I have “Frugal Fatigue” fatigue.

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?

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  1. Awesome article! =) I agree 100%! Hopefully people will take a step back and think twice before shifting back to their old ways…

  2. lostAnnfound

    For those of us working really hard not to be sucked back into the lifestyle again, how about “Frugal-oxetine”?

  3. Great article. The media is doing a number on us again. Big surprise. I practice thrift because I want to do it. I was raised that way and see no reason not to continue along those lines. In addition, in order to stay debt free I cannot go out and spend without consulting my budget. I drive an 11 year old car, live in an old 1890’s modest home and shop regularly at garage sales and thrift stores. I scour the internet for deals. I consider it a blessing I can do these things and save money to help family and give to others. To think we are poorly off (most of us) is to ignore the rest of the world. We need to remember how rich we are in this country.

  4. Wenchypoo

    If these people are so fatigued with being frugal after what….a mere couple of years, then we’re doomed. I myself have been frugal for over a decade (once I discovered it), and others have been life-long frugalites–WHY AREN’T WE FATIGUED YET?

    You just know in your gut we’re headed right back to the same position we found ourselves in 2008, 2009, and 2010–those who didn’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it.

  5. Well said. I am always struck by what sheep so many people are when it comes to following the latest trend hyped by the media. Really makes me wonder who is in charge.


  6. This was a very timely article for me. My wife and I were just talking the other day about how our spending on random stuff has crept back up recently. Stuff like this reminds me to step back and take another look at how we’re spending.

  7. Excellent, excellent post. Well-written and expressed. Funny enough, I just finished reading my library’s copy of Your Money or Your Life which was from the early 1990’s and all I could think was, “Joe Dominguez must have been rolling in his grave a few years ago”. We have severe short-term memory loss. I believe that a lot of this has to do with the reasons for adopting a frugal lifestyle. For example, my guess would be if your reasons were one of the following, the chances are extremely high this is a short-term thing and you’ll be back to old ways soon:
    1. You’re cutting back because you don’t want to appear insensitive to people hurting around you.
    2. You do not think your financial problems have anything to do with you. It’s because you lost your job, or because your boss cut your hours, or because immigrants are stealing jobs, or you took time off to raise your kids and are having a hard time getting back to the workplace, or your partner can’t stop spending, etc.
    It is very difficult for people to change and not everyone is able to, or willing, to learn from their mistakes. And why should we expect them? The word from the media and the government is this is all temporary. Everyone swallows it whole, trudges forward, waiting for tomorrow to get better.

  8. Remember, asking if people don’t remember the 1970s is asking too much of people who are in their forties. Those people were babies or toddlers. Plus, the new age of spenders coming along will not remember the 1980s either.

    However, what is wrong with the older folk? Some of those are the worst offenders. I know people my age who will absolutely NOT quit spending. Their answer–“I worked all my life and saved to buy for my children. I won’t continue this way until I die. I want to have some fun at last.” I suspect it is not “frugal fatigue.” Could it be they are following a path that is driven by addiction, the quick fix of buying and needing to buy more to get the same high or happiness? (not a novel thought)

    When the media uses the word “fatigue,” we feel sorry for the put-upon person. When the word “addiction” is used, do we tend to have less sympathy?

    Whatever the cause, semantics will not cure the buying and over-buying phenomena. Okay, jsut my 1.5 cents worth…lol.

  9. Gosh how depressing. You’ve summed it up so well and, unfortunately, I have a feeling that I’m one of ‘those’ people you write about. This weekend has been unnecessarily difficult for me. My shopping/acquisition addiction aka hoarding is a living hell at times when something or someone sets it off ~ it’s just a coping mechanism but SO destructive. It affects everyone around me when I get sucked in. I see it happening to me, I know it’s happening but to deny it is a bitch. I wonder how many other people are out there like me? I have a hunch that many of them are back at the mall buying stuff they probably don’t really need but it’s just a way to combat feeling overwhelmed with the other events that are occurring in life.

  10. Vicky Fox

    If folks are tired of budgeting after this short period of time, make way for those of us who aren’t. It looks like “budget” is starting to be like a “four-letter word” again. I think I’ll just sit here quietly and re-work my food shopping amount for March.

    I’m choosing to do what’s right now, so that I can have the freedom to do what I want to later.

  11. I think that a lot of people don’t want to commit to frugality because it does require a lot more effort than just buying whatever they want. I must admit that sometimes it is hard for me to remember to watch what I spend, especially when I see a new shirt I wish I could buy or when I walk by a bookstore and look through the new titles. But as someone who spent years toiling as an adjunct instructor, a job that is all about financial insecurity, I finally accepted the fact that frugality isn’t just a habit; it’s a way of life.

  12. Even ignoring the ’70s – ’90s, when plenty of people in my generation were too young to really give such things any attention… Uh, the gas prices of, what, three years ago? Most of those stats (carpooling, cutting down on driving overall) went right back down to normal levels once the gas prices dipped. And, as they’re rising again, we’ll see the same cycle. Whee.

    Of course being frugal is hard. If you get into the lifestyle, you can enjoy it. But many of us will always be a little annoyed that we can’t just spend freely on things like trips to Europe or even a pair of shoes that we don’t really need but are pretty. Or just be able to buy convenience food/eat out most of the time.

    Most of us are able to suck it up and not whine — okay, only whine a little — and enjoy the benefits of living frugally enough to keep up with the slog.

    Even my ADD husband who wants about half of the things he sees has learned that there is some benefit to delayed gratification. He’s also been incredibly frustrated. But he knows I do my best to get him the things he *really* wants, and so he does his best to be patient while I wait to find deals and use rewards GCs to defray costs.

    We’re adults, people. Life isn’t always fun. Responsibility rarely is. But we get cars and get to set our own bedtimes and even eat dessert whenever we want. So it’s a trade off.

  13. ha!! Buy-agra! Your new frugality article on MSN Money is the first piece of yours that I ever read, and my first foray into active learning about personal finance and connecting with other people like me (not that I could find too many at that time – 24, married, no debt, no kids, no latte habit)

  14. I’ve been “frugal” all my life and will continue to do so regardless of my financial situation. I like to get deals and spend more of my money where it matters.

  15. By the way, Your daughter is a chip of the ol block. Very smart young lady.

  16. Thanks for posting this. Whenever the media does a story about frugal fatigue, it drives me insane. Sales shot up at luxury retail stores, Porsche hit record sales…blah blah blah. I’ve seen it with too many of my friends. They had been cutting back and are now looking for any excuse to shop. It’s sad because I’m in my 20s, and the media also reported that people my age will be more likely to learn from this recession than the boomers…but I’m not seeing it! I’m glad to see your point resonating with those who commented though =)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Savvy: It sounds as though you already know what people your age are supposed to learn from the recession. Maybe you’ll wind up being an example to your friends once they get tired of being in debt.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  17. ImJuniperNow

    That article was on the front page of the business section of my local paper yesterday.

    I laughed until I cried!

    People are tired of living within their means!

    What next? Some group will have it declared an “illness” and people will be eligible for SSI/SSD payments because they can’t make it work?

    Man up, people!!!!

  18. I bought Tightwad Gazzette when they came out in bk form. I still have them, funny I was just thinking of opening them up. As a nutritionist what gets to me is when ppl complain about healthy eating. I just did a post on, “Eating healthy is NOT more expensive”.
    It just takes a little creativity n dusting off the recipe books.

  19. This is excellent– thank you for voicing so many of my frustrations with how frugality is “covered” in the media. For the truly frugal, fatigue is an unaffordable luxury.

  20. Pretty awesome post. I shudder to think of what the next decade will entail. I know personally that my family is full of hard-working, blue collar folks who, for the most part, have always been frugal. This economy is really doing a number on them. I don’t think people realize how much of a divide we are going to see on salaries and incomes over the next decade. If you AREN’T frugal, it might come back to bite you.

  21. I am 26 and my fiance is 29 and we are frugal and planning to be frugal for the rest of our lives. Being frugal allows to splurge when we really want to. We have a duplex that we rent part of out and we may be able to buy another soon by being frugal.

  22. Jerry L

    Being frugal is just being SMART! You make your money work for
    you rather than the opposite.
    People are so used to instant gratification esp the young that it will be hard to change.

  23. Come to the Petrucci family where out-cheaping each other is like a sporting event!

  24. Oops, out-frugaling. It’s actually fun and always has been. And like Donna, it is a blessing to have a little extra from your efforts to be able to give to others


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