For most of the last six years, we haven’t had a regular line item in our budget for things like fun or eating out. This can be a tough way to live and can result in what I call “Frugality Fatigue”. My definition of frugality fatigue is when you have been living very leanly for a long time. Your definition of leanly and long will probably vary. For us it means a basic pre-paid cell phone (no smart phone), no cable. Periods of time without a streaming service like Netflix as well. Rarely eating out, and mostly just not buying things that aren’t necessities (by which I mean food, some clothing, rent/mortgage and utilities).
I remember my husband once told his classmates this when he was in college and they looked at him like he was crazy. How do you survive without buying things you want? Well, it isn’t always easy. Sometimes it makes us feel resentful or bitter. When that happens we are more likely to make a poor choice, like buying things we really shouldn’t. Is the smartest thing always to pay off debt or save any extra money? Yes, absolutely. But sometimes that $25 credit card rewards check doesn’t feel like it makes much of a dent in a very large debt (like student loans bigger than your yearly income), and it can make a small effort to relieve frugality fatigue. (I should note however, that if you are carrying a balance on your credit card, points or rewards should be immediately applied to the balance. If you carry a balance, any interest you are paying more than outweighs any small rewards you are earning to using the card.)
Because I’ve discovered that it’s unrealistic for most people to never get a pizza for five to ten years while they pay off their debt. Yes, it may be the “best thing” to do. But most of us are human. Frugality fatigue will kick in at some point instead of getting a pizza once every month or two, we might decide to splurge on a week long cruise to the Bahamas charged to the credit card and then paid off over the next year at 14% interest. Better to create small kinds of “luxuries” in your life than to get frustrated and make large, poor choices that have long term impact.
I know there are those in the debt free/frugality financial movement who disagree with me. That’s fine. But after 12 years of mostly living in frugality mode, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to cut yourself a little bit of slack.
For some people this means a weekly or monthly pizza. For others it means keeping the pricey smart phone or a daily latte. I think it’s OK to have a couple of things like this in our lives, as long as we count the cost. If you can, do the math. Use an excel spread sheet or an online debt calculator. Figure out how much giving up those daily lunches with co-workers or that unlimited cell phone data plan will actually save you. Then decide, is it worth it?
The problem is when we think we “need” all of these things. Instead of just one or two luxuries, we classify them all as needs rather than wants. It’s OK to enjoy something and want to make it part of your life. But if you can’t pay your bills every month or can’t get the debt paid off no matter how you try, it’s time to more closely examine those quality of life items and decide which ones will stay and which will go.
Choosing to take responsibility for your finances isn’t always easy. We’ve built a culture based on the concept that we should be able to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, regardless of if we can afford it. But the reality is, it comes down to math. Everything has a cost and we will pay it one way or the other. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun things in our lives; but it does mean we have to be conscious of how we spend our money, especially if we are still paying off debt or trying to build a savings account to protect us from future emergencies.