Can frugality go too far?

Frugality is a good thing. We’re supposed to be good stewards of the things God has entrusted us with. We’re supposed to exercise self-control, reduce, reuse, recycle, save, watch for bargains, etc. But is it ever possible to be too frugal? Are there any downsides to frugality?

I believe so. I want to share a few excesses or misapplications of frugality. Of course, not every frugal person manifests all of these traits, or any of them, necessarily. But these are things I have seen in real-life people and situations that we need to watch out for in our own hearts and lives.

1. Pride

There is nothing wrong with a sense of joy and satisfaction when we’ve found a great deal. There is nothing wrong with putting frugal practices into place as we feel led. But it can be easy to look with condescension or even scorn on others who don’t follow the same practices. One of the hardest things in the Christian life is to deal with the fact that not everyone feels led to the same place we feel the Lord has led us to in various aspects of life.

Once I was at a friend’s house when she invited me for lunch. She began making macaroni and cheese from scratch, and I was amazed that she would go to such trouble when the boxed varieties were less than a quarter back then. She responded that she usually had all the ingredients on hand and she didn’t consider it any trouble. Yet when we talked about spaghetti sauce, she admitted that she used the kind in a jar because she felt it was too much trouble to make from scratch, while I made spaghetti sauce from scratch all the time and didn’t consider it any trouble at all. I was relating this to a mutual friend and commented on how funny it was that different things were considered “trouble” by different people when this friend said, “Well, I wouldn’t use either of those!” It didn’t bother me that she didn’t use jars of spaghetti sauce or boxes of mac and cheese, but what bothered me was the condescending tone with which she said it.

Frugality does take time, either to make items from scratch or to search for deals or clip coupons or fill out rebate forms or whatever. Some people may choose to use mixes or jars occasionally as a time-saver, and if that’s okay with their families and within their budget, that’s fine. It’s not necessarily a sin to pay full retail price for items.

2. One-upmanship

This is somewhat related to the first point. Once I was showing a friend a new purse that I had found, that was the color and style I wanted with just the right little pockets, handle length, etc., and I happened upon it for $2 at a bargain table. Instead of saying anything along the lines of, “Hey what a great deal!” her response was, “I found one like that at a yard sale for fifty cents once.” It felt like a put-down. It’s normal to want to share our bargaining conquests, but when we try to outdo each other, something is wrong.

3. Lack of willingness to pay for quality

One friend who had a retail business had an interesting conversation with one her vendors one day. They both had dealings with a Christian university which had students, faculty and staff living in town. The vendor said, “Those folks recognize and want quality, but they don’t want to pay for it.” I don’t think that was necessarily a good testimony. Other people need to make money from their efforts. After all, if we were to make and sell goods or provide services, we would want, even need in most cases, to make enough money for it to be worth the materials and time involved. It’s not wrong to look for sales or deals or ask for a better offer, but, as I said above, it’s not wrong to pay full retail prices if it fits our budget and the Lord allows. There is a difference between being frugal and being cheap.

4. Obsession

Finding good bargains and saving money can bring joy and satisfaction, and once people get started on the lifestyle, frugality tends to grow. But if one’s life is so obsessed with bargain-hunting and implementing frugality that they become one-dimensional, can’t talk about anything else, or other interests or people are neglected, they may be going too far.

5. Hoarding

I know a dear older lady who grew up in the Depression and WWII era. She learned frugality and “doing without” as a lifestyle. She never put great stock in having a lot of things or having nice things, but she can rarely let go of what she does have for fear that she might need it some day. Her home is overflowing with things that are falling apart, outdated, or unneeded, but she can’t let them go. She can’t even be motivated by the thought that the things in good condition that she doesn’t use (and hasn’t in 40 years) could be sold or given away and become a blessing to someone else.

You know, you don’t have to be rich or have a lot to be materialistic. An over-preoccupation with the meager “things” you do have can be just as materialistic a mind-set.

6. Excess

Many coupons or specials require the user to buy multiple items in order to redeem the coupon, and some keep a few shelves for the “extras” or donate them to missions closets or rescue missions. But I’ve heard of people having whole rooms for such extras. Is that really necessary? Must we have 3 to 5 or more bottles of shampoo, deodorant, or whatever on hand? One lady I knew kept buying and then getting free an excess of hair care products and then had a hard time finding someone to give them to, and I thought, “You don’t have to buy them just because there is a deal on them.”

7. Shady practices

Sometimes this excessiveness can lead to less than noble practices, to put it mildly, or outright wrongdoing. Ann recently wrote about seeing a TV program where people with more coupons than the store allowed at a time went back to the store ten times for ten different transactions so they could use all the coupons, getting about a thousand dollars worth of groceries for about $20. That might sound great like a great deal, a super conquest, but how many stores could handle it if several customers did that? I can remember the days when stores had no restrictions on how many coupons could be doubled or the amount that could be doubled, but when articles started coming out about how shoppers could buy groceries for just a few dollars, or even get money back, then manufacturers and stores had to start adding restrictions lest they go out of business. So those few excessive couponers negatively impacted other shoppers, when these restrictions might not have been put in place if everyone had kept in moderation.

In another vein, this sentence jumped out at me in the biography Goforth of China by Rosalind Goforth: “”Graft, sweating of the poor (fed by women’s thirst for bargains) were horrors of cruelty to him that must be and were denounced” (p. 154).

8. Leaving some for others

Something else to think about when buying more than we need is the principle in the Old Testament of leaving something in the fields for poorer people to glean (Leviticus19:9-10). You might think with all that the Bible teaches about industry and diligence and hard work that God would want people to be careful to pick every possible piece of fruit off the vine. But He wanted people to leave some for others. We need to think about that before we buy an excess of items because they’re on sale: if the first twenty shoppers did that, would there be any left for anyone else? I don’t think this principle means that if the toy we want to buy our child for Christmas is the last one on the shelf, we should leave it for someone else. We have to keep all these things in balance. But perhaps we don’t need to buy twenty cans of pumpkin on sale if we’re just going to make a couple of pies and a few batches of bread or muffins with it over the winter.

I’ve also wrestled with this in regard to thrift stores. I feel I am supporting the charity that operates the thrift store when I buy something there, but I’ve wondered if I am taking something from someone else who couldn’t buy it anywhere else. I’m still pondering this one.

9. Time factors

As I mentioned before, most frugal practices do take time. There are some situations in life where there is really no choice: for various reasons there is a lack of income and time must be spent looking for ways to save money, even if those ways cost more time. But sometimes time itself can be put to better use than spending most of the day dragging children to five different stores, spending hours making something that would have been less of an investment to buy, spending time scouting online frugality sites when that time might be better spent in other pursuits, etc.

10. Impact on others

I was in a home once where I felt hampered by the hostess’s ultra-frugality, though she had the best of intentions. If I threw a paper plate in the trash, she got it out (sometimes seconds after it left my hand) to put it in the fireplace (where it burned in seconds, not really providing any long-lasting fuel). If I started to throw away a bit of food my child didn’t eat, she’d say, “No, don’t do that: save it for the dog.” I felt like I was constantly doing things “wrong.” Maybe your family (or guests!) would like you just to relax sometimes rather than feeling you’re constantly hounding them, or spend time with them rather than spending Saturdays scouting yard sales. Maybe they’d rather you didn’t buy three boxes of cereal they’re not crazy about (or like, but would also like some variety) because it was a good deal.

11. Neglect

If we neglect buying something we really need or avoid going to the doctor when sick because we don’t want to spend the money, we may be carrying frugality too far. There is a difference between not being able to do these things financially and not doing them just because we don’t want to. Good health is a good investment.

12. Health and sanitation

Even canned goods have an expiration date on them (another reason not to store an excess of them), and sometimes it’s best to throw away questionable leftovers than eat them. I’ve been sorely convicted by Proverbs 12:27 while throwing out food: “The slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting: but the substance of a diligent man is precious.” I need to do much better to be diligent to use my “substance,” but if it does spoil, I shouldn’t use it just because I don’t want to throw it out. Once a dear lady pulled out some leftover corn from the refrigerator, remarked that it didn’t look very good, and then, instead of throwing it out, added more fresh corn to it. I was less than excited to eat that meal!

I’m sharing the following not to disparage my mother-in-law, but to help others understand how older people’s thought processes can work. My mother-in-law grew up in an era where you rarely if ever threw anything away. Now in her old age when she doesn’t always think clearly, she wants to reuse straws. We use bendy straws to make it easier for her to handle, and she’ll take them out of her glass when she’s done and put them on her end table. The next time we get her something to drink, she’ll want us to reuse those straws rather than get a new one – even if that straw has been sitting there long enough to have dried milk globules in it. I don’t know if she could get sick from drinking through a used straw, but I don’t want to take the chance. She fusses at me for throwing them away, but I tell her teasingly she’s not so poor that she has to reuse straws (and I try to throw them away when she’s not looking so it doesn’t disturb her.)

13. Lack of faith.

Frugal practices can be a good investment in wise stewardship. But if it is causing any of the above problems, yet the one involved feels she can’t possibly scale back, it might be evidence of not trusting the Lord for His provision.

I know a dear younger lady who is trying very hard to be as frugal as possible because her husband is in a ministry that isn’t able to pay much, and she wants to stay home with her children rather than work outside the home. That is commendable and I applaud that. Yet she is so frantic about it that it seems a constant source of worry and consternation to her. She reads a number of frugality sites, always feeling like a failure because there is more she feels she should be doing. But there is so much information online about this kind of thing now, we can’t possibly do everything recommended, go to every store, find every deal, and then beat ourselves up if we paid for something and then found a better price elsewhere. It’s a miserable way to live. We really need to seek the Lord for what practices He would have us employ and remember that ultimately our provision is from Him.

One former pastor used to say that for every strength there is an off-setting weakness. Couponing, yard-saling, thrifting. repurposing and other frugal practices are good and effective, and most of us should probably work on being more frugal. But like anything else, if done to excess or in the wrong spirit it can lead to other problems. We need to remember to do unto others what we’d have them do for us if we had a business. We need to work hard yet trust God and keep all of these principles in balance. In an excellent post about frugality, Tim Challies sums up:

I guess the long and short is that money can be as big an idol when you seek not to spend it as it can when you do nothing but spend it. Frugality in and of itself must not be an end in itself but must be a means to a greater end of bringing glory to God and of serving others. Ever and always it is a matter of the heart.

(Graphic is courtesy of Microsoft Office clip art.)

This post will be also linked to “Works For Me Wednesday,” where you can find an abundance of helpful hints each week at We Are THAT family on Wednesdays, as well as  Women Living Well.

21 thoughts on “Can frugality go too far?

  1. Wow, Barbara, you’ve really covered it thoroughly and well. Thank you for a post that I will refer back to (and also for the link to my blog!). I’ve linked my blog back to this as well.

  2. Ugh. I’ve gotten myself in the middle of those one-up-man-ship conversations and it’s no fun. You make a great point that pride easily slips in and everything goes downhill from there! As a refugee family to the United States, our family practiced frugality out of necessity and continue to do so out of habit.

  3. Barbara,

    I think this is one of your best posts yet!! I can 100% identify with #5. I also look at the country of origin when I shop. If that means I could help keep a fellow American employed (with the job market the way it is), I would go ahead and pay a little more for something made at home. My feeble way of spreading blessing, even if it goes un-noticed.

  4. Great post! The other thing to be mindful of is how our over frugalness can make others in our family feel. I wrote a post earlier this year where I listed several examples of my being ‘overly frugal’ when it really wasn’t necessary causing my daughter to end up with hurt feelings. I alway say that unless it’s absolutely necessary that every penny is pinched we need to balance our frugality with life.

  5. Very interesting post, I do try and be frugal myself, I do like to do this without having any negative impact on anyone else. I think extreme couponing can be going a bit far, and I agree that it is so important to try to lessen our use of things that are inexpensive because of horrid working conditions in other countries, sometimes this can’t be avoided, but whenever I can afford it I love to by local, even if it does cost more. Really informative and thoughtful post! ~April

  6. Fabulously thorough, Barbara. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I have a friend who always tells me the price of the item I compliment her on … “I found this for only $3!” I don’t particularly care how much she paid for it. I was complimenting HER. I get frustrated at all the things you mentioned above; I see all of them in the people around me. It has made me want to run the other way.

    I admit that I used to be at the other extreme and didn’t notice sales or what was in season or try to get a better price for things. In the past two years, however, since being laid off and discovering that we can live on MUCH less than we ever thought we could, I have made some inroads toward frugality and greener living. And I feel great about it.

    God, keep us from the spirit of poverty and the spirit of materialism.

  7. This was marvelous…you are so thorough…and you choose your words so carefully! It’s inspiring! This subject has so many facets and you really nailed it! Thanks for you kindness amid the truth…”Speaking the truth in love”…you did it well!!

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  10. I found your article when I googled the subject, because I struggle with being TOO frugal. I exercise to do my grocery shopping, and will bike ride an extra 30 minutes out of the way to save a few dollars. It is such a personal issue, but in our case we can afford things so there is not much reason for me to be so frugal. My particular issues are Pride, obsession, and time factors. Your article is written in such a positive tone, and is very thorough and specific. Thank-you sooooooooo much for writing, and I commend you for your gift of writing. You uplifted me tonight. There is definitely such a thing as being too frugal that some of us struggle with.

    One thing I’ve caught myself saying, whether it be with frugal advice or being earth friendly or making things from scratch is, “It’s so easy,” when describing something that is time intensive. Like you said, for some it is worth it to make the pasta sauce from scratch, for others not. The truth is, everything takes time, including couponing and getting things on sale and repurposing things and sorting recycled things and going to the thrift stores to get furniture etc., and not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but it is not as easy as it may sound. I want to be more mindful about the decisions that I make, to weigh the costs versus benefits. I really struggle with this, but I am aware of the issues at least 🙂

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  12. I can relate to so much of this! My whole family of origin was extremely frugal, and it can feel suffocating now to get together with all of them (yes, they do “one up” all the time, especially at Christmas, etc. — “I only paid 50 cents for that,” etc. It just takes away the joy of a gift, for me). It’s an issue I’ve thought about a lot and tried to stop the trend in my own life. Thank you for your very sound thoughts.

  13. I really thank you for sharing these insights. Frugality is something that is very big today in some circles and I think you have given us things to watch out for in our own lives. It’s never good to be so frugal that we become condescending or stuck in a one track mind where we can’t think of anything else. So yes, I agree with you that frugality can be taken too far. Blessings to you!

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