As someone constantly looking to better his relationship with money and wealth, I find that three words dominate my head space more than others. They are spendthrift, frugality and miserliness.
I find subtle hints all over my social milieu that casts a dark shadow upon people who are tightfisted. One of my aunts is known in the family circle for being stingy. My old grandmother used to say about her: In that house, you get yesterday’s rice to eat and torn blankets to sleep on. Wherever my aunt went, people gathered and whispered about her, pointing fingers, wondering what they were doing with all their money, why they lived ‘like paupers’.
On the other hand, the spendthrift gets all his time in the sun. Parents who marry their children off in grand style, men who buy expensive cars and wear super-branded clothes, women who wear jewellery and gold-lined saris – they’re often looked at with envy. While no one but a few insiders know of their true financial states, by the majority consensus, these people are rich. If they can afford to buy an Audi, the reasoning goes, how much more would they have stashed away?
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that society glorifies spending. Not only that, it is quick to deride frugal people as misers. Is that why we allow advertising to pick our pockets so often and so easily? Because we know that spending automatically accords us status?
But are all frugal people stingy? Is it possible to be one without the other?
Where does frugality end and miserliness begin?
Here’s an interesting post that talks about this: Frugal vs Stingy
I used to think I come from a frugal family. My parents have never taken on debt in their lives. They’ve told me in no uncertain terms that no matter what I did with my life, getting into debt was simply not an option. We always spent less than we earned. Clothes, watches and shoes were worn for years. When every other doctor in town drove a car, my father still rode a bicycle.
But now I’m thinking: are we misers? I know for a fact that one of my uncles likes to make fun of my parents for being ‘miserly’. It won’t surprise me at all if there is a running joke in the family that we don’t know ‘how to live’.
In our first ‘money conversation’ as a married couple, my wife told me in as many words that I was stingy. Now she calls me ‘cautious’, but that’s just to my face. You never know what they say behind your back, right?
Clearly this is not a binary issue. There is a spectrum of behaviour that goes from being extremely loose-handed to being extremely tightfisted. At the lower end of the scale, the danger signs are easy to spot: if you’re consistently spending more than you earn, there’s obviously a problem. If at the end of every month you’re standing in front of the moneylender’s house, you had better take some steps to remedy the situation right away.
But what about the other end?
Unfortunately, no such alarm bells exist at the other end of the scale. Is it possible to be a bit too frugal? How do you know when your caution and care cross the line and make you a miser?
My father once had to endure a visit to a friend’s house during which he got nothing but a glass of warm beer and no snacks to go with it. On returning home he fumed and called them tightwads. My mother looked up from her book and said, ‘Who knows? Maybe people are calling us tightwads too.’
Like just about everything else, it’s all relative to where you are. Those above you are misers. Those below are spendthrifts. No matter which rung of the ladder you sit on, it’s the right rung. Of course.
It also depends on the kind of company you keep. If most of your friends are used to a high-consumption lifestyle, if you refuse to fall in with their habits, you will get called a miser. And vice versa. In a group of conservative people, a free-handed spender is likely to be chided as being careless.
I ask this question because it’s important for us to be comfortable in our frugality. To not be ashamed of it. To be able to see past those who call us misers.
How do you differentiate between frugality and miserliness? Have you noticed the same thing that I have, that in our society, lavish spending is given more praise than thrift? What is the line beyond which ‘cautious’ becomes ‘stingy’?
Image Courtesy: Blue Sky Disney