Frugal shaming and financial one-upmanship

Yesterday, a group of Portland personal-finance bloggers got together at a local bar for slushy margaritas and a chat about money. It's always good to hang out with the Fincon folks. I used to think of them as “virtual friends”, but more and more they're my real friends.

Much of our conversation centered on our personal lives. We talked about dieting and “going dry”. We talked about mutual friends. We talked about how my bike developed a flat tire during the ride to the bar, and how I'd need to find someplace to repair it before heading home. (As part of my year-long quest to reduce my driving, I rode four miles through the cold and rain to meet my friends.)

We also talked about the business of blogging, of course. James suggested some advertising networks I should try. Emma and Monica mentioned some work they're doing for clients. We all talked about how and where we work. I've begun hunting for dedicated office space in my neighborhood — working from home is just too distracting — but am having a tough time finding anywhere affordable.

Naturally, this led to a conversation about frugality.

Frugal Shaming and Financial One-Upmanship

“I've been to some Mr. Money Mustache meetups around the country,” one person said. “It's such a different vibe from this group. Here we're talking about how we earn and spend money, and I don't feel like anyone is judging anybody else. But for whatever reason, sometimes in the MMM group — not always, but sometimes — there's a competition to see who can spend less.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Like if you were to ride your bike to a meetup, there'd be somebody else who had walked there. Or ridden a greater distance. Or somebody who said they hadn't driven all month. And then there'd be somebody else who'd say they don't even own a car. Then there'd be another person who'd say they've never owned a car.”

“Ah, so it's a sort of frugal one-upmanship,” I said. “Like a pissing match.”

“Exactly. It's like a badge of honor to see who's most hardcore,” said our friend.

“I guess that's better than competing to see who can spend the most,” said another blogger.

“It is,” agreed our friend. “But it can go to far. A lot of times it turns into frugal shaming.”

“Frugal shaming?” asked another member of the group. Usually when we talk about frugal shaming, we're referring to folks who look down on others for being too cheap or miserly with their money. It was clear that our friend meant something different.

“Yeah. You know, stuff like, ‘I can't believe you just paid eight dollars for that glass of wine.' Or, ‘I can't believe you drive to work.' Or, ‘I can't believe you pay so much for your apartment.' It goes from comparing success stories to talking trash about other people because they make different choices.”

“Yikes,” I said. “That's dangerous. That kind of stuff is often counter-productive.”

“No kidding! It kills the conversation because people get scared to speak up. They don't want to be judged and found wanting. And it especially turns off new people. When people first discover financial independence, they're excited by the possibilities. They come to these meetups to share their enthusiasm with like-minded folks. But if their first experience is all of this frugal shaming, it makes them feel bad. It leaves a sour taste in their mouth. They thought they'd stumbled on a great new way of life and they're testing the waters, but instead they're made to feel bad for not immediately diving into the deep end. They come once but never return.”

“I love the financial independence subreddit, but they can fall into that same trap too,” I said. “It's like they think there's only one way to do this, and if you choose a different path than somehow you're doing it wrong.”

“That's one of the reasons I try to talk about how there's no one right way to be financially independent,” I said. “We each have different wants and needs. We each have different desires and preferences. Plus, we each come to these ideas from different places. I discovered smart money management late in life, but maybe you discovered it earlier. Depending on where we start, our paths to increased frugality and economic efficiency are going to look different, you know?”

“Yep,” said our colleague. “But for some reason, some Mustachians don't get that. A lot of them think you should be hardcore from the get-go. And if you aren't, they're not shy about telling you what they think. Maybe it comes from Pete's online persona? All of the ‘punch you in the face' stuff? He's certainly not like that in person.”

Note: After fielding a few comments and emails, I feel like I need to make something clear. I'm not anti-Mustache. Far from it. I think Mr. Money Mustache has done much to revolutionize how we think about money and retirement. He's changed my perception, for sure. I like collaborating with Pete professionally, and enjoy carousing with him personally. This article isn't an anti MMM article at all.

Apples to Apples

From there, the conversation moved on, but I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about frugal shaming and financial one-upmanship. In many ways, this is simply the inverse of “keeping up with the Joneses”“.

Most Americans fall into a trap where they compare their situation with their friends and neighbors, and that leads them to spend more in an endless cycle of consumerism. In this case, folks are still comparing themselves to others but they're taking things in a different direction. That direction might be better for their pocketbooks (and for the environment overall), but it's no less damaging to their psyches — and the psyches of those around them.

I don't think it's bad to look at how other people handle money. Doing so gives you some sort of baseline. It lets you understand how the mass of people live. The problem comes when you begin judging others (and yourself) in comparison.

If you want to compare, then compare with yourself. Compare your present habits with your past — and your future. Challenge yourself to become more efficient. If you're spending $4500 per month to fund your lifestyle, aim to spend only $4000 per month by the end of the year. Then try to cut that to $3500 month. Identify your problem spots and work to fix them.

This is exactly what my 2017 spending project is all about. I want to compare my actual current habits with my past habits — and with my “ideal” habits. I want to find financial leaks both big and small, and I want to fix them. But I have zero interest in comparing my habits with anyone else.

And honestly, I'm trying not to beat myself up when I do identify things that are broken. What's the point in self-recrimination? Frugal shaming yourself is just as pointless as frugal shaming others.

Instead, when I find an issue, I flag it and then I fix it. Am I paying too much for my cell phone? I make an note to cut the costs the next time I handle my finances. Am I spending too much on dining out? I start looking for ways to reduce the frequency and expense of restaurant meals. But I learned long ago that there's no sense in telling myself I'm stupid or weak or a spendthrift. All that does is make me feel guilty, which usually leads to more spending.

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