The psychology of frugality

In the grocery store yesterday, I was weighing options in the cereal isle. I really wanted to get some Raisin Bran Crunch or Kashi cereal, but both were something like $4 per box. That seems like a lot for a box of cereal. Some of the cheap stuff is down to $2.50. Shouldn’t I get that instead?


It seems that early frugality is a hard habit to kick. (It’s not clear that I *want* to kick it, which is part of the complexity.) When I was growing up, my family was, let’s say, financially challenged. We had food stamps, and we knew which days you could show up at the food bank and get free blocks of cheese. Things were always tight, but I never felt the pinch of true poverty. I guess I noticed things got a little awkward when I happily showed up to middle school wearing hand-me-downs from *a girl in my class* (her mother worked with my mother and took pity on us). At any rate, it seemed totally normal to me to always do things yourself rather than paying someone else to do them, and to always seek out the best possible deal, no matter how much time it took.

I still tally my grocery bill in my head when unloading my cart onto the belt. That’s a carryover from college, when I had exactly $20 to cover each week’s food and could not overspend. I’m scrupulous about paying for my portion of meals or outings because I’d be mortified to infringe on someone else’s budget or resources — what if it was money they couldn’t spare?

I’ve worked to whittle away at some of these habits, mainly in the domain of trading time for money. Time really IS worth more to me, so now I pay housecleaners and a gardener to take care of things that now afford me a little more free time. I’m fortunate enough to be paid well enough that having enough money is simply a non-concern. As a result, money has shrunk in significance to the point where raises at work provide zero motivation for me. (But wait, don’t raises inspire higher performance? NO! See this totally awesome RSAnimate on Motivation for just one argument about why not.) That makes it all the more ludicrous when I’m making grocery decisions based on a 20-cent difference in pasta brands.

But yeah. This time I went home with the cereal, at full price. Next thing you know, I’ll be hiring someone to do my shopping for me. Well, probably not… but that’d be another hour a week for violin practice or disc golf or studying cryptography or another billion things. Maybe it’s not such a crazy idea after all!

1 Comment
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  1. Terran said,

    March 30, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I have a *lot* of sympathy for this. My family was also… “Necessarily frugal” when I was growing up, and I acquired a lot of the same habits of thought. I still find myself flinching from “unnecessarily frivolous expenses” like, say, buying music. *headdesk* I think I can afford a new album now and then, these days, yet I still feel that tug whenever I consider such a purchase. And I have not ended up buying a number of albums because of it. Duh… (Though, thankfully, I have overcome this reflex when it comes to books! ;-)

    I, too, have discovered the joys of trading money for time and am incredibly grateful to be in a place in my life where I have the luxury to do so in at least some ways. As one of my colleagues pointed out, once, money is far more elastic than time…

    The RSA talk you point to is fabulous! Now I totally want to read more about this. It synchs a lot with things I’ve been observing and that I’ve felt myself, but I hadn’t previously seen data to support it. Nifty! Thanks for the pointer!

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