you’re just not having fun with it. My sister uses coupons and sales and pays nearly nothing for groceries. She says it is a “game” and she has fun with it. I also realize some people confuse frugality with poverty, and using coupons makes them feel poor.
Being frugal really is simple perception. I am happily frugal. My significant other would be miserable using coupons and free offers and waiting on sales.
Frugality makes me feel in control, wealthy and confident that no matter what happens, I’ve put safety nets in place to help navigate the unexpected plunges life sometimes dishes out!

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Sierra April 22, 2009 at 8:01 am

A few days ago I was working in the garden with my kids. The ten-year-old wooden boards that contain our raised beds have finally rotted and fallen apart, and I’m replacing them with spare paving stones and cinder blocks that I found in a stack at the back of the yard.

The boards have a lot of rusty nails in them, and as I broke them down for the trash, I was pulling out the rusty nails to save for a craft project I’m planning to do next month that requires 3″ nails.

Then I stopped and thought, “I”m saving rusty nails. Maybe I’m taking this frugal/green living thing a little far.”

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SR April 23, 2009 at 4:39 am

i think frugal goes too far when your wardrobe starts to suffer, like one poster said the rotate through the same 3 outfits and someone told them to go on what not wear. Im afraid of getting to this point. There are plenty of used clothes, lots coming out of peoples closets still with tags on, that make it easy to be frugal and nice looking.
Katy i love love love your blog but when you said you buy one pack on panties for the next three years then i thought you have gone off the deep end. πŸ™‚
i agree also if you are making a purchase that is *only* frugal without taking into consideration environmental issues, social issues and personal ethics then its gone too far
thanks great post

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David A. Pender, LOBC Angel Food Coordinator April 23, 2009 at 8:11 am

Being frugal is just being smart in my opinion. You never know when you could lose a job, have medical issues, or anything drastic like that.

The only caution I would offer is to not get to the point of letting your frugality harm your health or family. Don’t re-use toilet paper, etc. πŸ™‚

One of the things we started doing was buying food through Angel Food Ministries (http://www.angelfoodministries.com). It saved us so much and is such a wonderful thing for the community in general, I helped get a host site set up at our church.

You can search their site by zip code to see if there is a host site in your area.

God Bless!

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thenonconsumeradvocate April 23, 2009 at 9:35 am

SR,

Please note that my pack of underwear was eight pairs.

Sorry if this is too much information. ; )

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate

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Barb April 23, 2009 at 9:18 pm

I am now frugal by choice but 5 years ago and back I was frugal because I didn’t have a choice. There were many times when I could not even afford to buy milk. Having less than $5.00 in your bank account is a horrible feeling; so defeating.
Now from years of being frugal by force I am frugal by choice because I know it really is a sensible way to live.
I love being frugal by choice. Yesterday after looking for about 5 years for second hand window coverings for my huge front window I went online and bought some from Sears. (On sale!) I know I did what I needed to do and didn’t just go by new. I think if I had finally just bought something second hand I hated it would be going to far. (I have done this a lot in the past; again because I had no choice.) It is like my glasses. I can but a really cheap frame but if I feel awful wearing then I have gone too far. I wear my glasses everyday so it is important to me that I feel good.
I guess what I am trying to say is (like the above posters) is you are depriving yourself you are going to far.

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Meg from FruWiki April 24, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Barb,

I’m big into style, but I don’t see a problem with having a small wardrobe — so long as they are clothes that you love and that work for you. I think too many people have huge wardrobes that are hardly functional because they can never find something they actually want to wear and that fits their needs. And it ticks me off when people like that say they can’t afford “nice clothes”, but then they have all these clothes they obviously paid good money for, but they just bought willy nilly. It seems like such a waste.

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Jane Cassidy December 10, 2015 at 10:26 pm

You cross the line from frugal to miserly, when it interferes with good nutrition, loving kindness, health and safety, having a life.

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