Accused of Being a Cheapskate

A few days ago, I was giving a phone interview about The Simple Dollar and general frugality and personal finance topics when the interviewer threw me a bit of a curveball. After hearing me talk about frugality for a bit, he pauses for a second, then asks if he can be honest with me. He then tells me that from his perspective, the things that I do are cheap. He would view me as a cheapskate and he wouldn’t think of me as a fun person to hang out with.

I was caught off guard by this, because most interviews that I do are with people who are either genuinely interested in frugality and money management in a positive way, or are at least feigning positive interest.

So I followed up with his comment and I dug up quite a few interesting conclusions.

First, people assume that since I write about frugality, I must be a complete cheapskate. Most of you who have read this site for a long time know that I struggle with balancing my desire to minimize my spending with my desire to, well, spend. Quite often, I come down on the side of spending more – we don’t eat as inexpensively as we could, I still hold on to some expensive hobbies (like video games), and I’m also quite willing to invest in expensive equipment in my home – like appliances and the like.

What this really is is a matter of first impressions. Think about it. Imagine you’re at the grocery store, in line behind someone using a huge wad of coupons. You’re going to get a particular impression of that person. Imagine you’re walking across the parking lot and you see a guy driving a rusty old pickup truck. You’re going to draw some conclusions.

For me, that first impression is that I’m a cheapskate. And, as usual, first impressions aren’t quite accurate at all.

This experience (and many others in my life) makes me realize that judging someone based on your first impression is incredibly limiting. The guy driving the truck that’s falling apart? He could be the negative image you make up in your head. He could also be a person who’s trying desperately to save up for a down payment for a bigger house for his family. He could be someone who very rarely needs a vehicle and doesn’t see a need to invest a lot of money in one. He could be Sam Walton.

Another interesting conclusion I came to from this conversation was the immediate assumption that making frugal choices is a negative. The implication seems to be that I must have some sort of social stigma because I actively seek to spend less money. I must not be any fun to be around because I don’t spend money with reckless abandon, right?

If you believe that, you’re being sold an advertising myth. We’ve all grown up in a society in which advertising has constantly told us that spending money and buying products will bring us happiness and beauty and social success and career success.

Here’s the amazing part: if you truly believe this mythology, then you likely believe the reverse: not spending money and buying products will bring you sadness and ugliness and social failure and career failure.

Think about that statement for a moment. To me, it’s a conclusion that seems simultaneously like a reasonable conclusion and the most outrageous thing I’ve ever read. I can see clearly where the logic comes from, yet when you consider what the statement is actually saying, it sickens me to my stomach.

Yet, reflecting on my earlier life, I can honestly say that to some degree, I used to believe it. I had been trained over the years to look upon spending as a positive – and thus upon not spending as a negative. Looking at it so nakedly, though, makes it seem ugly and empty.

Just as ugly and empty as any other broad negative generalization.

Part of the reason I write The Simple Dollar – and I’m so open with big parts of my life on it – is that I want to show to as many people as possible that such negative generalizations are completely false. Frugality is not boring. It’s not cheap. It’s not lonely. It’s not a sign of failure.

It simply means that I’m interested in working a little harder to find better solutions in my life, solutions that cause me to spend a lot less of the money that I earn. It doesn’t mean I spend all of my time living miserly without any fun at all – in fact, I look at it as a way of living that brings me substantially more fun. I don’t worry about bills. I have career freedom. I don’t sweat whether I can afford something I actually need.

In the end, I’ve come to feel that being called a “cheapskate” in a derisive fashion doesn’t really matter at all. It’s just another word people use to feel better about themselves by demeaning someone else. It may be ugly and empty, but in the end, the only person truly hurt by it is the person who is locked into the negative mindset.

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