Smart SpendingSmart Spending

I have 'frugal fatigue' fatigue

Giving the phenomenon a catchy name can trivialize it -- make it trendy. And thus new, financially responsible habits become easier to discard.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 21, 2011 9:24AM

Earlier this month the National Foundation for Credit Counseling shared the results of a new study. Apparently a whole bunch of U.S. residents are tired of budgeting.

"Majority of Americans have frugal fatigue," the press release trumpeted. Some 66% of folks surveyed by the NFCC are feeling the strain of having to watch their dollars.

Wait … Americans are unhappy that they can no longer spend like sailors on shore leave? There's news.

Now "frugal fatigue" is all the rage on personal-finance blogs, newspapers, radio and television. This heavy rotation worries me. Giving the phenomenon a catchy name can trivialize it, i.e., make it trendy. Whereupon major media outlets cover it a few times and then head off to the next big thing. Post continues after video.

Which might, heaven forbid, sound something like this: Frugality was necessary for a while, but seriously? The recession is supposed to be over and Americans can't really do without their shopping. Meetcha at the mall!

Never having to say 'no'

Make no mistake: Frugal fatigue is real, especially for people who've never before had to rein in their spending. Just like any other compulsive behavior, living beyond our means can be a lot of fun -- for a while, anyway. In the long run it can ruin you.

But you miss the trappings of any addiction once it's gone, even if you know your life will be better overall. Just as an alcoholic might fantasize about stopping off for a cold one, you may find yourself cruising your favorite shopping websites.

With luck, you'll both call your sponsors. But the temptation will still be there tomorrow.

Nowhere is it easier to backslide than in the U.S.A., the land of short memories and long wish lists. Witness the economic downturn, just a few years back: jobs lost, investments soured, gasoline and grocery prices soaring.

The reaction? People bought only the absolute necessities. "Hypermiling" became a national obsession. Print, broadcast and online media churned out frugality pieces. People were proud of making do and doing without.

I'd seen it before.

Have we learned nothing?

The first time was in the mid-1970s, when grocery prices skyrocketed and gas was not only expensive but actually rationed.

Some people carpooled. Others cut way back on nonessential driving. When they did go out, they made sure to combine errands. They were buying less anyway, so they didn't need to shop as often.

The austerity didn't last, of course. Anyone remember the 1980s? Conspicuous consumption was hot, and the cars got larger and larger. I distinctly recall saying, to myself and to others, "Have we learned nothing from the 1970s?"

Nope. Frugality had been necessary for a little while, but seriously? We had plenty of gas and suddenly there seemed to be money (read: credit), so we started shopping again.

As Mark Twain supposedly said, history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme.

Second verse, same as the first

It rhymed again during the recession of the early 1990s. "How to save money" was all over the media once more. Formerly affluent shoppers raved about discovering discount retailers and these amazing little places called dollar stores. Those were also the days when Amy Dacyczyn couldn't crank out her "Tightwad Gazette" newsletter fast enough.

That second wave of frugality didn't last. As soon as times got better, dollars bled from wallets once more.

Somehow I thought this third time would be the charm. That people who learned the joys of being debt-free would stick with it. 

Not if the mall near me is any indication. I went through on a recent Thursday afternoon and saw a lot of people with more than one shopping bag apiece.

Maybe times are better. Maybe the recession is over. Or maybe they're shopping on credit.

If I sound pessimistic, it's because I am. I'm tired of the sound of history continuing to rhyme.

A little bit louder and a little bit worse

I'm also tired of frugal fatigue. I'm tired of the term being bandied about as though it were "news." Some people live this way for years, or decades -- or for always. Some of them are surely among the 66% who told the NFCC that they're "tired of pinching pennies, but will have to continue that lifestyle."

But I also believe that some of those folks "fatigued" by thrift are the same people who think they're broke but aren't. They're the ones who bravely nix cruises for staycations, who keep their cars another whole year or two versus trading them in, who stay chic by going to sample sales, who utilize social commerce vouchers for spa treatments and happy hours.

How do I know this? Because they're the ones who get interviewed by major media outlets, or who start blogs about how to live FABulously on a budget.

A news article might have one or two quotes from an unemployed service-industry worker or from the guys in the line outside the day labor places. Around the holidays you can also count on a feature about food banks being unable to help everyone in need.

The rest of the time? Media folks tend to interview people with whom they can identify, i.e., folks who once earned decent wages but now are shocked -- shocked! -- by how hard it is to make it on one salary plus an unemployment check.

Both groups may suffer from frugal fatigue, but I bet the second group caves -- and caves soon. Expect to see a lot of the hip-to-be-cheap folks returning to their profligate ways, just as people did after previous downturns.

I also predict that "frugal fatigue" will show up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Defined, no doubt, as "anxiety and depressed mood caused by an excess of financial responsibility."

I'm picturing a partnership between Big Pharma and Big Retail to reduce that anxiety by creating, say, a little blue pill that makes spending feel really, really good and the consequences feel really, really distant. Buy-agra, anybody?

Donna Freedman writes a personal-finance column for MSN Moneyand also blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.


More from MSN Money:

Feb 21, 2011 11:26AM
Nice article Donna! I have but one word to describe the folks that suffer from "frugal fatigue"....AMATEURS! I have spoke recently to folks about this very topic and ...well..."they're just tired of being poor". I must admit that I weaken from time to time. Just recently, I thought is it REALLY worth all of the work keeping the wood stoves going to heat our place. The chopping, gathering, stacking, feeding the fire, the ashes....CHEEZ!  All with the goal of saving money and burning $0 (no typo) on heating oil. I was starting to weaken...until recently at a church dinner the topic of heating costs came up....and the stories of exorbitant heating bills poured out.... bills of $2K to $ far and this is just February. And when the quizzed as to my cost...there was an awkward silence when I explained that I have no heating bill as I chose to live simply and heat with wood. Perhaps I am on the right path.....
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Smart Spending brings you the best money-saving tips from MSN Money and the rest of the Web. Join the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.