I had lunch with Andy’s stepsister a few weeks ago. She is easily one of my favorite people on the planet, but circumstances usually mean we only see each other when surrounded by other family and rarely have moments to hang out together. After a brief surprise visit with her 14-month old daughter, her mom and Andy’s dad, we got a chance to dig in about life and love and more life.
Because I love to hear about people’s finances, we eventually got around to hers and she revealed something that is so common with middle class Americans right now: Frugality Fatigue. It is exactly what is sounds like, you’re tired of being frugal, you want a change, but you can’t find where in your budget to make it work.
The years of recession (that we still don’t seem to be out of even though we technically are) made everyone tighten their belts a little. Most of us did an honest combing of our budgets and took out what we thought was superfluous spending so we could live on the bare minimum and not feel stressed about our incomes.
The problem is that now we are so over making these small trimmings, constantly checking our spending, and the guilt that comes with the occasional splurge that some people are giving up the frugal lifestyle in a big way and maxing out their credit cards on all the stuff they’ve been wanting but avoiding for years.
Now there are several explanations for this. When I was going to school at Florida State University, one of my psych professors was doing amazing, ground-breaking research into willpower. His work is now being applied mostly to our ability to diet and stick to eating and exercise regimens, but it can just as easily be applied to our spending habits.
Dr. Baumeister argues that willpower is like a muscle. There’s a certain point where it fatigues, but we have the ability to make it stronger. Since money=food=money, the best way to describe this is like at the end of a day of dieting, you come home and just give in and eat a ton of ice cream (I know nothing about this). Similarly, we do a lot of spending we feel guilty about on the weekends or on our days off. This is because we’ve been carefully walking past the coffee shop or our favorite craft shop all week and all we want is a break for Christ’s sake. And so we take it. We spend and spend and spend until we feel better. We get that high that comes from shopping and we release a bunch of tension.
But now we feel guilty that we spent all that money when we really need to be saving for retirement or don’t have it in the budget or in the bank in some cases. And then we buckle down, swear we won’t spend another penny and find ourselves in the same position a week later, totally blowing our paycheck.
Or for some of us, the cycle is slightly different. You’re in a place now where you’ve been living a lifestyle, with tiny indulgences, but overall fairly frugal, and now you want to be able to just spend your money without feeling so pinched or guilty.
So what’s a consumer to do? We have messages all over the place telling us about the economy is recovering slower than anticipated. The jobs report is mediocre at best, no one is hiring, people are still being laid off. Are we next?
The solution is simple, but not easy. First, identify what it is you want your life to look like. Are your most satisfying purchases eating out with friends? Growing your garden? Buying books? Expanding your wardrobe? Whatever it is, that is where you concentrate on spending your extra money. The other stuff, just let it go.
No, seriously, just let it go.
You don’t need your latte a day if your idea of a good time is traveling. Buy a espresso maker at Ikea for $5 and the milk frother for $3 and make them at home. There is always a solution to this problem and it usually involves reminding yourself what your goals are and refocusing your life.
And second, save your money.
I know I just told you you could spend, but I’m talking about things you already know about: your emergency fund, your retirement, these are all things that are built into your budget. As long as you’re on track for those, you’re fine. And if you’re kept up at night over the volatility of your industry (um, hello artists) then funnel some more money into your emergency savings and make some tough choices about entertainment, eating out and where your discretionary income goes.
My point is, you know where it hurts, you know what keeps you up at night, and you know what you shouldn’t be spending your money on. Listen to your gut on this, it knows what it’s talking about.