When Does Frugality Become Miserliness?

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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

Comments

  1. Krb Saurabh says:

    Every one has own version of frugality and misery. Infact, it is better to be called a ‘frugal’, for sure it will never lead to empty wallet with no infamy. While misery will somehow catches a bad stingy reputation; I think so. Any way these all words are catchy topic for gossip-mongers.

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    • Hi Saurabh,

      Welcome to the blog. The word ‘Frugal’ is double-edged, I think. The frugal person’s loved ones also sometimes call him or her a miser. Whereas everyone likes the guy who hosts the party and pays the bill – as long as the money keeps coming, of course.

      So I was just wondering whether there is an inherent social bias against being frugal. Whether we unconsciously work against being thought of as miserly.

      Like

  2. Sasikanth Gudla says:

    I would also look at it in a different way – Spending on what you need and what you want. Here too, you can draw a spectrum and/or rings. And yeah, it is good to be frugal.

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  3. Sasikanth Gudla says:

    And my parents say in Telugu “Andari kante adrushtavandu evaru ante – appu leni vaadu”

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    • Hi Sasi,

      Thanks for the comment. Need versus want is a good thumb rule. I think most of us have a spectrum of ‘wants’ that we simply cannot do without. Internet is perhaps one of my must-haves now, much more than a want, almost a need. For the vast majority of people, the internet is a luxury.

      So it’s a tricky problem. I’m forever trying to be on the frugal side without stepping over to miserliness. But maybe I am.

      Like

  4. Falguni srikanth says:

    I would not mind being called stingy but won’t spend on all material things just to show off and also won’t mind being called spendthrift When I spend to see a smile on my loved ones face or spend to help a friend or spend to be more comfortable….have I made my point?

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  5. People who want to talk, will talk, irrespective. The biggest mistake we do (IMO) is to listen to others’ opinion of us. Many of my relatives get shockers while trying to give their enlightened opinion to me. So they’ve stopped 😛

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    • Haha, I can only imagine what you say to them. I once got asked about my salary in the middle of a quiet gathering of thirty people in my parents’ living room. The person who asked the question did it with a straight face, and of course he meant no offence. So I just gave him the answer and hoped that he was impressed – or at least not unimpressed.

      I clearly don’t have your balls.

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  6. Have to agree with Destination Infinity’s comment above, we let ourselves be guided a little too much by others’ opinion of us and our lifestyles. As for me, I know what is reasonable for me and my guests and therefore set the expectations reasonably clear with them upfront so that they are not too surprised or shocked based on how much I spend in entertaining them.

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    • Hi Jai,

      Yes, that expectation setting is important, I think, and it is probably easier to do with people we’re not close with. Has it ever happened that someone from your ‘inner circle’ (read family) disagreed with your opinion? Say you wanted to spend ‘x’ amount on something and the other person wants to spend x + y. That is when I think it becomes harder to reach an agreement – at least in my experience.

      While I also don’t allow myself to be swayed by other people’s opinion, I do care about the opinion of a certain small clutch of people whom I call family. When they disagree with me or when they call me names, then I sit back and take stock.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely the same case with me also Sharath, when either my parents or my wife feels that I am getting to be a little too frugal and bordering on miserly, they let me know, and immediate corrective action is taken 😀

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  7. This is very thought-provoking. I eat yesterday’s rice if I didn’t eat it all yesterday. Seems pointless to waste it – it’s still good. I add it to salad, and it’s lovely.

    My budget is tiny and I’m sure many would judge my life as miserly. But people who judge will judge whatever you do, so you might as well do what you choose. I find it helps me to live on a small budget – helps me focus on what really matters to me, helps me not to waste, allows me to work less so that I can be richer in time (which I value more than money and possessions). If I am being so frugal that I’m feeling deprived and denying myself anything more than the bare essentials, then I would rethink my priorities – I try to budget for nice, inessential things in addition to essentials, but they don’t have to be expensive, and tend to satisfy me just as much as something more expensive would.

    But I am single, so it’s easier to do as I please. If you are married, of course you have to work together with your spouse, because you have shared finances, so the decisions are shared. So I guess you come to some kind of compromise, based on both your priorities, respecting each other.

    To me, stinginess is more about how you treat others rather than what you spend on yourself, and it’s more about an attitude of mind, rather than about money. To me, generosity of spirit is the most important thing, whether or not you have money and possessions to share. People can be generous with money but stingy with time and love.

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    • Hi Gail,

      Thanks for your comment. I like your observation that stinginess is self-centered whereas frugality is more ‘generous’. Now that you mention it, while my parents often thought long and hard about how much to spend on themselves, they very rarely turned away people looking for help of any kind. So I personally relate to what you said.

      Thanks again for visiting. Do come again 🙂

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  8. This is a really nice post. Striking a balance between being tightfisted and frugal is not easy but sometimes depending upon one’s need as well as the situation’s demand, we can come down to a realistic conclusion. Maybe then would we be able to satisfy our needs, happily.

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    • Hi Shreya,

      Welcome to the blog, and thanks for leaving a comment. I agree that most of us have to find that personal space where we’re just frugal enough. I think we should also talk to those immediately around us and find out what ‘their’ definitions are, and then tailor our behaviour to suit. Otherwise it could get a little rocky.

      Like

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