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. “Significant minority found lifestyle changes to be positive.”
That’s my new favorite oxymoron – “significant minority.” I know what it’s supposed to mean: That 21% rather than 2% of the respondents found frugal lifestyle changes to be a good thing. That is significant. But I still think it sounds funny.
About that significant majority: Sixty-six percent of those surveyed 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.
Ever since the NFCC’s survey, “frugal fatigue” has been all the rage on PF 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.
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. Quite a few PF blogs started up right around then.
Had we learned nothing?
At that time, I wrote a piece for MSN Money called, “How long will ‘the new frugality’ last?” It was a rhetorical question to which I already knew the answer, having witnessed this sort of thing before. 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 non-essential 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 much.
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 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. That simple pleasures like being able to answer the phone before 9 p.m. would trump McMansions and weekly pedicures.
If you don’t understand what I mean by that, then lucky you. I’m referring to the fact that creditors and debt collectors can’t call you after 9 p.m. Remember Monica, from the recent “I’m not a payday lender…” piece? She doesn’t pick up until 9:01.
Certainly the mall near me has been jumping lately. I went through it around 2 p.m. last Thursday and was surprised to see so many people walking around with more than one shopping bag apiece.
Maybe times are better. Maybe the recession is over. Or maybe they’re shopping on credit.
A little bit louder and a little bit worse
If I sound pessimistic, it’s because I am. I’m tired of the sound of history continuing to rhyme.
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. They struggle to feed, clothe and house themselves, aware that one more rent increase or jump in the price of basic groceries will pull them into the red.
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 vs. 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 may 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 usually 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?