The balance between splurger and miser

Before I changed my habits, I spent money without much thought. In college, if I had a two-hour break between classes, I'd drive to the mall. Once I started working full time, my coworker and I would bring our lunches to work just so that we'd have the entire hour to shop. If I was bored, I'd wander into the cosmetics superstore Sephora for entertainment. Even at home I'd shop, buying online and tracking my packages until they arrived.

I thought I needed a new dress for every event I attended, new clothes from REI for every backpacking trip, and practically a whole new wardrobe if I was going out of town. I thought these new things were a way to reinvent myself or to portray the right image, but all they did was fill up my closets and bathrooms with a ton of Stuff that I'm still sorting through today. (Brokamp's article on turning clutter into cash inspired me to devote this weekend to more de-cluttering.)

These habits never put me deeply into debt, but they weren't helping me to get out, either. I was often surprised at what my total at the checkout counter, but I'd throw down the credit card anyway, too self-conscious to put anything back. I'd make a lame promise to myself to cut back, but I never did.

A Stop to the Splurging

The temporary high of buying Stuff was making me miserable when the credit card bill arrived every month. When I finally had enough of paying down the debt just to drive the balance back up again, I went in the other direction. I quit buying clothes and cosmetics and made my lunch every, single day. It was a strange adjustment to have a packed lunch and a full hour in the middle of the day, without a shopping trip to fill the time. I cut my magazine subscriptions, reduced the minutes on my cell phone plan, carpooled to save gas money, and took clothing to the resale shop. I avoided every expense I possibly could, and the debt was paid off pretty quickly.

The downside was that I found it hard to spend money on anything, even after my husband and I were debt-free and had a healthy emergency fund.

A Stop to the Miserliness

I remember when it became clear that I needed to assess my relationship with money (yet again) because it was the day that the glass carafe from our French coffee press hit the floor. My stomach turned, and I immediately wondered how much it was going to cost to replace it. I went online and found that a replacement carafe would cost $12. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I also realized that my reaction wasn't indicative of a healthy relationship with money.

My compulsion to buy had turned into a compulsion to save. Why was I buying all that Stuff? Why was I now so worried about saving every cent, especially since we were out of debt and saving money every month? I filled my need to buy with a need to save, and neither was working for me.

The Middle Ground

In an attempt to find a balance between debt and spending guilt, I began to think about the reasons why it would be a good thing to spend extra money. I came up with the following situations:

  • Gaining knowledge. This year I paid more than I ever thought I would for a business course. Halfway into it, I know it was a good decision that will more than pay for the cost of the course. Paying to learn something useful doesn't necessarily have to have a monetary return on investment, though. I'd like to hire a swim coach to improve my skills, which won't make money but does provide a great physical workout. I don't feel badly about spending money when I will learn something of value.
  • Experiencing something new. This one can overlap with gaining knowledge, but I felt it was still worth mentioning separately. Experiencing something new can mean travel or taking lessons in something that interests you.
  • Paying for quality. The quality of the food I eat is a high priority to me, so I'm okay with spending extra in that area. Another example is the aforementioned clothing habit. I've come to adapt the quality over quantity stance when it comes to clothes. If I actually need something, I'll buy it, but I want it to last and I'll pay a more for that (and an upcoming wedding is no longer considered a need for a new dress).
  • Supporting important causes. One example of a cause that I support is buying locally, so I'm okay with spending extra if it's supporting a local business. You can lobby for many causes just by mindfully choosing how and where you spend your money.

Determining when I'm okay with spending has helped me to find a balance between mindlessly consuming and mindlessly saving. When are you okay with spending more money? Why do you value those things?

J.D.'s note: I went through this exact same thing. When my frugality paid off, when I got out of debt and built savings, I still couldn't spend on myself. Does everyone go through this? It wasn't until I re-discovered the balanced money formula that I was able to loosen up again and budget for fun. I'm much happier for it.

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Russ
Russ
10 years ago

Excellent timing for this article – I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I’m going through this too. Last year I was almost pathological about saving, and spent almost nothing on myself. This year I made a resolution to spend more money (how many people have *that* resolution in a recession?). I took up martial arts, bought some sports equipment (clothes, MMA gloves, kit bag, gumshield), and this month splashed out a bit and bought a new watch and phone. I feel better for it, and everything was paid for with savings, but now I need to make… Read more »

Elle
Elle
10 years ago

I find it difficult sometimes to balance the two extremes. I now try to focus on long term effects of financial decisions. Taking a vacation may cost a bit of money, but I’m getting an experience to share with my husband.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl
10 years ago

Great article. I totally agree with your bullet points at the end, especially the last two. A lot of times the cheapest thing is not the best investment (quality is the way to go), and giving to worthy causes is such a healthy/good thing to do (frugal, no, worth it, yes!).

One other area I’m willing to be un-miserly in is date nights/babysitters/overnights without the kids. We don’t spend tons of money on this category, but we do feel like the couple time we get on date nights or overnights is well worth the monetary investment.

BibleDebt
BibleDebt
10 years ago

I get the feeling this happens to most of us who were big spenders! Here are two things that have helped me balance my saving and spending.

1. Spend less than you make, but spend something.

2. Have a goal for what you are saving for so you are not saving just to save.

Everything in moderation. Maybe we need a support group. Big spenders, who were big savers, who are trying to spend again. 😉

Thanks for the article!

Paul Williams
Paul Williams
10 years ago

April & J.D., I think most people who make dramatic changes like that go through those phases of extremes. I never had a long period of splurging, but I started making much better money decisions after college. Then I went through that phase of not wanting to spend money on myself at all. I still struggle with it some but not because I want to save so much. For myself, having defined goals and figuring out how much I need to save to reach them has given me freedom to spend on the “fun stuff” in my budget without thinking… Read more »

Chipmunk
Chipmunk
10 years ago

Very timely post; I am struggling mightily with this issue right now. I have a very stable, if not especially well-paid, main job that adequately covers my rent and utilities (and luckily I live in a land with national healthcare, so insurance is not an issue) and two side jobs that pay for everything else. I have NO debt to speak of, not even credit card. Over two years I have amassed $40,000 in my bank account, an amount that gets steadily larger every month, because I have become compulsive about saving, nay, *hoarding* money to the point that it… Read more »

Guus@TheOtherSideOfThePond
10 years ago

Nice post! This is partly what I’m going through (or at least, have been doing for most of my life). I grew up not having much of anything and have been in saving mode all my life (the comment about the coffee pot breaking rings a whole churchload of bells). I realise I need to lighten up, but don’t know how to make the change. My partner has a steady income and therefor knows exactly how much he can spend on fun stuff, and he does so faithfully. However, being a one man entrepreneur with varying income myself, the fact… Read more »

Nester
Nester
10 years ago

Great post! I can relate. Thanks!

sandy
sandy
10 years ago

Timely for me…we’ve been uber frugal the last 2 1/2 years striving to pay off our home mortgage. April 1 should be pay it off day!!! I’ve already been toying with the ‘well, now what do we buy?” questions…vacations? save more for the girls college funds? completely remodel the house? Big screen TV??? Eat out regularly? (We went out to dinner the other night (the 4 of us) and the bill after tip came to $75…whew!and this place wasn’t a fancy place, either!) Or, should we pretend the mortgage isn’t paid off, and still “pay” a mortgage to a different… Read more »

Abby
Abby
10 years ago

So glad to know I’m not alone! I recently spent $70 on a lovely new king-sized comforter – on clearance, bought with a gift card I’d received for Christmas. I couldn’t bring myself to take off the tags and put it on the bed, even though our current comforter was more than ten years old and fraying at the edges. I kept thinking I should return it … When I finally took off the tags and put it on the bed, it was a huge relief. With plenty of $$$ in our emergency fund, we’re paying our mortgage and remaining… Read more »

Harrken
Harrken
10 years ago

I have always been an advocate of quality over quanity. I look at it from two standpoints. First, owning high quality stuff means that I don’t need to own a lot of stuff, and I take better care of the stuff I do have. Second, high quality items last longer and are environmentally friendly, because I am not adding as much to the landfill when stuff eventually wears out. All in all, good stuff is actually much more economic in the long term.

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

Except with moral absolutes, it is usually never good to be at either bipolar ends of a spectrum. It’s difficult because it is very hard to find middle ground. Paying off a mountain of debt requires sustained intensity and focus – these same qualities could work to your detriment in a different phase in your life. @Chipmunk (Post #6), have you tried buying things you need little by little? Perhaps, just one of shoes this month and a nice shirt the next month – this may be less overwhelming. Life is so precious and too short; please don’t forget to… Read more »

Guus@TheOtherSideOfThePond
10 years ago

@DreamChaser75 (#12) Thanks for that suggestion! I think I’ve heard of it but haven’t implemented it. My partner and I keep a tight budget generally and have good insight in what goes out. In my case, I pay myself some sort of wage out of the company (although all the company’s money is my money and there’s no fiscal or other separation, apart from the one I put there) to cover my basic needs: rent, insurance, something towards a small pension, etc. and a small sum for other stuff. The rest remains in the company for when the tax office… Read more »

joseph | kickdebtoff
joseph | kickdebtoff
10 years ago

We are creatures of habit! and i would say i admire your saving habit. You fall among a very small percentile of people who actually save glad you are able to do it. As you pointed out! finding the balance is crucial, without falling back to the old habit.
My wife and i are the opposites in terms of spending.. she is the spender and i can be obsessive saver.. but these two extremes balances out fairly well. I learn from her how to spend and she is learns from me how to save.

Maureen
Maureen
10 years ago

Chipmunk, I’m worried about you! You are making decisions that will compromise your health. Walking for miles a day in worn shoes that are ‘wrecking your feet’ could cause stress fractures in your legs. It happened to a friend of mine and it was very painful! You also need to see a dentist pronto. I would also, gently and respectfully suggest that you speak to your doctor about these lifestyle changes. I’m concerned that you may be clinically depressed. It’s very good that you recognize that things aren’t balanced. You are clearly a hard working person. You do deserve to… Read more »

Justin
Justin
10 years ago

I like the buying local idea. We try to do this, but the farmer’s market is far from our house. When we can, we get some excellent pastured pork from a local farm at a good price. Might be a little bit higher than grocery store meat, but the farm uses no steroids or anti-biotic products, etc. Buying quality is also a good idea – I’m a big fan of this, especially for items that are big purchases (furniture, vehicles, and the like). It takes longer to save for these items, but in the end I think we enjoy the… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

April: I’m glad you found your middle ground. You have some good ground rules for situations where it’s ok to spend money. I think that’s the area that frugality sites sometimes miss – declaring the times and situations when spending money – and sometimes, even, spending extra money – is a good thing. I think if we think of frugality as ONE of our values and balance it with our other values (such as learning or supporting local businesses in your case) we can choose the best way to spend our limited resources to support those values. Saving money isn’t… Read more »

ebyt
ebyt
10 years ago

@Chipmunk: Definitely not laughing at you! But yes, it does sound like you have a problem. Saving is ok – but at least get that tooth fixed – it will cost you a fortune in a few years – especially if you need dentures. I agree with Maureen – talk to your doctor. —- I can relate to April’s post a lot. That’s how I was a couple of years ago in college (re: the spending). Now that I’m getting close to paying off my debt, I have learned healthier habits during the process. I don’t think I have a… Read more »

StayClassy
StayClassy
10 years ago

Chipmunk Post #6: I didn’t laugh at you at all, I used to be like you. But then after a few life changing experiences (I had a bad car accident which caused some medical issues), I realized life is too short and we need to enjoy it as much as we can before it’s too late. We can’t take our money with us. I agree with DreamChaser57 in that maybe buying things one month at a time and learning to enjoy what you have worked so hard for. Also in my career, because I’m not where I want to be,… Read more »

ctreit
ctreit
10 years ago

I have never been that good spending money on myself. I am glad that I never had debt and I had to deprive myself of stuff that is important for me, but I think some people just have a mindset that prevents them from treating themselves very well. I suppose it is some sort of guilt feeling.

Dave
Dave
10 years ago

I find myself in both of these odd situations at times. MOST of the time I don’t spend money on much and just dream about stuff I want. Then once in a while, I’ll just splurge and spend entirely way too much for things because I’ve wanted them for awhile. Afterward, I find myself getting aggravated at what I’ve done, save for a while, and start the process over again. It’s a vicious cycle. I’ve found that I have saved quite a bit over the years, but after marriage and a new baby, my paycheck doesn’t seem to go quite… Read more »

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

I have always FELT like a spender even though I’m a saver. I managed to outsmart myself about two years ago by budgeting more specifically. I don’t feel guilty buying clothes when the money has ‘clothing’ written above it. I don’t worry about having to buy a new computer when I know there’s $900 to cover my car insurance that’s coming due next month. DH and I make good money and I cringe sometimes when I hear myself say, “We can’t afford it.” because we can. It’s just not in the spending plan. But then when I find the money… Read more »

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

I actually just posted about how my husband and I came up with our allowance system for “fun” money. I was nagging and becoming my inner-Scrooge McDuck, so we came up with a compromise that ended up working for both of us. Now I’m not quite so bad and my marriage is much happier.

Sandy E.
Sandy E.
10 years ago

I think the reason why we don’t spend for awhile after we get out of debt is because we don’t trust ourselves yet that we won’t get back into debt again. In other words, we have to rebuild trust with ourselves and that takes time, and the time probably is different for each person. I was terrified that I would overspend again, but as each month passed, and I didn’t and I, in fact, managed my money well, then that grip of terror lessened month by month. Just because you get out of debt doesn’t mean you are “cured” to… Read more »

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

Honestly this maybe the single best post on GRS ever. I haven’t read them all but most of them over the last couple years. I have thought about posting it in forums or writing about it months but thought people would think I was wierd. We finished paying off debt, then funded our E-Fund, Retirement and additional savings (shorter term savings, longer savings and a taxable brokerage account) ever month. However we still had a good amount of money left over. Now before I would buy everything, I was always worried about spending, but I had to have the latest… Read more »

Maharani
Maharani
10 years ago

Reply to CHipmunk: Re: I eat exactly the same meal three times a day – rice and beans – even though it makes me miserable. THis is not only boring but VERY bad for your health. If you live in the US, you will in the end have to pay more to fix the consequences, and it may be starting already with your teeth….. Do you at least take Vitamin C? If not, watch out for scurvy, a disease that has otherwise virtually disappeared in the Western World. I am 55 and in excellent health, and I realize that the… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

DH also solved this problem for him with a weekly allowance. Absent of purchasing real estate in Northern California (something that would take several more million than we have and isn’t worth the life sacrifices in between), I’m pretty comfortable with my spending. I feel comfortable with the retirement maxed out, no debt, a healthy emergency fund, automated 529 savings, and regular payments on the house. After that I don’t feel guilty but I also don’t need as much as we could buy. I am a little worried in case DH quits his job… then I will have to start… Read more »

Artist
Artist
10 years ago

I went through that same emotional yo-yo of spend/save. What helped me balance it the most was creating a realistic budget that included savings categories. Each month when I look at the budget vs. actual for the month & YTD & see positive results, I relax a little more. This month I was hit with 2 surprise emergencies (a furnace hiccup & minor emergency Vet visit). For the first time, I didn’t go into super stress mode. I have a healty emergency fund for the first time & have now adjusted the budget to allow for the purchase of a… Read more »

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

I never really had a problem with finding the balance between over and underspending, but I do struggle with balance in almost every other area of my life, so it’s a big issue for me. Maybe it will help me to apply the when is doing more (or less) of x question to other areas.

With money though, I value saving for retirement and clearly defined emergencies, and I value spending on travel, gifts, and food.

Free Personal Finance Newsletter
Free Personal Finance Newsletter
10 years ago

Great Post! While extreme frugality has a place, especially if you’re trying to climb your way out of debt, a balance needs to be sought. I think it goes back to human nature to never be too satisfied with where you are and what you have. Instead there is that innate drive to do even better. “There’s another nickel I can save… !” Reminds me of some of these people that go on diets to lose a few pounds. But they too get carried away and just keep losing weight until they are so skinny as to be unhealthy. At… Read more »

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

I’m in the miserly stage right now! Take our phone for instance, which is slowly dying. When you press the buttons to dial they don’t always work which can make for some interesting new connections. In the past I wouldn’t have waited for my phone to become completely defective to replace it. The moment it started getting shabby I would have run right out and gotten a new one. Now I’m putting all my friends on speed dial so I won’t have to press the buttons as often. When I’m at the store and I look at the prices of… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I’m worried about Chipmunk, too, and am in agreement with others who say, please get thee to a counselor. If as you say you live in a country with national healthcare (I’m guessing Canada?), mental health services should be included. One thing I find in discussions of overspending/oversaving is that a lot of people don’t seem very comfortable thinking of themselves first. We start off by loving Stuff, and we love money because we can get Stuff with it. Or we love some Person, and we love money because of what we can do for that Person. Then we have… Read more »

Carla | Green and Chic
Carla | Green and Chic
10 years ago

Like you, the quality of my food is very important to me. Dealing with multiple food allergies and my overall heath, I don’t mind being the small percentage of Americans that spend more on their groceries.

Dealing with a chronic illness at a young age has taught me that life is too short to overspend (probably wont be able to work to retirement age) and life is too short to be a miser.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

I was nicknamed by my sisters to be Mr. Scrooge – not as bad as the Christmas Carol – more like Scrooge McDuck from Tales Spin. I, too, have had a hard time spending money. Luckily, my wife gives me support to actually spend my birthday money and buy stuff! It isn’t just stuff if it enriches our lives and benefits multiple family members – my favorite item that falls in this category is board games. They are never obsolete and they foster time together. And sure enough, after enjoying the game a few times – the guilt of buying… Read more »

JenK
JenK
10 years ago

I’m finding that what I’m willing to spend on has changed as I got older. “Shinies” like jewelry, clothing, computers and cars have less appeal; but replacing walking shoes when they hurt my feet? Not a problem. Going to the nice dental practice that charges more than the local tech college? Not a problem. Buying the mix of prescription and OTC allergy meds so I don’t feel like I’m sick all the time? Absolutely. On the other hand, I have less tolerance for sharing a room at scifi cons than I used to – especially if it means taking a… Read more »

Leon
Leon
10 years ago

The key to guiltless spending for me is knowing that all my fiscal responsibilities have been taken care of. The way I handle this is by budgeting out all my expenses, including how much I put toward my savings goals. Whatever is left over is “fun money” and can be spent without guilt, because I’ve already done my homework.

Sara Johnson
Sara Johnson
10 years ago

Great Post! My husband and I are roughly two months from DEBT FREEDOM!!
I wonder what we will do with our money b/c we have been very strict for the past two years. Sometimes I think about splurging a little but the thought scares me. Feels like wasted money.
Love the frugal lifestyle, can’t wait to enjoy life a little more here soon!

erika
erika
10 years ago

I am in the middle of the miserly phase of this process, myself. I was never a huge spender, but similar to April I got a “high” from shopping and bought lots of lower quality junk that still fills my closets years later (though I’ve been on a purging binge lately, thanks to the great posts here about Stuff). Now that I am reformed, I’ll sometimes get the urge to go shopping, but find myself in a store feeling really frustrated that they don’t have anything, when really they just don’t have anything that I’m willing to part with my… Read more »

Meghan Fife
Meghan Fife
10 years ago

Definitely. Thanks for this post. I’m a “fairly” balanced person and have never found myself so entirely on one end of the spectrum I couldn’t see the other, but it’s a very good warning.

Life is all about balance. And I’d like to ENJOY it. Enjoy saving. Enjoy spending. And just enjoy each day regardless of which one I am doing but knowing that the decision I’ve made I can enjoy today–and the benefits of it tomorrow!

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

I’ve recently been eyeing a new surfboard. They’re not cheap (the one I want is $625), and so I’ve been hesitant to buy it. I talked to my wife about it, and she said I can go ahead and buy it as long as I’ve got the money and all the bills are paid. I do, there’s enough sitting in my checking account that I could buy it and it wouldn’t affect any of my other obligations at all. Still, I’ve been having a bit of a hard time justifying it to myself. I think I’ve decided I’ll let myself… Read more »

dollarshort
dollarshort
10 years ago

Just what I do…

I have an ING sub account in which I deposit the princely sum of $50 give or take a few cents every 2 weeks.

This is my account for:

1. Paying for little odds and ends like the broken carafe.

2. Silly stuff I want to buy or go do for no good reason other than I want to.

Solves this problem for me. I actually need to increase it but budget’s tight right now.

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

I never went through that first, spendthrift phase. I was already in the “overly frugal” phase when I started to have my own money to manage. I have been moving more towards that middle ground over the last few years, which is good. Maybe because I lived through a spendthrift phase as a child, that counted? When I was much younger we had plenty of money and spent plenty of it. Eventually my parents’ business failed, and we had far less money. My mother switched into ultra-frugal mode – she was (and remains) quite adaptable. I picked up on the… Read more »

mike
mike
10 years ago

For my family, we approach our miser vs splurger debate using a prioritized list of things that are important to us versus things that are not. As such, we generally opt to live well below the standard of similar folks within our financial demographics (very modest neighborhood, one car family, dining in, buying used, etc.) so that we can focus on our favorite family priority – travel. In the meantime, we get our share of criticism from our extended family and friends (those in our same financial demographic), who live in expensive neighborhoods, dine out a lot, buy or lease… Read more »

mbelousov
mbelousov
10 years ago

Very nice. It seems whenever I see people become financially conscious, they go through this certain process.

I JUST wrote a post similar to that yesterday. My story is a little bit different, but it’s really all the same.

MossySF
MossySF
10 years ago

Save for goals.

Rewire your brain to value accomplishments and/or relationships.

Seth @ Boy Meets Food
Seth @ Boy Meets Food
10 years ago

I have intensely struggled with overcoming the miserly addiction for years. I cannot yet say that I am “cured”, but the one thing that has truly saved me from going crazy was to implementing an allowance. Instead of paying bills, saving, and saying “whatever’s left is for fun”, I decided the amount for fun, and everything else goes to saving. When I tried the leftover approach for fun money, I still felt guilty that I could still spend less and save more. Now, I KNOW that I am saving plenty, and that my “fun money” is really good to use… Read more »

Rachel (heart of light)
Rachel (heart of light)
10 years ago

I tend to be a bit of a miser, and then I end up buying cheap clothes on sale (that I don’t necessarily love) and feeling guilty about indulging in expensive tea (which I know that I truly enjoy and appreciate daily). I try to re-tool my spending so that I’m getting the most bang for my buck. I don’t go on pointless shopping sprees, but I make a point of buying myself fresh flowers every week. Yes, I spend $5 – $15 per week on flowers, but I love picking them out and I get to feel indulged all… Read more »

Tracy
Tracy
10 years ago

Not having made it fully through to the debt-free, routinely balanced budget lifestyle yet, I find it hard to imagine that I will ever reach a point where my NOT buying stuff becomes a problem. But I can hope! haha

I never figured that once I got my overspending under control, I would then have to worry about UNDERSPENDING. It really doesn’t seem fair.

Barber
Barber
10 years ago

April & JD,

I went through a very similar thing after being laid off. I agre with some of the comments others have made, it maybe that you need to follow the swings of extremes, the pendulum eventually settles in the middle. I am working more on enjoy the experience, if buying lattes and hot chocolates for breakfast makes a weekend morning special with the kids. then we go for it. In the meantime we continue to take our own brewed coffee to work and pack lunches.

Learn Save Invest
Learn Save Invest
10 years ago

I went through this myself. I was a complete spendthrift, and realized I needed to start saving money. I then became such a miser, I would stop buying groceries and go without, just to save a few bucks.

You have to live your life, taking the middle path. I love to save money, but I need to eat too!

Great post, I think lots of people go through this exact same scenario.

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