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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There are 34 comments to "Frugal shaming and financial one-upmanship".

  1. Brian says 27 February 2017 at 08:28

    Didn’t know frugal shaming and financial one-upmanship was a thing. There’s no one sit fits all program. They call it PERSONAL finance for a reason. You need to find what works best for your personal situation. Good luck on your 2017 spending project JD.

  2. Mrs Money says 27 February 2017 at 08:31

    For a long time, I would beat myself up about how much we would spend dining out. We don’t buy many things- hardly any clothes, books, gadgets, etc. and have two young girls. Eating out is an escape for me as I’m a stay at home mom, I don’t have to cook, and I really enjoy it. I decided to incorporate the cost into our budget and as long as we don’t go over it, I’m not going to worry about it!

  3. Honey Smith says 27 February 2017 at 09:27

    Had to LOL considering MMM financially shamed you into biking more to begin with.

    • J.D. says 27 February 2017 at 10:07

      Haha. Yes, I brought that up yesterday. The thing is, I’m okay when Pete gives me a hard time. In person, I feel like it’s good-natured ribbing. He’s not making me feel bad about my choices but encouraging me to think differently, and I appreciate that. I need to be challenged sometimes. 😉

  4. L says 27 February 2017 at 09:48

    Thanks for this take. I have felt this from FIRE folks sometimes. I am going to retire at a typical time, not early. I have been made to feel less than because I want to live part of my life now and like my job.

  5. ESI Money says 27 February 2017 at 13:01

    In his interview with Tim Ferriss, Pete said that he’s actually not about shaming at all. He makes suggestions and it’s up to his readers to decide (or not) what works for them.

    He admitted that his blog writing is a bit more strongly worded, but in actuality (real life) he doesn’t judge people for the spending decisions they make.

    It was a good interview and made him seem more friendly/kind. Perhaps you can point people to that (and listen yourself if you haven’t — it’s quite interesting.)

  6. FullTimeFinance says 27 February 2017 at 17:26

    Sometimes I feel the word frugal itself is too loaded for things like this. On the one hand the rest of society views frugal as a synonym for cheap. On the other hand those a little too excited about the world of FI do the topper type of scenario. Neither is healthy. I’ve always viewed that really what we all are doing is cutting out the things we don’t value in our lives. It’s an efficiency play that’s different for every individual. The benefit of the community is to add additional ideas for efficiency, not make someone feel guilty.

  7. Shara G. says 27 February 2017 at 20:29

    Yeah, that is why I stopped reading MMM. It is the attitude of absolutes and the fact that he has on his site if you disagree with him on [X] to not post (I can’t remember where I saw it, but I saw it somewhere on his site). It might have been about snow tires and 4WD or just in general, I forget. But I completely believe that his followers are hard core and judgmental.

    I realized when I had a hard time with some of his technical analysis that I needed to leave or I was going to devolve into a troll where I would be a contrarian on every thread, lol.

    Hey, some people need a punch in the face. Some people do better with absolutes than moderation. If people get a kick out of self deprivation then that’s cool, I guess.

  8. James McBrearty says 27 February 2017 at 22:34

    Brilliant post, I’ve seen this online quite a bit.

    It’s perfectly OK to be frugal in some areas but in others to be more flexible, particularly if it is something that is your personal interest.

    I’ve seen some bloggers go on about how they were able to do some things so cheaply, but the steps they went through ended up being so much work they could have actually saved time and money just paying more upfront rather than pursuing their own frugal crusade!

  9. The Green Swan says 28 February 2017 at 02:48

    What a shame! I hadn’t heard of frugal shaming to this tone before but not surprised it exists. People with low self esteem resort to bringing others down to feel better about themselves. What can you do besides avoid those negative factors in life!?

  10. recovering engineer says 28 February 2017 at 05:48

    Sorry to be snarky and negative, but being a survivor of engineering schools, it is the nature of engineers to compete, always be right and point out flaws. Maybe this is true in other disciplines with a large % of very smart people, but reading MMM and the comments puts me back in engineering school….both good and bad.

    • Reverse Engineer says 28 April 2017 at 16:49

      I can identify with that. I think STEM folk tend to be a bit obsessive (compulsive?) at times. Despite that, I (mostly unwittingly) followed the ‘millionaire next door’ model to FI by 55ish. A route I think most can follow without feeling too deprived or miserly.

  11. JoDi says 28 February 2017 at 07:40

    I think some of MMM’s readers are more the problem than Pete himself. He is pretty hardcore about optimizing things, like biking vs. car-driving, but he makes it very clear that he spends less than frugally in other areas like good food and drink. He also opts for eco-conscious choices in construction which tend to be more expensive up-front than choosing the typical option. I think the extreme “frugal-shamers” in his group get part of his message but misunderstand its intent – which is that you stop wasting money needlessly or because of laziness in some areas so you can spend in others that are important to you and will bring more satisfaction.

    That being said, I agree with some of his advice but feel like he is a little too hardcore on some things like the biking. I live 9 miles from work, have to be in at 7:00, and need to be presentable when I’m there. I’m not biking there and back daily in all kinds of weather and dealing with the extra hassle and time that would come along with that. I wouldn’t be able to get rid of my car even if I did bike to work so I’d only be saving the gas used on the commute, I’m not interested in moving to a more bike friendly area right now because we like where we live and I don’t like the area near where I work (which is also not bike-friendly), and it would be a huge expense to move anyway. I’d rather spend the time I save by driving to work hiking in the woods with my dogs or doing some other physical activity I enjoy. For me, the little bit extra it costs me to drive to work is more than worth what I get out of it, but MMM would say I’m making excuses. That’s the part I disagree with – the “this works for me so it WILL work for you” mentality that he has about certain things. Every part of the country is not the same, and the same things won’t work everywhere. You have to take the principles from what he shares and apply them to your life to optimize the things you can.

    And FWIW, driving less is a good goal. Riding a bike 4 miles in the cold and rain (8 actually since I’m assuming 4 was one-way) is one of those times I’d opt to drive.

  12. J.D. says 28 February 2017 at 12:55

    I hope it’s clear not just from this post but from my entire blog that I have ZERO complaints about MMM himself, and I hope that’s not how this came across. I like Pete and consider him a friend. I think he’s done amazing work in the field of personal finance. My problem is with a certain group of people — some of whom happen to be die-hard Mustachians — that take frugality too far, making it into some sort of competition rather than a chance to encourage others to do better. There’s a vast difference between positive reinforcement when somebody is making even a bit of progress versus condemnation and oneupmanship when they’re not at the level you think they ought to be.

  13. Ingrid says 28 February 2017 at 17:14

    Hi J.D.
    I’m sure you didn’t mean to turn this into a complaint about MMM, but the responses to your column somehow show that some people, like myself, seem to feel overwhelmed, even offended maybe by the abrasiveness of his column. I don’t know him personally, of course, and I’m sure he is a nice person, but the tone in his column is often off-putting and I always wonder if he would be more helpful to the cause if he wrote less offensively.
    I love reading your posts and also the Frugalwoods and ESI, which are more helpful to me than being “scolded” all the time 🙂

    • Athena says 09 March 2017 at 18:43

      What is ESI? I know the Frugalwoods (love them!), but am not familiar with ESI.

  14. Katie says 28 February 2017 at 19:45

    Great post! Congrats on biking more. I’m curious did you need to find a place to change your flat or did you bring it to a shop?

    • J.D. says 28 February 2017 at 19:49

      I took it to a shop. My post about doing so started an interesting discussion on Facebook too. One guy asked me why I don’t carry spare tubes and/or a patch kit with me so that I can fix it myself. My answer is that I did twenty years ago when I was riding 1500+ miles per year on country roads. But now I ride much less and I ride in a city that has plentiful bike services. I know where the nearest bike shop is at all times, and it’s rarely more than a mile away. (In this case, it was 0.4 miles from where I got the flat.) So, I choose to NOT carry (or own) spare tubes/patch kits. I likened it to “traveling light” when I’m on the road. I don’t take a lot with me. I know that I can always “buy it there”, if I need to. To me, this is a more minimalistic choice. But is it frugal? Probably not. Thus, I’m in the middle of writing a post about how frugality and minimalism aren’t always the same thing (although many times they are).

      • Shara G. says 01 March 2017 at 09:40

        Isn’t the point of FI being able to do what you want to do, and not doing what you don’t want to do? I think this is the exact point against “frugal shamers”: It is within your budget to set your priority to pay someone to fix your bike. If you don’t want to, or you don’t have time, or whatever. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t the frugal choice. It matters that you have the resources to make it.

        My grandmother grew up on a farm during the depression. But while she was quite frugal after the depression was over she refused to can another fruit or vegetable for as long as she lived. She hated it. Therefore she did it when she had to, but once she was financially secure she never did so again.

  15. HeatherLiz says 02 March 2017 at 20:08

    I really like the suggestion of comparing your actions to your own past actions, if there is going to be comparing. I certainly hope that I do not outwardly indulge in any frugal shaming (or fugal one-upmanship), but I am aware of having those thoughts internally at times. I felt a twinge of shame as I read the “I can’t believe you paid $8 for a glass of wine” comment. I would never say it, but I have thought it! It’s a good idea to examine where that urge to judge comes from in ourselves.

  16. Ben says 03 March 2017 at 06:11

    Great post, JD! You’ve hit upon a concept which has been lingering in the back of my mind for a while, that maybe some in the whole Mustachianism/FIRE movement take it too far.

    There’s a big world out there, and going too deep into the “bunker” which extreme saving often necessitates inevitably causes you to miss out on it. I have experienced this myself. I’m not saying we should live for today and forget about tomorrow, but the trick is to figure out how to spend thoughtfully to enhance your life, without wasting your $$$. Your RV trip across America last year is a great example of that.

  17. Tonya@Budget and the Beach says 03 March 2017 at 06:37

    I had that happen once were I was talking to a very frugal PF blogger and told her about how I was trying to cut back more but there were some areas that were more difficult-but I’m still trying to find solutions. I pointed what those things are. The next week there was a blog post basically outlining everything I did (without saying my name) and blogging about how she does it better or she can’t believe anyone would spend money on that. Perfect example, eh? Great article!

    • PJ says 09 March 2017 at 21:35

      Tonya, you seem to be upset about finding your personal details – even without your name – being published by that frugal PF blogger. Yet you are commending this article, which essentially does the same thing to others. I’m curious how you think the people who attended that MMM meet-up might be feeling right about now, first being talked about behind their back, and then having that information shared in an article? Especially given that anyone participating in the MMM forums would be able to identify at least their online personas!

      For the record, I am a participating member of the MMM forum, but not in the U.S. I’ve attended a couple of MMM meet-ups, and like someone else said, have experienced 100% support, an 0% shame.

      J.D. Roth, I think it is a shame that you felt it was necessary to identify this particular group of people who chose to trust in meeting up with virtual strangers, and expose them for the sake of an article. This same article could easily have been written about the frugal one-upmanship dynamic prevalent in *various* parts of the PF/frugality world, without any reference to MMM, the location of the meet-up, or its date.

      • J.D. says 10 March 2017 at 06:04

        I have nothing but respect for Pete and the work he does. And having attended a couple of Camp Mustaches, several Ecuador trips, and lots of other Mustachian events, I believe most of the folks who buy into the MMM brand of Financial Independence are fine, excellent people. In fact, many of them are my close friends.

        Having said that, this conversation happened. And it’s happened more than once regarding a certain (small) percentage of people that participate in the MMM community. My intention isn’t to call out specific people — that’s why I’ve left things vague — but to point out that even in groups that are doing a great deal of good, people can be petty and cause damage by belittling the efforts others are making. This is something that needs to be said because it’s doing real damage.

        More to the point, the article isn’t meant to call out Mustachians. It’s meant to call out the constant drive to compare ourselves to others, whether it’s to make ourselves feel better or to make ourselves feel worse. Yes, I relate a Mustachian-related anecdote, but that’s merely the backdrop for my larger point. By focusing on the MMM thing, you’re missing that larger point. You’re right: I could have used some other part of the PF/frugality world — if this conversation had occurred in that other part of the PF/frugality world. But it didn’t. It occurred in this context, so that’s why I shared it.

        I’m sorry you think it’s shameful to have told the story.

        • PJ says 11 March 2017 at 13:22

          Just wanted to follow up to say that I appreciate the fact that you’ve removed references to the specific location of that group, and clarified that it’s not everyone/all the time that this dynamic occurs.

          That was always my point. People who participate in online communities are not actually totally anonymous, but as they become more deeply connected with other people who are trying to follow the same path, they share more about their lives. My concern was that you were singling out a specific group of people (some of whom I know, and who are nothing like what was described by your friend) when actually, this is a dynamic that happens all across the FIRE/frugality community.

          Changing how you think about money, and changing ingrained patterns of behaviour around money can be hard. But it’s made much easier when you can share ideas and resources, and give and receive support from people who are trying to walk the walk and talk the talk. Frugal shaming and one-upmanship may happen from time to time, but it’s not the primary dynamic in the MMM community. I really hope that no one will be put off joining the MMM forums (or any other financial community), or attending a meet-up group, because of this article.

  18. Harlan says 04 March 2017 at 16:55

    I think you’ve written about gamification. Well, this is the result of that: people keep score and compete to see who matches some ideal version of “frugality” (or “couponing” or “hypermiling” or “minimalizing” or “online incoming” or whatever) best. (I don’t have time for that nonsense.)

    And online, a vital part of communication is missing, and conversations easily become adversarial.

    • Harlan says 04 March 2017 at 16:58

      Ooh, forgot “travel hacking” … these are all competitive sports!

  19. Thehappyphilosopher says 05 March 2017 at 09:05

    Interesting post JD. I’ve been to a couple of MMM retreats and I have found them to be 100% support, 0% shame. Maybe the local meetups have a different vibe. I tend to assume the best in people. They are probably just trying to be helpful and are unintentionally shaming. Also I am aware that sometimes it’s how we interpret a situation. I notice that many times the guilt or shame is coming from me, not necessarily from what the person actually said, but how I processed it. I see this happen all the time online, where someone reads into a post or comment and is clearly bringing their own personal demons into the discussion. It is very minimal on PF blogs. If you really want to see this pathology in action read the comments in any yahoo article…actually don’t that is not a healthy exercise 😉

  20. Annie K says 09 March 2017 at 06:48

    Agreed! I frequent different personal finance boards, and I’ve learned I can’t mention the fact that I’m getting married. I never ask, but people decide to offer up all about how cheap their wedding was and how happy they are together, as though if we do anything else, we’re doomed for failure. It’s incredibly grating and judgmental.

    This isn’t even in the FIRE community, but just more typical personal finance ones. I can’t even imagine what he MMM folks would have to say about it.

  21. The Frugal prof says 09 March 2017 at 08:22

    I think the real key is to be happy with your life while pursuing FI. I doubt the MMM people would enjoy my post about spending $600 on front row concert tickets, but it was one of the best experiences of my life and it was well worth it to me.

    Interesting topic.

  22. Melanie of Mindfully Spent says 09 March 2017 at 12:58

    You’re just a couple hours south of us! 🙂 I really appreciated this article. The online community of PF bloggers has been so supportive even though my family and I started out late. I feel as though other bloggers are quick to include “There’s no one right way” caveats in their writing, and I felt like it was a uniquely accepting environment. I still believe that, but this was a good reminder that humanity comes in all forms… even in the PF world. Thanks for being one of those who accepts the different paths.

  23. lyn says 09 March 2017 at 21:43

    Friends help each other, enemies outshine each other. Why this frugal talk sounds like winning the Joneses game upside down? If that’s the case I think it’s better to win the Joneses game, as least you have lived a life when you die broke than to suffer and die rich.

  24. Steven says 10 March 2017 at 06:39

    I have been to a few meetups in the personal finance space and I think each meetup has it’s own makeup. I mean it makes sense to have a MMM talk about anti-consumerism and a blogger meetup to talk more about entrepreneurship and money. I think any meetup you go to is opening up your world a little more with new people and different ways of thinking, if anything I applaud those who get out and meetup to hear more. Cheers to you JD, hope it’s sunny and mild winds in your neck of the woods, keep biking good sir!

  25. Dividend Diplomats says 13 March 2017 at 19:58

    Isn’t it interesting that this kind of behavior happens in any group? It fascinates me and is such an interesting social behavior. I would not have expected this in the frugal community and that it would be more of an encouraging tone (not to say that it always is one way or the other).

    I think you drew the right conclusions from all of this conversation and I’m happy you took the time to share them with us. “If you want to compare, then compare with yourself. Compare your present habits with your past — and your future. ” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Each person and each situation is different and should be treated as such.


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