1. Buying Something Just Because It's Cheap
We all know someone who comes home with bizarre and useless items from closing down sales, charity/thrift shops or garage sales which they bought "because it was so cheap!" This isn’t really being frugal. A shopaholic who buys things because they are cheap or on sale is no different from an alcoholic who drinks more during happy hour. They’re still addicts; they’re just spending less on their problems.
This is a common trap for inexperienced frugalistas, particularly when it comes to coupons and special offers. The media loves stories about "extreme couponers" because it allows the consumer bandwagon to roll on while making people think they are savvy. What they don’t realise is that most coupons, special offers, buy one get one free, etc., are just lures to keep you in the consumer snare.
When you read these articles, there’s usually a picture of a grinning, slightly overweight individual holding up a fistful of coupons and pointing to a big pile of packaged junk food, fizzy pop or consumer tat that will wear out in a few weeks. There’s no point using coupons to get a paltry discount on an item which is already overpriced and which you don’t really need. By all means, use coupons and special offers, but only look for these after you have decided what it is you need to buy. As with spending at any time, when doing so with coupons, always ask money-saving expert Martin Lewis’ three questions:
- Do I need it?
- Do I want it?
- Can I get it cheaper elsewhere?
2. Having Unhealthy Eating Habits Just Because It's Cheaper Than Eating Healthy Food
Do you eat unhealthy or out-of-date food or cut back on medicines or medical advice to save money? This is a dangerous false economy. Several of history's great misers died because they were too mean to pay for doctors. Yes, manufacturers do like to use concerns over health as a means to get us to buy more*, but be sensible. If something is clearly past its best or you’re unsure, always play safe and throw it away. Eat high-quality, healthy food; if it costs you more, then eat a little less. If you need medication or medical advice, pay for it. You can't put a price on health.
*A prime example is "best before" dates. How many people do you know who throw away perfectly good food because it’s "out of date," as if good food turns bad on the stroke of midnight like Cinderella’s ball gown turning to rags?
3. Spending Too Long Saving
Louis Armstrong sang, "We have all the time in the world," but sadly, that's not true for any of us, even if we're retired or working part-time. Time is money, and working long hours just to save a few pennies when you could be doing something more profitable (such as working at a second job or an online business) is not a good use of your time. Think of frugal living as a part-time job. If it takes you an hour's online research to save £100 on your car insurance, then that's a well-paid job. If, however, you spend an hour darning an old sock that will only last a few weeks more, then you've "paid" yourself only a few pence.
4. Keeping Trash in the Attic
Random hoarding or pack-ratting is not frugal. Keeping stuff that might be useful someday is fine if you have space, but if you keep things, they should have a clear purpose and be kept where you can find them easily. For example, Amy Dacyczyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette, recommends clearly marked storage boxes for children’s clothes so that if a child needs something, it’s easy to go "shopping in the attic."
Keeping hold of "valuable" stuff that won't keep well is unfrugal too. There's no point having that old fur coat or Persian rug hidden away in the attic if all it's going to do is provide a meal for the moths. Using up storage space that could be put to better use is not frugal either. If you can make good money by renting out your garage, summer house or spare room, then there’s no point using it to store old yoghurt pots. There are lots of websites where you can rent out your spare room, garage, etc., so it’s easily done.
5. Being a Frugal Evangelist: Imposing Frugality on Others
It's a bad idea to try to impose frugality on others. This can be a tough call in some situations, particularly in married life and family life. You may have to run a family budget, but how your children choose to spend their pocket money should be up to them. Teach them frugality by example, but harassing them into it only breeds resentful spendthrifts. Pay your way in restaurants and buy your round of drinks, or don’t show up. Nobody likes a skinflint, and even in austere times, many people still dislike money-saving. It's all too easy to get labelled as "cheap" if you make your frugal habits too obvious.
6. Not Spending Money on Important Items
Being frugal means spending less, right? Not always. It may seem like a paradox, but sometimes you have to spend money to save money. Being frugal is about making the best use of your resources, not hoarding everything, and spending as little as possible just for the hell of it. Sometimes, money spent now will pay off in the future. An example would be installing insulation to cut your heat bills, investing in a more efficient boiler or a more fuel-economic car, or treating yourself to a new suit for that important job interview.
7. Aimless Frugality: Being Frugal Without Setting Goals
Frugal living needs clear goals. You should have at least some idea of what you are saving for and why. Perhaps it is so that you can downsize and work part-time while you pursue other interests. To help the environment? Or to pay off a mortgage or other debts? Or just to have a comfortable retirement? In our consumer society, it’s so much easier to live frugally when you know why you’re doing it and when you have achievable goals that you can look towards when things get tough. Otherwise, you are just being frugal for the sake of it—and that’s not much different from being a miser.
8. Freeloading Instead of Being Frugal
Have you ever reused a postage stamp, pilfered packets of condiments from a cafe, bought pirated software, purchased something that probably "fell off the back of a lorry" or stayed on a bus or train after your ticket was no longer valid? To err is human, and we’ve probably all done things like this from time to time. We don’t really think of it as actually stealing, but it’s certainly on the shady side of honest.
Frugal activities that harm the environment should be off-limits too. Frugal living is about fairness, not sneaking a share of what you’re not entitled to. Moral issues aside, somebody ends up paying for all this eventually through increased costs and environmental damage, and yes, you’ve guessed it, that somebody is you and me.
9. Being a Show-Off About Your Frugality
We normally associate bragging about how much things cost you with spendthrifts—we all know the guy who likes to show off how much he earns or how much his house or car is worth. However, the same can be true for people who like to save money! It’s natural to want to share knowledge about a bargain if it helps others, but it’s bad taste to always be going on about how little money you spend on things or how much you’ve saved. When you start to associate money-saving with moral superiority, you’re in danger of becoming a frugal show-off.
10. Getting Too Obsessed With Frugality—Have Some Fun Every Once in a While
Amy Dacyczyn has a great phrase, "creative deprivation." It means having a better life by spending less. Being frugal isn't about being a martyr or feeling deprived; it's about realising that less is more. So if you're starting to feel that your money-saving journey has become a chore, step back and do something enjoyable. The old saying that the best things in life are free is (generally) true—so take time for enjoyable frugal activities like a walk in the park, an evening in with friends or a book from the library, not just drudgery to save money. Frugal is fun!
Norma on September 13, 2018:
This also drive me crazy about people being so frugal to the point that they never want to go out and do anything. I love to save but if it is something I have waited forever to do like go to a big event I will splurge a bit for a ticket. It's always a bummer when friends constantly can't afford something right now but you never see them go out and do things. When are you going to be able to do something? You make as much as me.....
deejay on October 10, 2017:
I'd like to say that living with a partner who is excessively frugal about large ticket items can exacerbate the tendency to focus on the little items. One might think that if you take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves, but there are emotional tipping points that can send a person into survival mode thinking.
Marcy J. Miller from Arizona on September 25, 2013:
Hugh, this is a terrific hub. You covered the various degrees between healthy and ethical frugality, and dysfunctional, unethical frugality. Frugal friends and I enjoy having these discussions, particularly about the ethics of consumerism and the freedom that cutting back gives one creatively and financially. Well done!
Best -- MJ
Dr Penny Pincher from Iowa, USA on September 25, 2013:
It is easy to go too far at being frugal and cross into simply being cheap. Good points about not compromising health or safety to save money. I try to focus on getting good value for every dollar I spend, but sometimes I just can't pry money from my wallet even when it would make sense.
Hugh Morrison (author) from London, England on September 05, 2013:
Thanks - the Tightwad Gazette was what got me interested in frugal living - I noticed a copy in a Borders when visiting the States and was immediately hooked!
Francesca27 from Hub Page on September 04, 2013:
I read Amy Dacyczyn book years ago and still remember some things that I learned from her. I like your hub.