Stress-Free Frugality

by Melody Warnick


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On Saturday mornings, I start to feel a familiar, twitching impatience. It's yard sale time. I may be feeding pancakes to the baby, or throwing a load of clothes in the washer, but what I'm really itching to do is hop in the car, follow the hand-lettered signs, and snag a good deal or two. On days when I don't make it to the sales, I get a sinking feeling. What if I missed out on something really great?

For frugality neophytes like me, leaving full-price retail behind can be an exhilarating experience. Seeing how much bang for my buck I can get at a yard sale or a fabulous clearance makes me rue my pre-tightwad days, when I thought that $10 for a pair of footed pajamas for my daughter was a real steal. (I'm now a lot happier with $2 pajamas from the local thrift store, or better yet, 25-cent pajamas from a garage sale.)

But my new found tightwaddery has also pushed me to some rather ridiculous ends. I've driven fifteen miles to save five cents on canned pears. I've berated myself for buying ground beef a week after the sale ended. I've spent a whole weekend fretting over the $3 jeans I passed up at the thrift store. Even my husband notices how antsy I get on yard sale days.

I call it frugality addiction. It's when the pursuit of the bargain becomes the frugal person's all-consuming passion. Although being frugal is meant to improve your quality of life (by saving you money, encouraging resourcefulness, and invoking simple pleasures), the frugal addict can become nervous, drained, or irrational. Taken to an extreme, frugality can become a major source of stress, inner conflict, and guilt.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Remembering the following six principles can help you put your frugality in perspective:

  1. Think of the big picture. So you missed the after-Thanksgiving sales because your mother-in-law extended her visit an extra day. So what? Certain things are more important than getting a good bargain, and your family (even your in-laws) probably qualifies.

  2. Remember that getting a fabulous deal on something you didn't really need is still a waste of money. Of course, when I bought that glass bowl at the yard sale, I thought I really needed it. What if I want to make a trifle one day? But it's been in storage in the nethermost regions of my kitchen cupboards for several months now. And I spent good money for that privilege.

  3. Make a list of things you actually need or anticipate needing in the next few months, and watch for sales on those items. If your tires are balding, or the fifth-grader had a growth spurt, put those needs on the list. You can also keep a wish list of things you've been wanting, and if you see a fabulous sale, pounce. But if it's not on the list, don't buy it, no matter what.

  4. Find other things to do besides shop. However much you enjoy spending all your free time chasing from store to store after sales, it may indicate that you have a frugality addiction. And prowling the clearance racks at Target every week is only going to make you more likely to buy things you don't really need anyway.

  5. Take baby steps. Don't get irritated with yourself because you bought mozzarella for $4.75 a pound when you know that it was on sale just a few weeks ago for $4. If you're making homemade pizza, you're still saving money over what you would have paid in a restaurant. Congratulate yourself because you're cooking from scratch.

  6. Go cold turkey. Some experts have recommended a Buy Nothing Month. Allowing for necessities like perishable food and gasoline, commit not to buy anything extraneous for a whole month. For the frugality-addicted person, buying nothing can be a lot harder than buying a lot of things very cheaply. But it also teaches restraint, and that the world won't fall down around your ears if you miss the sale of the century.

Frugality should be life-enriching, not an extra source of stress or unhappiness. Over the past few months, I've struggled to find a happy medium. I still go to thrift stores a few times a month. I drop by a garage sale if I happen upon it. But I've also decided that, for right now, I'm doing the best I can. I've learned to let go of my frugality failures. In the long run, my sense of well being is far more important than a few dollars.

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