When Frugalism Becomes Extremism


I am all for being frugal and living below my means, but what happens when it becomes too extreme?

We got take-out last night because we were too tired to cook. I was really hungry by the end of the work day, so I was totally on board. $14… Who cares, right? Yet, as I was laying in bed, my wife reminded me that we needed a new window treatment for our bedroom window – in fact we probably need a few around the house. My immediate response was “we can hold out a little longer”. She disagreed and repeated that we needed it. I mean this thing is hanging by a thread. We can’t even close it without manually feeding the string through the blinds, and the string itself is just about to snap.

You constantly read about early retirement. What do you need to do to reach early retirement? At its most basic level, you need to spend less than you earn, save money, and focus on needs and not wants. But what happens when wants suddenly become needs and real needs go by the wayside? That’s what happened to me last night. I was so hungry that the pizza I wanted became the pizza I needed. Yet, when I looked at a disgusting, broken window treatment that was probably original to the home, I say we should hold off on getting a new one.

As humans, we are wanters by nature. The hard part is not letting those wants transform into needs. As Dr. Russell Grieger lays out in this article, the only real needs we have are food, water, shelter, and oxygen. Everything else is a want (I’d strongly urge you read the rest of the article as well, he has some great insight). It’s okay if some of those wants become needs. Let’s face it – if I can’t close my window blinds, it’ll look really tacky, but I’ll survive. What about security though? Do I really want people looking into my windows? Do I want to wake up with the sun blasting in my face? So I’ve somewhat transformed this want into a need. I went so far in my frugal mindset, however, that I completely ignoring paying for a real want (the pizza) and obsessed over a more expensive, real need (the window treatment).

So what do we do?

Like Dr. Grieger says, it’s okay to want – be a wanter! Keep those expectations in check, though. We have to be okay with not getting everything we want. In fact, that increases the gratification if and when we finally do get it. If I’d held off on that pizza until the weekend, one of two things would have happened: I would have bought the pizza this weekend and been even more excited to eat it because I’d wanted it all week, or I’d decide by the weekend that I no longer really wanted it, thus saving the money. Remember, make purchases that add to your quality of life.

The challenge is having the same mindset around needs. How can you create a desire for a need? The first step is attempting to separate wants from needs. This goes back to my earlier post when I discussed holding off on a buy if you’re unsure. This should apply for wants and needs. After you’ve held off on the buy, try to define whether it’s a want or a need – then make your decision. If it’s a want, think about if you really need it now, or if it can wait. If it’s a need, do the same. In either circumstance, once you decide to use your money to pay for it, see if there’s a cheaper option.

Why do we feel so bad about wanting?

Because you’re frugal. You’re trying to live below your means and save money, so it’s only natural that you feel some guilt when you want something that you don’t need. This is where the concept of budgeting comes into play. If we budget our money, we don’t feel as bad spending money on things we want, as long as it falls within the budget. I also think this applies to living on one income, having automatic savings, etc. If you have already taken care of your future self, and you have the extra money, it’s okay to spend it on a want. What the hell did I just say? Yes – re-read if it you have to. You don’t have to be extreme.

Try this

Grab a pen and some paper. Set a timer on your phone for 15 minutes. Take that time to write as many things as you can think of that you want. Once you run out of things to list, start writing down things that you need. When the 15 minutes is up, do a little self-reflection:

  • How does your list of wants compare to your list of needs?
  • Which did you have a harder time writing down?
  • What next steps will you take to fulfill those wants or needs?

It’s activities like this that can help us stay in check with what we’re spending our money on. Give it a shot and let me know how it goes.


Photo credit: Elsie esq. / Source / CC BY


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