I wrote a rather-too-glib post yesterday about spending. I was called on it by an anonymous commenter. I think (s)he had some good points that brought me up short. On the other hand, I also think some of the charges were not entirely accurate.
For example, the iPod Touch we’re planning on getting will be entirely through rewards program points, just like Tim’s PSP. We won’t be paying a dime out of pocket. So I consider that pretty frugal.
There is also the issue of video game purchases. Tim got some birthday money from his mom, which he spent on video games. The rest of the games he gets by trading in old ones.
But junk food? Clothing? Yeah, those are my own screw-ups. I eat too much junk food. I try to only buy with coupons, and I’ve cut way, way back on how much we get. Still, it accounts for more of our grocery bill than I would like.
And clothing: I got three new shirts that cost $60 after tax. It was a complete indulgence. It wasn’t one I felt terribly justified in (though it certainly comes across that way in the post). It would be easy to rationalize it away. For instance, the only clothes I have gotten in the better part of two years were when old ones no longer fit. So this particular expense doesn’t come up often. But, the fact is that we’re in debt; we’re working to get out. So that money could have been used in a much more strategic way.
The main point of the anonymous comment, though, seemed to be that the things I talk about — iPod Touch, junk food, Cheesecake Factory (where we each get a slice of cake on Tim’s birthday) — did not resonate with “true” frugal bloggers.
I make a couple of missteps during the holiday season, and I’m not a true frugal blogger? I suppose everyone is entitled to his own opinion; but I’d be curious to know exactly what the parameters are for that position.
I proclaimed in one of my first posts that I was not the Martha Stewart of frugality. I can’t be. Anyone who has ever wrestled with severe depression can attest to just how hard basic tasks are. (Seriously, why can’t I make a call that will take two minutes? I don’t know. Some days, it’s simply an insurmountable goal.) You add in severe fatigue, and you find your options are more than a little circumscribed.
Perhaps some people believe that I’m using my health conditions to rationalize being less frugal. It’s not true, but it’s hard to prove a negative. Really, I can try to explain until I’m blue in the face, but it doesn’t do much good. People who don’t understand depression or chronic fatigue simply can’t understand how much it impacts your life. So, to them, I’m malingering.
Whatever you believe or understand, the fact is that there are few people in this world with the exact same situation as you. And so it’s easy to believe that a couple of details make all the difference. Of course, sometimes it’s true. But a lot of the time it’s just wishful thinking. Grass is always greener, etc.
I’m guilty of this line of thinking, too. There have been plenty of times in the past that I’ve become judgmental. You read enough blogs, enough posts, enough “how I got here” profiles, and it’s bound to happen. You get frustrated by all of the benefits that other people have.
Most PF bloggers make a fairly decent living. Many of them are in two-income households — or have voluntarily become one-income situations. Meanwhile, Tim and I have only once ever hit $40,000 a year combined. A lot of people make that much (or almost that much) with just one salary.
Or how about those couples who got tens of thousands of dollars in debt by buying to their hearts’ content? Must be nice. Our debt was earned mainly because our basic expenses exceeded our income. Health conditions are expensive.
Tim also brought $20,000 of defaulted student loans into the relationship. After a year, we had to pay $7,000 for oral surgery and dentures. In and among that, there have been plenty of medical bills. At least $5,000 a year — though much, much more when we got his oral surgery.
In other words, the grass looks a lot greener on the other side of our fence. Even with all our problems and limitations, we’ve paid down more than $30,000 in three and a half years. Imagine what we could have done with two full-time salaries!
So, yeah, I get frustrated. And judgmental. I have even been known to get into snobby moods where I dismiss other people as having it easy. I get annoyed by how many more corners I have to cut just to get anything like the results enjoyed by people in more traditional situations.
Then (eventually) I snap out of it. Because this line of thinking isn’t fair. People with more money get themselves into more obligations. Tim and I don’t have a mortgage or car payments. Until recently, we had free use of a car, without any costs, thanks to a very generous parent. That’s quite the little leg-up we had. (Now, we are paying for insurance, car repairs and gas, which has definitely affected our budget.)
And I really shouldn’t go casting stones. I’m frugal — but not to the same degree that my mom is. And she’s not as die-hard as people who separate their two-ply toilet paper. Meanwhile, neither of us have a garden to grow food in. So, despite being ardently frugal, we can both be shown up by others.
My point? Everyone has different benchmarks for acceptable frugality. I, for example, have no problem with spending $40-50 for a birthday or anniversary meal. Or the occasional pair of cool t-shirts for $18. (Which is, of course, not the same thing as $60 on clothing.) On the other hand, I also make sure we take advantage of freebies, discounts etc. I milk all of the free birthday offerings I can find.
Most avidly frugal folks cook a lot, often from scratch. It’s cheap and it can be far healthier than convenience foods and pre-made fare. But I will probably never cook as much as I would like to. I just don’t have the energy or wherewithal to deal with it. Tim’s stomach doesn’t help matters. It’s very finicky. If he tries to eat something he doesn’t like, he stomach sends it back from whence it came. So he can’t just eat that last bowl of leftovers.
Our solution, then, was to keep a few different convenience foods around. Maybe he can have some canned stew and feel better. Or a hot dog. Or some frozen pizza. So long as we don’t end up going to the grocery store (which adds up quickly) or ordering out (which adds up even faster), we’ve saved a good chunk of money. So, we’ve found an option that’s cheaper than the alternatives. But few people would look at it and proclaim it to be frugal.
Really frugal people go to the store to hit key sales. They do sales, coupons, rebates and Register Rewards. So far, I’m only up to coupons. I do the occasional Register Rewards, but my energy problems mean I’m never sure I can use them before they expire. Meanwhile, rebates are just somehow beyond me. I never get around to mailing them off, no matter how good my intentions are. Eventually, I’ll get there. It took me awhile to work up to using coupons; now they’re second nature. But, for now, people might decide I’m not trying hard enough in those areas.
Then there are the times that I do something dumb, like fall in love with (and buy) some shirts for $60. There is really no excuse for it. I actually tend to stay out of department stores because of the problem of temptation. This time, though, I didn’t. And I paid for it — quite literally.
I am in the process of trying to find a balance between constantly living for the future — when the debts are paid off — and enjoying myself a little in the present. Often, I fall too far onto one side or the other. It’s yet another work in progress, and this last shopping spree was a not-so-gentle reminder that I’m not even close to finding the solution.
So, yeah, I’m not a paragon of frugality. But I think I do okay, especially considering my limitations. I certainly think I do better than a lot of people, assuming that counts for anything.
I talk on here about free and/or cheap entertainment. There are the movie passes from My Coke Rewards. I have discussed various rewards and cash-back programs, which allow for big purchases (especially electronics) for free. And I mystery shop to get free dinners or other entertainment. Sometimes, I even make a couple of bucks off the endeavor.
For now, that has to be enough for me. That’s not to say, though, that it’s enough for other people. We each have our own version of frugality, a standard that seems, to us, right and fair. It’s not something you can easily get someone to change. And given my recent talk of spending, I’m not really in a position to argue anything anyway.
I guess I just bristle at the term “true frugal blogger” because I happen to think too much of frugality is a case-by-case basis.
If that’s not true, then where do we draw the line? What is the objective basis we use to delineate frugal from non-frugal? How much do you have to save? How much debt must you pay down each month? How much leeway can you give yourself for entertainment or indulgences before you are booted from the club?
And while you consider those questions, remember that I — who am not a true frugal blogger — got our debt down by $1,200 (38% of our income) this month. Actually, we paid $1,800 (57% of our income); but $600 of that covered new charges like car repairs and a vet visit for Sandy.
Now, if I can just go back to avoiding department stores, we may be set after all.