Frugality and Binge Buying

Our one year old daughter has discovered a fun game in the family room. Whenever we are down there, she marches right over to the entertainment center and begins to pull DVDs off of the shelves. She refers to them as “books” and opens them up to show us, then throws them on the floor.

Obviously, this is a habit that we’re working hard to break, using the usual tactics one would use on a one-year old: clearly telling “no,” diverting from the situation, and so on. However, given the easy accessibility to the DVDs, our daughter is just attracted to them like a magnet each time we enter the room.

The best solution, obviously, would be to simply get the DVDs out of her way – but that would require either getting a new shelving solution or putting them into storage, neither of which is a particularly amenable option.

This leads us to a joking conversation I had with my wife the other night. We were both in the kitchen preparing a supper which used some leftovers as a primary ingredient, and I was commenting on all of the various frugal things we do – use leftovers, cook at home, clip coupons, use inexpensive bulbs, and so on. And then, in jest, I said the kicker: “With all the money we save with these things, we should just replace that entertainment center.”

We both laughed it off at the time – after all, I was basically making a joke. However, the moment stuck with me.

I realized that what I described was quite similar to a food binge after several days of dieting – a huge negative over-response to a series of small positive steps. Even more frightening, it was something I used to actually do myself – I’d behave well financially for a while, then binge on something foolish and completely undo my good work.

So, let’s look at our situation again. I’m sitting there listing out all of our good little frugal moves over the last week or so. We ate at home several times, saving $20 or so! We used leftovers, saving $10 or so! We used energy efficient light bulbs, saving $5 or so! We saved $10 at the grocery store on Sunday with our coupons (really, we actually did)!

Wow, we’re really doing good, aren’t we? With all that savings, we’ve already saved most of the cost of that entertainment center. And we deserve it, right? Don’t we deserve the good things in life?

Many people view frugality as exactly that – a bunch of little steps they can take in areas of their life that are less important so that they can afford to splurge in other areas. “If I eat a cheap meal the next few nights, I can afford to go out to that steak house with my date on Saturday.” “If I carpool, I can afford to buy that new gadget in a few months.” Instead of helping you build a financially stable life, frugal tactics are sometimes used as bartering trinkets to help you keep living the high life.

And that’s okay, as long as you’re honest with yourself about what you’re doing. This type of frugality doesn’t serve to put you in a better financial state – instead, it serves to help you maintain a lifestyle that, in some regards, is beyond your means.

This is equivalent to eating a piece of fruit for breakfast and a tuna sandwich for lunch so that you can have a steak for supper chased by a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Sure, the piece of fruit and the tuna sandwich are good moves, and sure, you’re in a better state than if you had a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast and a Big Mac for lunch, but at the end of the day, you’re not truly getting ahead. You’re merely subsidizing other behavior.

Frugality is merely one tool in the toolbox if you’re seeking financial success. Patience is also vital – it’s going to take time to turn things around. Self-discipline plays a role, too, so you don’t fall into the binge trap.

The real question is, what do you want? Are you striving to get ahead financially over the long haul? Or are you content to just make ends meet while still enjoying most of your perks? In either case, frugality can be a valuable tool.

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