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Come out of the frugal closet

Leading by example may help some paycheck-to-paycheck pals get a handle on their finances.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 24, 2012 11:12AM

Image: Pennies (© Corbis)A recent post on MSN Money's Smart Spending blog made an excellent point: In the United States, it's acceptable to show off what we buy, but not very cool "to live within our means and be value-conscious."

"While we love a great deal, we don't want to cross the invisible line that suggests we need a great deal or can't afford to pay full price," according to author Kentin Waits, of partner blog Wise Bread


Obviously some people do need that great deal, or can't afford to pay the full freight. But Waits believes, and so do I, that plenty of "closeted frugalists" are out there, afraid to speak up about their lifestyles.

He has a solution, though, and it's pretty simple.

"Come on out," he urges. "Talk about how and why you save. Lend some sanity to the conversation and give your peers a chance to agree, emulate and come out, too."

Maybe that's you: someone who believes in intentional living but is a little apprehensive about letting anyone know. Would people look down on you if they knew that your stylin' furnishings are courtesy of the Freecycle Network? Or that the "new" jacket is new only to you because it came from a yard sale?

That very well could happen. Some people are extremely invested, so to speak, in a consumerist mentality: new = good, old = bad, secondhand = eeewww. If someone admires your table but disses it when she finds out it came from Freecycle, pointing out the logical inconsistency probably won't do much good.

But it might, especially if you explain that free actually equals:

  • No credit card debt.
  • Money you could spend on other necessities (or put toward an emergency fund or retirement planning).
  • One less item in the landfill.
How to come out
Be careful how you get your message across, though. There's a fine line between explaining and proselytizing. Don't make co-workers or friends feel defensive about their own choices -- because these are choices, and very personal ones.

On the other hand, some of those folks might be secretly wanting to learn more or, as Waits noted, to come out as frugalists, too.

Here are my suggestions for how best to step out of the frugal closet:

Pick your spots.
Don't just announce, "Hey, everybody, I'm a cheapskate! Don’t you wish you could be, too?" Put your experiences in context. If a conversation turns to overdrafts or credit-card balances, it might be a good opening for, "I used to have problems with checking until I found out about free budgeting software. Now I never give the bank any extra money in fees. If you like, I’ll send you the site's URL."

Give good reasons.
"No more overdrafts" is a very good reason. Or suppose someone teases you about the 9-year-old car you're driving? Don't take offense. Instead, explain: "It's great not to have a car payment, and the insurance is lower on an older car, too. After I paid this car off I kept banking the 'payment' each month; when I need to buy a replacement vehicle I'll be able to pay cash." (Post continues below video.)
Be ready for snark.
Some people think your choices are an indictment of their own. Snide comments may pop up, but a soft answer really might turn away wrath: "Why, yes, I did get this Liz Claiborne silk blouse from a thrift store. It cost me $4.99 two years ago and I get compliments on it all the time." Some people may still snort, but others might resolve to go prospecting at Goodwill themselves.

Be ready for curiosity.
People who have been socialized to upgrade technology regularly might honestly wonder what kind of life you can have with an older phone. This would be a good chance to say, "This phone still does everything I need. I could actually afford the latest iPhone if I wanted it, though. That's what I like about being frugal: It gives you more options."

Breaking the silence

Once you've let people know how you roll, they will start noticing things: the brown-bag lunches, the bicycle or bus pass, the classic attire vs. switching duds with every new trend. Be ready to answer if someone asks you a question but again, don't be pushy.

has to speak up. Why not you? You aren't just outing yourself, remember. You're potentially helping others to take control of their finances.

"The power of ridiculous levels of spending and consumption lies in everyone's silent agreement and acceptance," Waits says.

"Maybe it's time to be proud of that 12-year-old car and that trusty old flip phone. Maybe it's time to stop apologizing for the home-brewed coffee and the TV that's decidedly not flat. All these things help make you wonderfully frugal -- and isn't that worth celebrating?"

Are you the only frugal one in the group? Has anyone ever asked for help, either privately or openly?

More from MSN Money:

Jul 24, 2012 1:02PM

Thanks for the timely post. I find frugality is not about being cheap, but making wise choices with money.  That 's going to look a little different for everyone, but the underlying premise is the same...making wise choices. I love being able to have little debt (other than a mortgage) and being able to use those funds for other things. This allows me to be in more control of my finances and have the freedom to buy something, as long as it's budgeted for.

Jul 25, 2012 8:55PM
I am guilty as charged.  Have been frugal all my life.  Despite divorce from husband #1 and many years siingle, I managed to save quite a bit and am now able to work only part time.  My husband is older than me and fully retired with a much smaller amount in savings, but it all adds up.  If anyone wants to know how I did it, do not hesitate to reply.  It's not easy, but I never wanted to depend on anyone for my financial security.  People have a way of letting you down and you can never depend on the economy.  Sue
Jul 26, 2012 4:37PM
When I first got married, we bought a painting at half price. I told my family about how good of a deal we got for it. My wife was embarrassed that I told them how much of a discount we got. I told her that I would have been embarrassed if I had to tell them we bought it at full price.

That should have been the first clue that the marriage wasn't going to last...

Jul 26, 2012 11:45AM
I too am guilty. I'm frugal in a different sort of way, but not cheap.  I'm frugal in ways that will afford my family the indulgence in another way, while not being wasteful.  A co-worker, once complained about $2lb farmer's market tomatoes.  I suggested she buy 1 since she only needed one. She said she would wait until the price went down!  As short and unpredictable as life is, to deny oneself of a small indulgence such as a suculent tomato is the worse kind of cheap -- its downright niggardly! (For the unlearned, niggardly means being stingy to self, its in the bible.)  The filp side, she hoards all the left over food from meetings etc.  Now thats nasty, rather eat old food than spend a penny. Quite a psychological issue. 
Jul 26, 2012 1:39PM

I learned years (and years and years) ago that there is no point in doing anything about chosen frugality except living it.


When you delight in paying 10% - 50% less for the same crap as your coworker, and understand new cars are for suckers, to provide you with almost new cars, etc., you find silence about frugality, as with living well in general, are the best revenge.

Oct 2, 2012 9:41AM
I used to be the only openly frugalist in my crowd, but I stopped the silence. Partially because I really believe that any culture where it's OK to discuss your sex life,what's going on at your therapists office, and your medical problems in depth, but not OK to do more than gently allude to your finances is absolutely crazy!
Sure, there were a few people who didn't "approve" of my finagling of finances, and after a decade and a half most of them are gone now. But the one's who stayed and the new friends I've picked up along the way make my life a lot better. We collaborate to hold cheaper parties, see who can buy the group's kids the most awesome thing for Christmas with a strict $10 limit, and regularly hold clothing swaps so that we all have something nice and "new" to wear, but aren't deep in debt.
If no one is allowed to talk about money, and how to save it, how to spend it wisely, and when it's OK to just let go and splurge, how are we all supposed to combat the consumerism beast anyway? Madison Ave. spends BILLIONS on advertising to get us to make foolish choices, our own voices are all we have to fight that. I say USE them.

Nov 18, 2012 1:13PM
As a frugal person, I found that it is best to talk about frugality only if someone asks and to not be boastful, but talk about it in a matter-of-fact way.  If someone asks where I got my manicure done, I say I did it myself at home.  If someone compliments my clothes, I say "Oh this? I got this at a thrift store".   I found that some people with smirk at your brown bag lunches, but some people will approach you and ask you how they can start being frugal as well.  The way I see it, frugality is a blessing and the right thing to do it is to pay it forward.
Jul 24, 2012 11:47PM
My God what horrible advice. Nothing wrong with being frugal, but you don't need to "come out" about it - it's just as rude to brag about how much you save as it is to brag about how much you spend.

Also, one only needs to peruse a facebook account to see that the claim that "In the United States, it's acceptable to show off what we buy, but not very cool "to live within our means and be value-conscious" is total hogwash - every other post is from someone who bought $200 worth of groceries for $50 or how someone saved so much money at thrift store X or liquidation store Y.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.