Complacency A Silent Killer Of Financial Turnarounds

I’d like to dedicate a post to expanding on an idea I mentioned in last week’s post, A Frugal Diet, Or A Frugal Lifestyle – a follow up of a follow up, if you will.  I mentioned in that post that a reader’s comment sort of splashed cold water on me, waking me from a slumber I had been enjoying most of this year.

During that time we have been relaxing the constraints on our budget.  Our debt repayment progress had slowed.  Our savings balances weren’t growing.  Money was leaking out of our checking account at a faster rate than it had in previous months.  What was the cause of this return to indifferent spending?  Complacency.

When the Going Gets Tough, So Do We

Back when we reached our financial bottom it was easy to get fired up about turning around our finances.  Mostly because finances seemed to dominate our every thought.  It kept me awake at night, and it was the first thing I worried about when I woke up.  It drove many of our decisions, and removed many options from our lives.  It was easy to get mad at the debt that hung over us, and it was easy to stick to our guns when faced with decisions to spend or save.

I’ve never been really good and doing two things at once.  Some people are natural multitaskers, and on the day-to-day stuff I do a pretty good job.  But where I fail is the big stuff.  For instance, I’ve lamented before how hard it is to lose weight and pay off debt.  Even though there seems to be a natural correlation to the two goals, I can’t seem to pull them off at the same time.  I can either get really fired up about losing weight and drop a few pounds, or I can get really fired up about paying off debt and lower our balances.  But when I do one or the other, the other goal suffers, or at best treads water until i again refocus my energy.

When Things Get Easier, So Do We

There comes a time in any financial turnaround when things begin to look up.  Maybe you’ve paid off that car loan, or a couple credit cards, and increased your disposable income thanks to reduced monthly debt payments.  Maybe you’ve also managed to pick up a side hustle, or added some overtime to your schedule, or received a promotion and increased your income.  Suddenly you find yourself not struggling quite as hard to keep your head above water.  It is as if someone is draining the pool for you, and all of a sudden you can touch your toes.  Ah…it feels good to stop flailing your arms and legs and simply relax for a bit.

Don’t get me wrong, these new feelings are a sign of progress and should be celebrated.  However, some healthy reservation is also required.  This is the same point many turnarounds have been foiled.  Think of the dieter who works out and eats right for six weeks and drops 25 pounds.  They are elated, and for good reason.  To celebrate they go out to eat something they haven’t had in a while.  And since they already blew it at dinner, that late-night ice cream won’t hurt.  And since they blew the whole night they’ll just sleep in the next morning instead of hitting the gym.  I’ll just get back on track on Monday.  You see how this can be a very slippery slope!

How To Fight Complacency While Celebrating Success

If we know that this new-found success ultimately leads to complacency, what can we do to head it off?  I would recommend allowing yourself some non-guilty pleasure not related to your ultimate goal.  For a dieter this might mean the accomplishment of a weight-loss goal is celebrated with a new dress.  For those of us working to turnaround our finances, maybe this means an increase to something that brings enjoyment, but does not cost any money.  For instance, families may agree to allow each other more time to devote to something they enjoy – exercise, hiking, learning a musical instrument, etc.

Whatever you decide, do not allow yourself to slip back into the same bad habits.  And if you feel those bad habits creeping back in, stop and reasses your situation.  Call a time out and lock yourself in a room to balance your checkbook, update your budget and take an inventory of your debts.  Don’t spend the entire time beating yourself up for making a mistake.  After all, money mistakes make us human, and they only become failures when they are repeated.  Remember the things that motivated you in the first place, and rededicate your life energy towards accomplishing those goals.


  1. I’m a believer in looking for positive motivation as well as negative motivation. If the thought behind a frugality effort is “I am afraid that I will not be able to retire,” you will indeed become complacent as you make progress and the problem no longer seems so pressing.

    But there are always new positive goals you can be pursuing. If you started out with the goal of retiring at 60 rather than 65, making progress can prompt you to change the goal to retiring at 55. Retiring at 55 is even more exciting than retiring at 60. So instead of feeling complacent, you feel more motivated than before.


  2. It’s important to establish goals beyond “getting out of debt.” For me, it’s been useful to think about why I want to get out of debt — to focus on the larger goals — things like getting out of debt so I can put X amount in savings, or once I’m out of debt, I can start saving for a new car. If we have larger goals beyond debt reduction, then I think it’s easier to stay focused rather than becoming side-tracked once the debt is paid off.

  3. Boy is it easy to let things go a little, not try as hard, and ease back into the same old pattern when money problems ease up a bit. It’s tough to remain focused when you have a few small victories. It really helps to keep the focus on the end goal. Small victories are motivating, but no replacement for what I’m really working toward.

  4. So true.

    I never believed that I would become complacent but I did. Now, with the economic slump, we have tightened back up big time. But striking a balance is really difficult.

    My experience tells me that finding that balance is very individual. No set formula. In my case, I had a savings goal each month. If I achieved that, I felt comfortable to loosen up the spending a bit. We lived like that for several years and I think it was actually a good thing. However, the spending crept up and we forgot about the savings goals.

    Now we’re back on track. I actually am grateful for this financial mess for getting me back to basics.

  5. Excellent post.

    However I do have to disagree with the premise that
    “money mistakes make us human, and they only become failures when they are repeated.”

    I’m human. Despite my best efforts I repeat mistakes pretty regularly. I subscribe instead to the notion that mistakes become failure only when you give up.

  6. I’m experiencing a touch of this now. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to pick up extra work and at the same time found ways to cut back on my bills. It has taken me from *gulp I’m going down!* to *okay, I can handle this.” I put myself on a No Spending Challenge this month in part because of this. I feel like I am standing just a few feet from that slippery slope.

  7. FrugalDad, having read your other post earlier today and now this one, it does seem that you are taking that evaluation by one of the anointed militant frugalists out there pretty hard. Ease up there buddy. This isn’t a damn competition. There isn’t a line in the sand that determines if you meet the frugal criteria or not. Do what you can and what you feel comfortable with and feel confident that it is ok for you. Now, if your debts are not being paid off at the time you set for yourself, then you should take a step back and re-evaluate your spending habits. Of course, as you have said before, your mother’s unfortunate illness has thrown a spanner in the works. More gas, more eating out and more relaxation time required as you work through the associated stress. Do what you need to to deal with it and then get back on the bike when it has been dealt with or reached a manageable level. Don’t feel guilty for it unless you have completely fallen off the horse and are back to square one again. I would guess your frugal lifestyle for the past year or more has resulted in some healthy spending habits which are easy enough to keep going. It’s the overall plan that has to be brought back into play once you come to terms with your current situation. Get back on track and keep a confident mindset. (Note I did not say a completely positive mindset, because the key to achieving a difficult goal is to be self-critical sometimes and change what may not be working for you. This does require some healthy skepticism.)

    Being worried about not appearing frugal enough is a defensive reaction to an indefensible position. How does one determine if you are “frugal enough”? There really isn’t some set standards and measurements for this sort of thing. It is also determined by how much self-punishment you are prepared for. It smacks of the “other side of the same coin” situation. On one side you have “keeping up with the Joneses” – which is spending yourself into debt to look good to others. And on the other side you have “deny yourself” – which is keeping yourself bereft of anything you may want or obtain pleasure from because of an overriding sense of guilt that you don’t look frugal enough to others.

    What I’m trying to say to you Jason is that although you may not always reach those frugal markers as set by yourself (or others), you are definitely a step ahead of the masses in that you can critically self-evaluate and determine that improvements can be made. Don’t beat yourself up over it, just adjust and move on. Guilt is always self-induced — no one can give it to you. Just be confident that you can achieve your goals and feel good in the fact that you have people here who support you.

  8. Did you write this post just for me? 🙂 I can relate to a lot of it. We do seem to be making progress financially, but as a result, I am tempted to slack off a bit. This is a good reminder to stick with the program.

  9. I’m thinking you read that person’s comment about you not being frugal enough and became afraid that perhaps you are no longer relevant to your blog readers as a result. That is indeed a worry with a business model like yours. At what point does one make enough money and not need to be frugal anymore? It would be different for everyone but for the writer of a blog on frugality obivously this is an issue. My suggestion is to change your tune a bit with the writing and have it be more instructional on how to be frugal to achieve goals for others as opposed to how you yourself are being frugal right now. I don’t know – just coming up with this on the fly here…

  10. I do not understand the motivation behind this post, whatever is outlined in this post seems like pure common-sense. A simple counter-example for this post/post-series would be “if you are in college and get good grades for a sem, you dont utterly lax out and go bonkers in the next sem and fail every course in sight”.
    This post/series might on the other hand be a good 101 learning course for those who are completely off-track in regards to their savings/retirement-planning etc.
    Also some one (poster#9) commented about the analogy with the economy, again thats hard to fathom unless I start resort to outrageous extrapolations/hand-waving.

  11. I totally agree that complacency is a hazard to financial health. When I was clawing my way out of debt, I would apply every extra cent I could find to my debt, now I find that the latte factor is creeping back in. Thanks for the reminder!

  12. To criticize the FrugalDad method for being sustainability-oriented and therefore “not frugal enough” is similar to criticizing the Weight Watchers system for not being as severe or restrictive as a liquid diet.

    As with diets, there’s a range of spending plans that vary in their level of rigor. Some have the goal of extreme reduction; others focus on sustainability. It all depends on what the patient needs. A compulsive spender in imminent danger of bankruptcy needs more financial rigor than someone who is getting by but who wants to pay off the mortgage early.

    For people in a crisis, dramatic means (such as bariatric surgery or a medically supervised liquid diet) are necessary. We’ve got more people in financial crisis now, so extreme frugality and extreme debt reduction is going to get more attention than it would when times were good. That’s normal. Yet not all people need extreme measures, and if they resort to extreme measures or try to sustain them in the long term, they end up reverting to their original habits. This is why fad dieters so frequently regain their lost weight and so many lottery winners end up broke.

    The fact that the FrugalDad approach is more sustainability-oriented than most of the extreme measures out there is good.

    We need not let the conversation deteriorate into a more-frugal-than-thou competition. To do so may trigger unhealthy behavior in people who are disposed to the financial equivalent of anorexia.

  13. I have faced complacency on my road of finance. I made progress by paying off many debts and allowed old habits to creep back in. We have to keep our eye on the overall goal and stay focused. You get battle weary at times and let your guard down a bit. Thanks for the reminder to stay at it.