During the last few months of social distancing, many people found themselves living a far more frugal lifestyle than they had done before.
Many of us leaned into that frugality, doing things like baking bread, cooking meals at home, using up things that were in the pantry and doing all sorts of money-saving projects. People have stayed at home and watched movies they already had and played games they already had instead of going out to movies and to live events. Many of us engaged in all kinds of little frugal projects, from pulling out the sewing machine to fix some clothes, make face masks, fixing things and doing maintenance around the house. We’re saving containers that we might have previously tossed, repurposing a pickle jar to save some leftover soup.
Two months in, however, and many people are discovering one of the hidden truths about frugal living, particularly when you’re new to it: frugal burnout.
This happens whenever you make significant changes to your life and routines. It’s interesting and novel at first and you dive into it with relish, but as the weeks and months go by, the novelty wears off. You start pulling back from your new routines and yearn for some of the old ones. Sometimes, you even come to resent the new routines, as you see the drawbacks in the new routines and are mentally comparing those drawbacks to the positives in the old routines.
This is a normal response to any change in life. If we undergo radical change in our routines, after the novelty wears off, there will be a backlash. We are going to look at our new routines with a now-critical eye and look at our old routines with a wistful fondness, and those old routines are going to look quite appealing.
It’s really not much different than a dieter in late January or early February after a strong New Year’s pledge to really take off that extra weight this year. They’re looking at their dietary changes with some stiff criticism and looking back on their old diets with longing, and that often results in a large pizza arriving on the doorstep.
At the same time, it’s really hard to deny some of the benefits of frugal changes that many people have made in the last month. For a lot of us, it’s simply a matter of looking at our checking account balance. For those able to maintain full employment, it’s a lot fatter; for those relying on unemployment right now, it’s probably got more in there than you might have ever expected after such a tumultuous turn of events.
Not only that, you likely discovered a few things that just make more sense than the way you used to do it. For instance, I’m probably more committed to eating at home than I’ve ever been, solely because of the sheer quantity of good meals we’ve made. I feel like our cooking skills are sharper than ever, which means I’m less incentivized than ever to go to a restaurant.
How do you balance all of this? What do you do when the novelty of frugality has worn off and you just long to get back to old routines, even as you recognize the financial (and other) benefits of some of your new practices?
How to break through frugality burnout
Figure out what it is that you’re really missing.
Often, when people get tired of a new routine, it’s a mixture of becoming disenchanted with the worst elements of the new things while missing the best elements of the old things. This often leads to an overall feeling that the “good old days” were great because you’re focusing only on the good feelings that the best of the “good old days” brought you.
This is a perfect moment to step back and ask yourself what was really good about the “good old days”?
Likely, you walked away from a lot of your old routines quite rapidly in late March, leaving both the good and the bad (and the mediocre) on the table. When you look back, you’re not remembering a lot of the bad or the mediocre, but you are remembering the good, which makes “the way things used to be” seem quite glowing.
Rather than assuming that everything was better before, drill into the exact specific things that you’re missing. Make a list of, say, ten things you genuinely miss from before your routines changed and ask yourself, for each one of them, why you miss it, and then when you answer that, why you feel that way.
What you’re trying to drill down into is what things you’re truly missing.
For me, the biggest thing I actually miss is face-to-face time with friends and family. I don’t miss restaurants or going shopping or buying things or going to events. I miss just hanging out with a lot of my friends or seeing family members, particularly the ones closest to my heart. We communicate a ton through texting and messaging, but we’re not gathering around the table for dinner parties or playing board games together.
When I boiled down almost everything I feel like I’m missing, almost all of them boil down to missing friends and family. The desire to relapse on newly adopted behaviors is mostly the desire to want to see people I care about.
So, rather than just bringing everything back wholesale, I’m focused on just bringing back what I really miss. With social distancing, a big face-to-face meetup isn’t happening yet, but I’m leaning as much as I can into doing everything I can to see them and interact with them. It’s not quite the same, but it helps.
What specific things are you missing? What can you do right now to bring that back as much as reasonably possible?
Let’s say one of the things you really, truly miss is that great morning coffee you used to get on your way to work. If that’s you, buy some good coffee beans and some expensive creamer and try to recreate it.
Maybe you simply miss the process of getting ready for work – I actually have a friend who mentioned this. Well, get ready for work. Get dressed and prepared as though you’re actually going to work each day, just do it at your kitchen table or wherever you’re working right now.
Remember, it’s OK to return to the things you really miss (as long as you’re practicing appropriate personal safety). What you’re trying to do here is distinguish between what you truly miss and what isn’t that big of a deal.
Don’t bring back the things that you didn’t like, you don’t really remember or just mildly appealing.
All of that stuff can go straight into the trash bin. Those things add up to a lot of expenses that you were simply not getting a lot of life value out of, so simply don’t bring them back.
Here’s an example. Each Sunday, I would meet up with some friends for a community game night, where about 15-20 people would play board games together. I miss that camaraderie. What I don’t miss is that I would often have to get supper while I was there. Rather than just bringing a sandwich or something, many weeks I’d get an utterly forgettable meal somewhere nearby, usually costing me $10 or so.
When I go back, that’s not something I want to return to. Rather, I’m going to start packing myself a supper to take with me – better tasting and a heck of a lot cheaper, and it only takes a few minutes each week.
I simply don’t miss 90% of my restaurant spending. I simply don’t miss a lot of my hobby spending, either (I’ve been really thinking about what hobby things I miss and what ones I don’t miss at all).
I’m just not returning to those routines. In fact, I’m going to make a conscious effort to avoid those routines as social distancing winds down. Those things did not bring lasting value to my life, and thus there’s no good reason to bring them back.
Remember, frugality isn’t about cutting everything; it’s about cutting the things that don’t bring you value so that you can enjoy the things that do bring you value while also building financial security for yourself. This break is an opportunity to figure out what does and doesn’t bring you value, and only bring back the things that do.
Separate out the frugal tactics that work from the frugal tactics that don’t.
The same exact thing applies to the new frugal tactics you’ve picked up.
There are some things you’ve likely discovered during your frugality honeymoon that really work and really make a lot of sense. Those things have likely already become so integrated in your life that they feel like “normal.” For example, maybe you’ve switched to buying store brand stuff when you go to the store, and you’ve realized that it just works for less money, and now that’s just normal for you. That’s great!
On the other hand, there are likely a few tactics you’ve been doing that feel frustrating or annoying or overwhelming in some fashion, and for you they have become the “face” of your frugal changes.
Maybe you’re tired of preparing meals from scratch all the time. Maybe you’re tired of staying home and watching Netflix every night.
Here’s the thing: you absolutely don’t have to stick with the things that are rubbing you the wrong way — in fact, you shouldn’t stick with them. If you’re not enjoying making dinner every night, plan on going out again as soon as that’s an option. Order takeout or delivery (safely) once in a while, if it feels right for you. If you’re tired of watching Netflix every night, don’t watch Netflix. Do a puzzle, play a board game, learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube or dig through your closet to find something else to do. When social distancing opens up and it feels right, get right back out there and go do the things you’re missing.
The easiest rule to use when it comes to evaluating new changes in your life is that the only things worth tossing are the things that are making you unhappy, and it’s very likely that there are a lot of little changes that are actually good ones. Focus on just the bad ones — don’t throw everything out! Ask yourself what specific things are really rubbing you the wrong way and drop those specific tactics.
Look for new tactics that are more in line with the tactics that work for you.
Even more important: ask yourself why those specific tactics are bothering you so much.
Are they bothering you because they take up too much time? Is it because they rely on some specific skill or attribute that you haven’t sharpened yet? (I know that many people are struggling to cook at home because they haven’t built up cooking skills.) Are they bothering you because they’re unsatisfactory replacements for something you miss?
If you can figure out what things the frugal tactics that are bothering you have in common, and what the tactics that really click with you have in common, you can just discard the ones that have the traits that bother you.
For example, I generally don’t like frugal tactics that feel like they give me little return for the time invested. Sure, things like washing Ziploc bags might save some money, but the time and effort invested feels like it adds up to very little. I feel the same way about clipping coupons.
Now, if a frugal tactic feels like it’s eating undue amounts of time and energy, I shelve it, and I do so without looking back. I do this because I recognize that I do a lot of really good frugal things in my life already and I know exactly what it is about the tactics I’m shelving that bothers me.
Think deeply about what frugal tasks are particularly annoying to you, and see if you can deduce what those tasks have in common. Not only should you drop the tasks that are annoying, but you’re also probably going to find that you should dump other tasks that feature that trait, because you’ll probably eventually find them annoying, too.
Remember that you don’t have to be strictly or perfectly frugal.
What you’ll find in these strategies is a lot of discarding of frugal techniques, along with a lot of reimplementing things that you missed before you became frugal. Isn’t that kind of undoing the purpose?
Not really. It comes down to the 80/20 rule, something that pops up over and over again in life.
When you say that you miss how things used to be, what you’re really saying is that you miss the 20% of how things used to be that really mattered to you, and the other 80% aren’t worthwhile. A frugal person aims to save that 20% and drop that forgettable 80%.
When you’re feeling frustrated about frugal strategies in general, you’re usually only frustrated by 20% of what you’ve adopted, while the other 80% has integrated seamlessly into your life. A frugal person doesn’t mind dropping that 20% while keeping the 80% that works.
Yes, the 20% you bring back will probably be expensive, and the 20% of frugal tactics you drop means money lost. That’s OK. If those elements are making you miserable, then they need to be fixed or else you’ll end up dumping everything and undoing all of our progress.
The keyword here is sustainable. When you deny yourself the things you enjoy most, or you force yourself to do things that make you miserable, you will eventually fail. Don’t do it! Let yourself have the handful of things that really matter. Don’t force yourself to do the things you hate. Seek out new strategies that aren’t likely to make you miserable. That’s sustainable frugality, and that’s what will change things permanently for you.
These strategies work for almost any major life change.
No matter what you’re trying to change in your life, these same principles hold true. You need to drop the 20% of new tactics that are making you miserable and bring back the 20% of old things that brought you true joy. When you do that, you’ll quickly find that the new path is sustainable for a very long time. You might not see change quite as rapidly as before, but you’ll keep seeing it over a long period of time and the long term results of sustainability will blow away the short term results of misery.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to change your eating habits. You’re really trying to eat a healthy diet and much of it is OK, but some of this new food is just terrible and you miss pizza. The solution? Have a pizza once in a while, and toss the foods you’re really hating in the trash. Just don’t bring back the habit of eating forgettable junk food, and don’t walk away from the variety of healthier foods that you actually like.
What if you’re trying to get more fit? It’s OK to have a “rest day” where you do something with low intensity and enjoy a relaxing evening, as long as you get back to it the next day. If there are exercises that you just hate and make you feel miserable, skip them and focus on the ones that really click with you. You might not get fit on a really short timescale, but you won’t quit after a few weeks, either.
The magic word is sustainability. Over the last two months, you’ve been practicing frugality in an unsustainable, artificial way that’s been reinforced by the restrictions put on you by stay at home orders of various kinds. Now is the time to ask yourself which of those new things really work, and which of the old things really matter. In other words, turn your newfound frugality from a novelty pushed on you by circumstance into a sustainable, permanent life change by eliminating what doesn’t work and keeping around what does.