How to be Frugal Without Going Insane

How to be Frugal Without Going Insane

Over these past few months my default method of operation has been to do with less, or better yet, without. Whatever it is, I convince myself I can survive without it, and then chalk that up as a financial win, no matter how small the savings.

But while it’s healthy to question the value and necessity of things, in my case, it’s been taken to an unhealthy extreme.

True story…I recently considered making an effort to stay more hydrated, so that my urine would be clear and odourless, and flushing wouldn’t always be required. A few months of that has to shave a few bucks off the water bill, right?

I know…insane.

But that’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about. Not things like, Do I really need to stop for coffee? That’s an easy one. No, I’m thinking about the volume of toothpaste I put on my brush–wondering if using a tad less could extend the life of our tube by another few days.

I don’t like thinking this way, but I can’t help it. In an effort to be frugal, everything I buy, consume, and do is being filtered through a financial lens and its necessity is being put on trial. It’s starting to feel like I’m living in a goddamn Excel spreadsheet. It’s exhausting.

But even if we did start reusing Ziploc bags would it really matter in the end? After a year, would that extreme level of restriction lead to any measurable improvement in our wealth compared to a more reasonable approach?

Although I do think that accumulating small financial wins can make a real impact, I don’t think insane strategies like leaving the gas nozzle in the car for an extra five seconds after the tank is full to MAKE SURE I GET EVERY DROP I PAID FOR is likely to make any real difference. Yet I still can’t help those thoughts from creeping in.

The Frugal Pendulum Swings

Over the past few years, I’ve done a terrible job monitoring my expenses. I spent with reckless abandon and would go weeks without checking my bank statement. I made dangerous assumptions about what I could afford and the result hasn’t been good. What I’m experiencing now is an overcorrection in response to all that sloppiness.

I’ve gone from blind spending, to putting all transactions under white hot lights and examining them under a microscope. Overall, I do think it’s a good thing. I’m amazed at the room I’ve found in our budget when I added up all the ways I could shave a dollar here and five bucks there.

But as I tend to do with things, I obsess. And while those obsessions are a little weird and definitely provoke some eye-rolling, recently they have been having some actual consequences.

Just the other day my wife mentioned painting the room we have picked out as the nursery. She was excited about finally getting set up and decorated for our first child, who is due in a few months. But rather than share in her joy, the first place my mind went to was whether we really needed to spend the $90 on paint that it would cost. Rightly so, this upset her, and that’s when I started to realize that unchecked frugality has a dark side.

Everything I see has an imaginary price tag on it, making it impossible to enjoy the thing for what it is. It takes me out of the present moment and really sucks the joy out of life.

It’s Just Easier That Way

I think part of the reason I’m drawn to a “goal of zero” approach, is that it’s a simple place to make decisions from. Rather than have to make hard choices, I can just default to either spending less, or even better, not spending at all.

Bananas is a perfect example of this.

Whenever I went to the grocery store, I would often just grab a bunch of bananas. I just walked through the produce section, and grabbed them without thinking. Why not, right? They’re a cheap and easy little snack. But then I began to question my banana-grabbing habit…

Do I really need to buy six bananas at a time, every time I come here?

Maybe I should just buy them once a week.

Couldn’t I just get four instead of six? She can have bananas, I will go without.

And then I probed deeper…

Does anyone actually ever NEED a banana?

If I never ate another banana again, would I still live?

Could I still lead a happy, fulfilled life being banana-free?

I’m not getting bananas.

And then it finally dawned on my why I went through this psychotic train of thought on something so inexpensive. My financial compass was so screwed up for so long, that it’s made me question not only my purchases, but my own instincts and previous habits.

Instead of having to make a judgment call on the financial impact of a banana, I could take an absolutist approach and not have to make the choice at all. Not buying bananas was the only way I could be sure I wasn’t wasting money on bananas.

This Too, Shall Pass

There has to be a line between reasonable frugality and counting-the-toilet-flushes straight up insanity. And I have faith my obsessiveness will calm down a bit over time. Here are a couple thoughts I have that give me hope:

1. These are early days

Getting totally free of our debt is going to be a multi-year process, and frankly, I need to learn to accept this. A part of me thinks that this issue is a byproduct of it being early in our journey. I’m still transitioning away from spending like a moron and it’s an unfamiliar place to be. I haven’t had enough time go by to see the real impact of new habits. I think once I do, I’ll be able to loosen the reigns a bit and get a little balance back in my life.

2. Go back to the budget

I need to trust the budget I made. Yes, my instincts have been screwed up for a long time, but that’s exactly what a budget is for. It’s a check and balance on judgement. Every time I’m faced with a spending decision, I need to pull that budget up and see if there’s money available for it, if so, make the purchase, and move on with life.

3. Progress, not perfection

Life is messy and unpredictable. Things will happen financially (both good and bad) that we don’t see coming. Getting into this hole wasn’t a total freefall, there were some wins along the way, and it took time. Getting out will be the same. As long as I’m constantly moving the needle in the right direction, we‘ll be okay.

Being frugal isn’t about spending as little as possible. It’s about being conscious of where money goes, and making sure it isn’t wasted on anything where a cheaper alternative could solve the same problem.

4. All Needs are not Material

Maybe instead of needing to shave pennies off of the electric bill, what I need is to exercise more, get more sleep, and loosen the reigns just a bit so I can actually enjoy my day as opposed to stressing over every moment.

While there is comfort in knowing that I’m taking charge of my financial life, the obsession just isn’t worth it. The whole point of being financially secure, at least to me, is to not have to worry about money. I better start cultivating that mindset now, or it’s going to be a long, long road ahead.

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