I am an incredibly fortunate person: my frugality is elective, not a requirement for my survival.
While I enjoy frugality and the tremendous benefits it yields, I’m also aware that part of this enjoyment stems from the fact that it’s an optional lifestyle for me and my family.
Much of what I write about, and reflect on, are the ways in which frugality has simplified and improved our lives–not the least of which is that it frees us from worrying about money. But this, I realize, is an incredibly privileged position. There are plenty of people for whom frugality is not a joyful choice–it’s a mandate for scraping by. I never want to lose sight of that.
It irks me when I hear that people who are poor could solve all their problems through frugality. This blanket admonition ignores the privilege inherent to success through frugality–namely, that you must have money in order to save money. While I’m all for personal responsibility–of which fiscal prudence is an element–I’m also keenly aware of the many factors that conspire against people in poverty or in debt. Of course, it’s equally true that some people are poor because they make bad decisions, but not everyone falls into that camp.
We Never Know The Full Story
It’s easy to judge other people. Like super easy. Probably the easiest thing we’ll do all day. After all, it doesn’t require that we talk to the other person, or learn their story, or even know their name. We can just waltz through the grocery store and judge every person we pass. If we see what’s in their cart, then we can judge them EVEN MORE.
Anyone who saw me at Pricechopper yesterday could’ve been VERY judgy about: 1) my screaming child, 2) the frozen pizza in my cart, 3) the box of wine in my cart, and let’s not forget, 4) the bag of candy corn in my cart… probably I am some terrible mother planning on letting her child scream while she feasts on pizza, wine, and candy corn. All before noon. In fairness, I plan to eat all of those things after she goes to bed (and is not screaming) on Saturday night. Also I will share most* of it with Mr. Frugalwoods.
*not the candy corn
I know how easy it is to lob such judgements because I’m a guilty, silent judgy judger who judges. Thankfully I’ve outgrown my proclivity for saying what I’m thinking out loud because, in almost every single instance of me judging a person, I later learn something that negates or explains their behavior, or otherwise makes me feel like the bad person that I clearly am.
I was huffy about the fact that someone carelessly parked over the line between the two “For Customers With Babies” parking spots at BJ’s last week. Personally outraged in my Prius, I silently fumed, “these spots are for people with babies! Like me! This spot is for ME! And now I can’t use it because you were thoughtless in how you parked.”
I parked a few spots away (as if that was a hardship), got Babywoods settled in the grocery cart, and made my way inside. And who walks on out? The parking spot villain herself… who turned out to be a harried mom with twin babies–AKA someone who 100% deserved two parking spots. And who needed that spot a whole lot more than I did. Whoops. Good thing she didn’t hear me berating her parking job.
I could regale you with similar instances for at least an hour because this kind of stuff happens to me all the time. I’m pretty sure the universe is trying to teach me patience and tolerance, both of which I have considerably less of than I’d like to admit. My point is that we have no idea what’s going on in other people’s lives. Even with our close friends and family, we’re often unaware of their intimate struggles.
It is, unfortunately, rather common in the financial sphere to castigate people who don’t manage their money wisely. We point and say, “How could you spend so much on a car?!”; “You’re beyond dumb to buy coffee out every day!!”; “Why would anyone choose to have such a long commute to work??!!”; “This is why you are poor!” The problem with this dogmatic rigidity–in addition to being insensitive–is that it doesn’t account for the unique experiences, challenges, and journeys of each individual.
It’s easy to say those things or pass judgement in a parking lot. It’s a whole lot harder to bring compassion and empathy to a conversation about money. These knee-jerk outbursts, by the way, are why people avoid talking about their finances in the first place. If we think someone is going to yell at us, we simply won’t engage. We’ll ignore whatever the issue is–money, a toxic relationship, an addiction–and pretend it’s not a problem (or at least, that’s what I do). No one wants to be judged or made to feel stupid. And we financially-minded folks do a great disservice to our friends, colleagues, and family when we berate them for how they’re handling (or not handling) their money.
I’m Right And You’re Wrong! So There!
Levying judgements also makes us feel superior. Creating an “us” vs. “them” scenario is ridiculously tempting. It makes us feel wise and like we’re doing the right thing and that we alone have unlocked this wonderful secret of how to be a fabulous person in the world. We are the best! And they are the worst! There are few, if any, situations where such diametric camps hold fast (maybe with people who like black olives? those things are gross!).
And, hey, maybe we are doing the right thing in one area, but we might be royally screwing up something else. Perfection on all fronts is impossible. It’s also true that what works for us very well might be awful for someone else. I, for example, do not budget. Other people, for example, adore their budgets. And that’s OK. I don’t need to be some ultimate fighting ninja authority on why budgeting is bad for you (it’s not, by the way). Acknowledging that there’s more than one “right” path is painful because it forces us to accept that our chosen lifestyle isn’t the only way. Plus, it just feels so good to be right.
Herein is another revelation: those of us who are happy with our lives and with what we’ve chosen to do are typically able to see others’ points of view without malice. When we’re confident about how we’re living our own lives, we’re much more accepting of divergent paths for other people.
This is spoken by someone (me) who previously did not like her life (childless, living in city, working in office) and now loves her life (parent, working from home, living in woods). I’m a lot less judgmental these days because I’m not scrambling for ways to make myself feel better. I’ve figured out what works for me and I want that for other people too–whether they agree with me or not.
Everyone’s experiences are different; thus, expecting others to hew to a prescribed doctrine is equal parts futile and rude. I’ve discussed before that I don’t judge anyone’s spending, but this concept of compassion extends beyond an absence of levying judgement. Even in writing this post I run the risk of self-aggrandizement as I paint myself as some benevolent, empathetic person who is so loftily non-judgmental (everyone who knows me just laughed out loud). Let me assure you, I write this because it’s an area in which I need to improve, not an area in which I’m a master.
Is Frugality For Everyone?
I did a TV interview the other day and was asked if I think frugality is for everyone and if everyone can achieve financial independence. To the interviewer’s surprise, I said “no.” Just because frugality works for me and facilitates the lifestyle I want doesn’t mean it’ll do that for everyone else. My dream was to live a simpler life less focused on consumption. While to me that’s a good thing, I don’t extend my beliefs to thinking it’s a moral good.
There’s danger when we attach morality to our personal choices and when we categorize other people as less than because they don’t agree with us. It’s a choice I’m making, but it’s not something everyone needs/wants/should do.
As far as financial independence goes, this is another area where privilege comes to bear. It’d be easy (super easy) for me to say “oh yes, Mr. FW and my success is due entirely to our crafty, brilliant decisions!” But that’s not true. That’s a simplified, hackneyed response totally lacking self-awareness and nuance.
Rather, I think our success stems from a combination of good decisions and luck. A lot of luck. And a lot of privilege (for more on privilege, see this post here). No, we didn’t inherit money, nor did our parents buy our houses or cars or any such thing. But, we were both raised by solidly upper middle-class families who prioritized their children, who helped pay for our college educations, and who lovingly supported our growth and development at every turn. Now this isn’t to say that people without our upbringings and our privilege can’t reach financial independence–that’s a causality argument I’m not making. It’s just that for me, the road was a lot easier. And for that, I’m aware and I’m thankful.
Approaching The World With Acceptance
Finding fault in others is a natural human response. We’re self-promoting creatures and I think only the most devout among us are absent this defect. I know I’m not. The key, I’m learning (slowly), is to approach every interaction from a place of acceptance, not a place of judgement and attack. It’s impossible for us to know the inner workings of someone else’s life and we might be intersecting with them in a vulnerable moment. In a moment when they desperately need our compassion, our empathy, and our understanding. More to the point, I dare say no one ever needs our judgement.