The frugal gene bypassed me – my struggle with frugality

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My parents are frugal.

My grandparents were frugal.

I am not frugal.

Somehow the frugal gene bypassed a generation.

What I should be doing is deep diving into the last 12 months’ of spending and look at where I can save more. But I am so depressed by my results that I am actively avoiding it.

I have binge watched a whole series on Netflix, read far more blogs today than usual, done household chores,  completed online modules for a course for work … all very productive tasks, but all in the name of avoiding my spending habits of the last 12 months.

At the back of my mind, I am wondering why I am not more frugal than I am. After all, I had great examples growing up.

Definition of Frugal

So what is the definition of frugal?

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines frugal as

‘Sparing or economical as regards money or food’ and also

‘Simple and plain and costing little’

The meaning of frugal as expressed above seem very reasonable – who doesn’t want to live a simpler life? Who doesn’t want to spend less money?

Intellectually, I understand the need to be frugal on my FI journey – the less money I spend, the more money I have to save and invest. I even wrote about it here.

I also understand that I need to increase my income if I am not able to reduce my spending. Right now I am seriously contemplating reducing my full time hours for the sake of my mental health. So increasing income may not be easily achievable. Which leads back to reducing my spending and being frugal.

So why does being frugal evoke such negative emotions in me?

I will start from the beginning …

My money story

I wrote about my money story a while ago. My parents grew up in post Second World War Malaysia in poor families. I however, grew up in a typical middle class setting, not wanting for anything. I always had enough clothes, a roof over my head and more than enough food. We moved to Australia for a better future. I live a privileged life.

My parents taught me to always turn off the lights if we were not in the room and not to waste water. We certainly did not waste food – leftovers would be served till all is consumed. We did not use cling wrap or aluminium foil – they always used a plate turned upside down to cover leftover dishes in the fridge. Glass jars and plastic ice cream containers were hoarded to be used to store other stuff. Plastic bags were never thrown away – instead they were reused – as garbage bags mainly.

They taught me about the need to save for a rainy day, to invest in a house of my own, to work hard and save some more.

I started earning money

When I completed my university studies, there were not many jobs in my profession. I picked up shifts here and there and finally settled down to a full time job about a year later. I am still with the same employer to this day.

It was such a relief to find stable, full time work. It meant I didn’t have to be so careful with my money. I was living at home and didn’t need to pay for housing or food costs. I had a lot of disposable income … it felt good to spend my money on whatever made me happy.

A lot of things made me happy. Unfortunately.

Things like clothes, shoes (I LOVE shoes), books. I indulged in eating out and developed a taste for gourmet food. Imported French cheese, anyone? Luckily, I don’t drink – alcohol does not agree with me – otherwise I imagine I would be spending a lot on expensive red wine. Or craft beer.

Cheese room at South Melbourne Market’s Emerald Deli

I reckon I bought something every weekend. My therapy was to visit shopping centres and ostensibly, to window shop but invariably would end up with a purchase.

I also loved going on holidays and never stayed in a hostel. Travel hacking wasn’t a thing in the early days either.

At the same time, I was trying to save for a deposit for a house purchase.

When I was discouraged by the lack of success in house hunting, I booked a holiday away. Because I deserve some time out from the stress of house hunting. From the stress of saving hard for a deposit. How self sabotaging is that?

Spending money is fun.

Then I bought a house

Writing a cheque for the deposit at the conclusion of the auction was scary. Very grown up.

I spent a LOT of money that weekend. 5 figure sum for the deposit plus a 6 figure mortgage. Very grown up indeed.

But that was just the beginning.

I proceeded to fill my house with things. 

When I wasn’t working the weekend shifts for penalty rates, I was shopping for ‘things for the house’.

I bought new furniture and household appliances. Linens and crockery. Kitchen gadgets and baking paraphernalia.

When I ran out of space, I bought more shelves.

Experiences instead of stuff

The house is chock full of stuff. After a while, even I acknowledge that there is nothing else to buy ‘for the house’.

Now I start buying experiences – baking classes, cooking lessons and more holidays – travel experiences. The best is a combination of these …

Learning how to make paella in Barcelona

I don’t regret these purchases – learning a new technique, a new concept, experiencing new cultures, taste new foods – it all makes me happy or spark joy, to be on trend 🙂 I have so many wonderful memories of places I have visited and restaurants I have eaten at; theatres and concert halls; markets and laneways.

In the wake of the tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, I am so grateful that I was able to visit her. That I paid to climb up the spire / tower and was up close and personal with her gargoyles; grateful that I was able to enjoy organ recitals one evening in that magnificent space, with the evening sun streaming through her stained glass windows.

Why do I struggle so much with being frugal?

Learning about FIRE, frugality rears its head again in my life. I read of people aiming at only spending $2 per meal, travel hacking, no spend months and DIYing everything.

I am reminded of my parents’ frugality and my Mum’s exhortations to stop buying things.

Whenever Mum visited my house,  she would ask me how much this was, how much that was. I never told her the truth. I learned to hide my expensive taste from her a long time ago. And I can still see her shaking her head sadly, lamenting that I have too much stuff.

All I heard was criticism, not concern.

Just because you are frugal, Mum, doesn’t mean I should be too. And I can afford these purchases. I am proud that I earn enough money to spend on whatever I want whenever I want. That was my definition of wealth.

So the word ‘frugal’ still conjures up negative connotations and emotions in me.

Firstly, I relate it to my Mum criticising me. Criticising my way of life, how I choose to spend my money.

Secondly, I relate it to watching your pennies, to always be careful with every purchase, to worrying about money., being stingy. I relate it to being restricted, constrained, not free.

Thirdly, I equate success with excess, abundance, generosity. Why have two plates from St Vincent de Paul (which is what I had in my student days sharing a flat with my friend) when I can have twelve? I like being generous with my gifts for family and friends.

Finally, I love spending money. Spending money makes me feel good, happy – that burst of endorphins that I can’t get from exercise. Even though I no longer buy things or stuff, I still like to buy experiences.

So where does that leave me?

I fight

against the negative emotions by acknowledging them.

And ‘hearing’ my Mum’s voice in my head as loving concern instead of criticism. She was right – I was buying crap that I didn’t have room for in my house. I was wasting my money. My Mum was right to be concerned.

I re evaluate

what it means to be successful. Yes – excess, abundance and generosity. But not with things. With my time, my relationships. For example, I offer to cook for my friend’s birthday instead of us going out to eat at a restaurant.

I pause

before I make any purchases. Whether they be expensive experiences or that cappuccino I crave because I am stressed at work. I leave it for at least 24 hours and then decide if I still want it. (Not the coffee, of course! Generally 15 minutes later I am okay or I make myself a cup of tea – free at work. Yes, work provides instant coffee too but sorry, I can’t bring myself to go there …)

I identify

what my spending triggers are. When do I spend money? I know I succumb to temptation when I am tired, stressed out, bored and time poor. So I take steps to avoid shopping when I am in these states including grocery or food shopping. I always buy an unhealthy snack if I go to the supermarket tired or cranky or stressed out.

I develop

new habits such as eating everything in my fridge and pantry; only buying what I can consume; brewing coffee in the morning; eating oats for breakfast; bringing lunch to work; wearing an extra layer of clothing indoors in winter; not going to shopping centres for retail therapy and so on.

new skills such as gardening – my dream is to grow a vegetable patch

I learn 

from people who have walked this path. Such as Liz from Frugalwoods  and Jillian from Montana Money Adventures and be inspired to try out their tips and advice on frugality and intentional living.

Final thoughts

Maybe frugality is not a gene so much as a muscle that must be exercised often. It is a mindset where I can be satisfied with less now in order to have more later.

I accept that it is a long process, that I will stuff up sometimes but that I will get back on track again. That at times, I will want to be ‘spendy’ again. Or that I may transfer my love of spending to buying on the stock market!

What about you – do you struggle with frugality too? How do you change your mindset from wanting everything now to having less is more?



17 Replies to “The frugal gene bypassed me – my struggle with frugality”

  1. Awesome article! I think so often we read personal finance bloggers who are already seemingly pros at being frugal and saving money. It’s easy to forget most of us are just figuring out our relationship with finances and what works for us!

    1. Thanks, Haley! Yes, I often feel everyone is very good at being frugal except me 🙂 Good to learn from others and like you said, find what works best for us

  2. “My parents taught me to always turn off the lights if we were not in the room and not to waste water…etc etc”

    This whole paragraph could have been written about my own parents, haha!

    Yet, despite them being frugal, I got into horrendous credit card debt in my 20s ad 30s just from uncontrolled spending and the mad thing was that I never even enjoyed shopping, it was just something I did, spending money was just a past-time, a habit.

    Going back to their frugal ways helped me get out of debt and helps keep me on track with FIRE so perhaps I do still have the frugal gene but it’s not easy to remain focused all the time.

    I do remember the great feeling of spending money and not thinking about consequences and occasionally, I yearn for those days. But I can’t let myself waiver, not when I’ve already come so far.

    All the best with flexing that frugal muscle!

    1. ‘Spending money was just a past-time, a habit’ – me too!

      It’s funny how we rebel first against our parents’ frugal habits then discover they were right after all and adopt those habits ourselves – lucky we had good examples.

      Time to flex those frugal muscles indeed!

  3. I think I was born frugal!
    But nowadays I’m more a Valuist.
    I’ll spend heaps on things I know will add value to my life, but anything that doesn’t??
    Yeah, nah, not going to buy it.

    1. I like that! A Valuist.
      Decide if it adds value to my life then spend on it otherwise, no.
      Hmmm … I like that a lot! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Your origin story sounds very much like mine!

    I had parents and grandparents who grew up poor. My parents were frugal, always saving as much as they could, and gave us children a better life than they had themselves. But I never learnt to be frugal, not until recently. Kids are supposed to learn by watching their parents – I must have missed a lesson or two!

    But now that I have a child of my own I finally started to pay attention to what my parents were trying to teach me all those years. I’m trying to be more minimalist, avoiding consumerism. It’s not easy but I try.

    Good on you for recognising your triggers, and finding ways to be frugal that works for you.

    1. Definitely not easy to avoid consumerism! We are bombarded by ads all the time. Two years ago I started de cluttering and discovered how painful it was to give away stuff that I’d paid good money for so I learnt not to buy stuff in the first place.

      I am glad that we have good examples in our parents, even though we were not good students at first 🙂

      All the best with embracing minimalism and avoiding consumerism!

  5. I can totally relate to growing up in a very frugal house. Having a single mum and not much money around always caused a scarcity mindset. I used to resent having to be frugal, I spent without care early on. The change of perspective for me was to consider each dollar as an employee and to think about the time at work required to earn it. Thinking of money as a measure of my time and as a tool that works FOR me has helped me be more mindful (frugal) in my spending. Saving and investing has replaced spending because I enjoy watching those $$$ employees working hard. I track my net worth much closer than my spending these days.

    1. You are right – I do enjoy seeing my $ employees working hard for me now and seeing my net worth grow. But I am still tempted to spend on experiences … must work on that mindset.

      Thank you for the reminder to think of my money as a measure of time spent earning it 🙂

  6. I can totally appreciate everything you wrote! Sometimes when things aren’t present in our childhoods (freely spending) we crave them later on.

    I agree that frugality IS a muscle and if you want it to grow, you’ll need to work it…no matter how painful or annoying. However, as you proceed you may find some joy in the process of learning new things.

    I’m rooting for you!!

    1. Thanks, Deanna! I definitely enjoy learning new things so that will be the silver lining in the process 🙂

  7. My mom is super frugal (she actually wrote for MSN Money for a while about frugality), so it can be tough when I compare myself to her. I eat out once a week, sometimes twice. I don’t really cook much for my own mental health (it’s a depression trigger for some reason), though I keep the vast majority of days at $5-6 of food. And I enjoy getting new clothes. At thrift stores pretty much exclusively, and no more than 2-3 items a month, but it’s still money spent on stuff I don’t technically need.And once or twice a month, I like to go out with friends for drinks, which can get pricey. So yeah I could still do better. Probably a lot better.

    All I can do is balance the frugality that I want to achieve with what I can reasonably achieve with my limitations (the cooking is a big hurdle, obviously), and try to flex my frugal muscle where I can: staying away from cable (not a problem, I like my streaming services), having more game nights (as soon as I finally have a dining room table) rather than going out to drink, finding bills I can still trim, like my Internet, etc.

    1. Yeah, you are right – the key word here is balance – I need to identify areas where I don’t mind being frugal (like you, I don’t have cable/pay TV) and what I value so much that I am wiling to spend on.

  8. Pingback: The Frugal Gene Bypassed Me – My Struggle With Frugality | Womens Money Talk
  9. I witnessed both frugality and extreme spending at work by watching my parents’ generation growing up. My mum was fairly frugal out of necessity, though my parents still spent without regret on food and experiences for us growing up. But I watched aunties and uncles live beyond their means and continually needing to scrounge up money or ‘reallocate funds’ from their businesses to pay the bills. So I always had a savers mentality growing up — but like Frogdancer, I consider myself a valuist, in that I am not afraid to spend money on things that add value to my life. Travel is certainly one of those things!

    1. It is fantastic that you chose to be a saver after witnessing both frugality and extreme spending. And is now a valuist. I must confess that being a valuist is much more attractive than being frugal 🙂

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