Is Your Need For Control Killing Your Frugality?

On most days, I’m a highly analytical person. I pride myself on being rational, on believing in facts and figures, on using my unique human ability to reason and logic my way through problems and puzzles.


I think this is why personal finance wasn’t too difficult for me to wrap my head around from the get-go. I’ve been saving money ever since I could earn an income because it was the only rational thing to do in my mind. If I don’t want to worry about money, I need to make and save more of it. Simple addition.

Howdy! While Mr. Frugalwoods and I enjoy/attempt to survive our very first month as parents to our daughter, Babywoods, I have a delightful slate of guest posts from my friends lined up for your reading pleasure. Today, please welcome the talented Kali Hawlk from Off The Rails!

By: Kali Hawlk

Making the move from saving to investing was an easy one, too. Once I understood compound interest, it was another situation where the numbers showed me a clear path. Simple multiplication. But here’s the thing: I’m highly grateful that in my young life I’ve not experienced much strife or struggle. Sure, I might not have been livin’ large and there were times where I had to budget out every last cent or live out the cliche of surviving on Ramen. But I always had enough — barely enough, just enough. But I got by.

From this vantage point, it was so easy to base my decisions with my money off math and numbers. Behavioral finance? Money mindsets? I didn’t really understand why smart people who could do the same simple math I could made dumb decisions about how they used their money.

Couldn’t they see that they were overspending and ending each month in the red? Couldn’t they see their high-interest debt was costing them money? Couldn’t they just STOP DOING stupid stuff with their money?

About a year ago, I ran smack into my first experience with the reality that personal finance is more than just numbers. It’s about our personalities, our behaviors, and what’s going on around us.

When Frugality Flies Out the Window

That thing I ran smack into? It was a divorce. The process wasn’t legally messy and no one lost a lot of money or was kicked out of the house. But it sent me into an emotional tailspin and suddenly upended the life I thought I would always lead.

I felt like I had no control over anything, even though I actually had more control over my individual self–and money–than I’d ever had before. I also felt like the future was more uncertain than it had ever been, and I’m not a fan of things being up in the air or unknown.

Frugalwoods_Lake_View_waterBefore this happened, I was extremely frugal. I lived for years off the budget I created for myself when I graduated college, even when I could afford to spend far more than I did. That surplus went straight to savings, and then to investments. I was determined to reach financial independence by the time I turned 35 and funneled every last dollar I could into my investment contributions.

Once my ex and I separated, that habit snapped too. I never spent more than I earned, but for several months I saved nothing at all and instead just spent, spent, spent. I abandoned my frugality and leapt gleefully into the experience of makin’ it rain.

I got a weird rush from doing this; I was almost manic in how I would look for the next thing to spend on. More than once as I signed receipts or added up extravagant restaurant bills, I got the sense I was looking down from above on the whole scene–an out of body experience triggered by these new (and ridiculous) spending habits.

Manufacturing a Sense of Control

Only later did I realize what was going on during those few months.

Even though it was the right thing for me to do in the grand scheme of my life, initiating my divorce was akin to setting off a bomb. Life exploded outward and left everyone scrambling for cover. I stumbled around, dazed and uncertain of which way was up.

In this bizarre, foreign state, I clung to one thing that satisfied my need for control: the fact that I could decide how to use my money. And man oh man, did I use it up. It didn’t seem to matter that I was making bad decisions–the fact that I was making a decision was enough.

I completely manufactured a sense of control and as a result, my frugality took a serious blow. This experience taught me that my need for control can drive me to do self-destructive things. And that’s dangerous and something I need to recognize about myself and be aware of in the future.

Learning to Let Go in Order to Regain Control

I’m extremely lucky I work with hundreds of CFPs and financial advisors, and count many of them amongst my close friends. It was a financial planner who asked a few hard questions that had me hit the brakes.

The conversation started when I asked if he’d like to hang out. “We can go grab dinner!” I chirped, thinking of course hanging out meant going out and paying for overpriced food and drinks. But he shook his head and said, “Let’s just go for a walk. That doesn’t cost anything.”

“Oh, come on,” I said (while rolling my eyes), “you make plenty of money. You can spend it!”
“That’s not the point,” he replied. “I’d much rather save my money for something more important.”

SanDiego_HikingViewWhoa. In that moment I realized how far I’d strayed from my old frugal habits. How far I’d ventured from the advice I used to live by and give to other people to help them change how they thought about money.

On that walk, we talked about money, which was completely natural–what else would a financial planner and a financial writer chat about, right? But this conversation was different, because he challenged me to think about what I wanted and why.

This was my “aha” moment. This was when I realized that what I wanted and why had shifted from where they used to be before I went through a divorce. In fact, I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted anymore, and I was due for a soul-searching session or two.

I needed to let go of the desire to play pretend–to pretend I had it all together, to pretend I knew exactly what was going on, to pretend that I was in control because I was that person who could spend money without worry or concern. Instead, I needed to get comfortable with this new territory, where I was the person who did not have their sh*t together. I needed to accept that was okay, and eventually I’d find my way back to where I needed and wanted to be.

And in the meantime, I needed to realign my spending with my values. While I’m still working through what those values are, I’ve at least been able to step back and realize that all the money I was spending didn’t make me happy or fulfilled. I’ve gone back to basics and I’m slowly recovering from my adventures in overspending.

Instead of wanting to go out every night, I borrow a book from the library and spend lots of time reading (with many cups of delicious tea). Instead of constantly looking for people to go grab a drink with, I go for walks and runs. Instead of breezily spending money with no planning or mindfulness, I focus on my work and my writing and how I can improve both.

And most importantly, I can move forward with the understanding that personal finance is not always about the numbers and the math. It was a hard lesson to learn, but one that I’m glad I finally picked up on. Because life isn’t always easy, straightforward, or simple, and it’s all too easy to lose your grasp on the frugal habits that will serve you and your financial goals so well.

Kali Hawlk is a freelance writer and the co-founder of Off The Rails, a free mentorship platform for creative women. She’s passionate about helping others do more with their money, their work, and their lives. Get in touch by tweeting @KaliHawlk.

Have you had an experience that caused your spending to spiral out of control?

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20 Responses

  1. I found myself in a similar situation when my fiancé and I split up in my early thirties. Up until that point I was saving 15% in my 401k, maxing out an IRA, and has plenty of cash leftover each month. Together, we earned about 200k/yr….not bad for people in their late 20s/early 30s. We had it all: big suburban home, in-ground pool, and tons of relationship issues. When I left, I left with 4 lawn chairs and a mattress. I stopped contributing to my 401k and had to spend a ton of money to buy everything from bath towels to a pizza cutter. I call those years my Hero’s Journey (Reference: Joseph Campbell). Eventually, I met the right man for me and got married. Just a few months ago! It’s been a long road getting back on the financial track. But, I did it! It’s true that life is constantly throwing curveballs that can easily derail us, financially and emotionally. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for some people to get back on the right path.

    Great thought-provoking post!
    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

  2. What an honest and insightful post! I agree that the desire for control is a huge factor is what we do with our money, whether it manifests as over-spending or fearful saving. Being able to recognize our motivations is such a powerful step toward change.

  3. Very interesting post. As someone who started out in the opposite way – spending because I could, including sometimes spending more than I had – I’ve had to learn similar lessons, but from a different direction. I never really thought about it being about control, but I can now see that it was. My parents are extrememly frugal, and I experienced that as sometimes unfair or unnecessarily restraining when I was growing up. Once I started earning money and was on my own, I exercised my control to spend it however I wanted to.

  4. Bob says:

    “I’d much rather save my money for something more important.” Wow, says it all.

  5. I know the feeling you kind of experienced, and I just wrote about this for Wed’s post. Once I found out I was getting a full time job, the flood gates opened and it was like someone was giving me permission to finally spend. But thankfully I quickly realized what was happening. I picked up The Millionaire Next Door (which was the equivalent of the financial person you asked to dinner) and that set me back straight. I’m already used to living frugally so why change that? Now it’s a choice, and all that extra money can be saved!

  6. isabelle says:

    “” Personal finance is more than just numbers. It’s about our personalities, our behaviors, and what’s going on around us.””
    And dependencies also….
    To gambling, alcool, drugs, food, etc.
    If I take my own experience, I have an addiction to junk food (I’m working on it, it’s getting better). So I am really good at managing my money, really on the ball with it… except when it come to the “restaurant/junk food” category. This year (in surplus of regular groceries and restaurants outings as a family or couple), I spent close to 1300$ on junk food/restaurant, just for myself. This makes NO SENSE at all!!! I do NOT want to be spending that kind of money on something that is basically destroying my health, but sometimes (often…) the addiction takes front seat and the logic goes out the window. I will pounder buying a 20$ shirt for 2 weeks, but I will blow 50$ on a restaurant meal without hesitation, to feed the addiction. So… yeah, this is my experience and my challenge.

    • diana says:

      “I will ponder buying a 20$ shirt for 2 weeks, but I will blow 50$ on a restaurant meal without hesitation, to feed the addiction”– I do this too, minus the junk food addiction. I always thought it was weird too! Why spend so freely on food and drinks and be so cautious about like, a $15 vegetable peeler? I think two things are at play here: 1. With Things that live in your house long-term, you have to live with them long term! If the vegetable peeler sucks you have to look at it sitting in your drawer in all its suckiness for the foreseeable future, and hem and haw about whether you should throw it out. I’m picky enough about my physical environment and clutter that I obsess over buying even small things, like pens and sponges. 2. You gotta eat! You get hungry a million times a day. Yesterday, I spent $3.50 on a tiny yogurt at the airport. This was absurd, but I was coming off a work trip and it’s not like I could have packed it from home. Sometimes I would have opted to skip it and just fast for a few hours (won’t kill you!) but this was a long day of travel and I had to eat something. So, yes it’s a bad deal, yes I wish I didn’t spend $3.50 on a yogurt, but eating has to happen, all the time, and it’s very very difficult to optimize every morsel.

      • Linda says:

        Diana your comments are so insightful. I too felt I would pass up a new can opener that I desperately needed or I wouldn’t buy avocados this week because it was not on sale but I went out for dinner! It was only satisfying for that hour out and I still don’t have the can opener or avocados. Time to stop and reflect. Thanks, your post opened my eyes, again.

  7. bev says:

    Very honest and insightful story. As is many of them in the comments section on this blog. I admire anyone who can own up to their mistakes and then take hold of the reigns. We’ve all made mistakes, personal, financial, whatever. What is so inspiring in these stories and many that I read here is that many of you are younger, i.e, 20’s 30’s, even 40’s, and you are so in tune with your lives. At your age, I was so into myself and status, and the look-at-me lifestyle, yet I don’t seem to see that here. You all seem so smart, educated, and know what it takes to get ahead in life, financially. It makes me happy to “hear” so many inspiring stories. I’ve since grown-up so to speak, but it took me much longer. And the longer you wait, the harder it is. Thanks to all of you for telling your own truth!

  8. Linda says:

    Yes, divorce is exactly like setting off a bomb, no matter how wise or foolish the decision was. It is not only financially devastating, but also emotionally. One never knows how rattling it is until they go through it–it shakes you to the bone. I am glad you came through it intact and are bouncing back.

  9. Mrs. Maroon says:

    You words explain my situation perfectlly. I’m getting a handle on it before I spend all of my inheritance on Amazon, or anything else. Thanks for the sharing. It helps to know I’m not alone.

  10. Thanks for the candid post, Kali. I experienced a similar mindset while I was struggling with mental health issues during my last job. I was overworked and felt like I “deserved” to have designer clothes, drop tons of money on expensive dinners, and trendy home decor. In reality, none of those things were making me happy. And overspending made me stay at the job a lot longer than I should have!

  11. B says:

    When I was a child I was expected to save from my allowance. My parents opened savings accounts for us and then during a temporary financial setback my dad emptied our accounts without telling us and never paid them back. After I found out I spent everything I got. I became a better saver as an adult but when I married for the first time at 45 it was to a spender. Eventually divorced, left with nothing, built up a small savings, married again, became disabled. I haven’t had more than a dollar in change in my pocket for two years. I go months with zero. But with my disabilities I don’t do things on my own ever. Money is odd.

  12. I can definitely relate to the upending of your life! Going through my divorce was similar in many ways, although I was not very frugal before my divorce and relatively more frugal afterward. It was empowering to me to be able to set the thermostat on 60 degrees without ridicule. I still have a long way to go with my learning about personal finance / priorities / triggers, etc. That’s why I’ve been reading all of these great blogs like the Frugalwoods for motivation and inspiration! I wish I had started young like they did, but hopefully it’s not too late for me to right the sails.

  13. This is excellent. If you don’t know what you really want, you start floundering. We spend money on what we really want because we KNOW. Something as scary and unexpected as a divorce (thanks for being so open!) can change everything. Life happens hard. And it changes everything. It’s good to make sure you always have a sense of what you want before you dive in to life to get over something you didn’t want. Thanks for the inspiration, Kali!

  14. Marissa says:

    I recently messed up money wise, and when I always do this, I always spend money at craft bazaars. I recall I spent about $13.00 at one earlier this month and I have a weakness for them. ;_; That was money that I should have kept in my wallet, but I will admit, I am enjoying a $7.00 locally made soap I bought sonce I collect them. : 3 Thinking back, I shouldn’t have bought the toffee I bought at the bazaar for $6.00. It wasn’t as good as the sample, lol. D: Oh well. Lesson learned. You just don’t know what to expect at craft bazaars in December, lol! ^^;

  15. Anette says:

    Thank you for telling your experiences of life, I have always been working and never been thinking too much about money, there was always more than enough for me, so I saved up a bit and spent a lot and all was well, a couple of years ago I became addicted to bead collecting (Trollbeads) and I stopped saving and spent all my money on those beads, in July this year I glanced only by chance on my credit card bill, almost 2500 USD and I could not believe it, I felt immensely ashamed of myself, I looked up the other bills, they were not as huge but still a large amount of my wages that I spent on fashion jewellery, for me the 2500 USD were a complete shock, (I never had any debts apart from mortgage) at the same time work conditions started to deteriorate and this got me really thinking, I am now trying to make up a bit, learning fast, the Frugalwoods blog is helping me immensely, I am so grateful, I now try to sell some of the tons of beads I got, so tedious and only at a great loss, but it has to be.
    Still, there are temptations, I must be strong, today I got my Xmas present to myself, but only from cashback points of one of my dealers, and then I have to cut all those connections.
    Don’t beat me, I cannot even tell the reason how I could have done such a stupid thing, what does it stand for?

  16. Pat Pickett says:

    Thank you for your honesty. One never knows about divorce. I married with the intention of staying that way. I never, never in a million years would have thought it would happen to me. It did. It was the biggest slam of my life. In some ways I’m still trying to get over it after 20+ years. Financially, I live simply. I still work but that is because what I do is my passion. It is not my goal to retire. It is my goal to work as long as I am able – not for the money – for the joy of what I do.

  17. Welcome, Kali!

    I’ve never had a major life event that caused spending, but I do notice that spending begets spending. It’s like once I open the purse strings, I just grabbing out fistfuls of dollars. True whether I am doing all the spending or whether Mr. FP has been doing his own.

  18. Christina says:

    When I graduated from college I went straight into a very demanding career path. Sure I made a fantastic starting salary but it was devastatingly stressful and I found myself trying to spend money on things that might make me happy. It was all stress spending and once I realized I was aimlessly piddling away my paycheck I had to quickly snap out of it. I started doing research on how people can be smart with their savings and what kind of goals are achievable as I know I’m motivated by big goals. That led me to finding a wealth of information about personal finance and creating the goal to hit FI before age 40!

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