Don’t Be a Self-Righteous Frugalist

photo by jslander

Have you ever known someone who preached frugality at every turn?  They were always eager to tell you how much money they saved, or how much you could have saved, or how frivolous your purchase was?  I’ve caught myself being “that guy” sometimes, and it is not a character trait I want to develop.

Be a Frugal Leader

In many areas of our lives leading by example is the best way to encourage others to followBeing frugal is no different. One of the quickest ways to turn people off of frugality is to tell them how they should live their lives, and how they should spend their money.  This is especially true with spouses and children.  Here lately I’ve noticed that I have become overly critical of my wife’s purchases, and get too easily upset if my kids want something I think is frivolous.  Instead of telling them that I don’t think they are being frugal, it would be better if I kept my mouth shut, stuck to my own frugal habits, and let them come to that conclusion on their own.  Sometimes it is hard for us guys to keep our mouths shut, and when I fail to take this advice I usually wind up with a foot in it.

Be Frugal for the Right Reasons

Many of us with kids worry that our frugality won’t rub off on them, or worse, that it will backfire and they will grow up to be mega consumersI personally believe much of a child’s future personality is cultivated by the attitudes of their parents.  If parents complain about frugality as a side effect of being “poor,” and constantly compain about the price of things, and what little money they have, then kids will likely grow up to resent anything to do with frugal living.  However, if parents discuss finances with their children and explain that they live frugal because it makes them better stewards of their money and resources, and do it with a generally positive attitude, then kids will be more likely to adopt the behavior as their own.

Black and White

Writing about family finances has helped me see more gray areas.  I used to only see things in black and white.  Either you were frugal or your weren’t.  You were good with money or you weren’t.  Now I realize that everyone has their own tolerance for living frugally, and that’s okay–we can all still be friends.  Some people like to cut coupons, while others see it as a waste of time.  Some people cut their own hair, and others visit high-end salons.  Some people skimp on clothing, drive old cars and refuse to eat out, but take an annual cruise.  None of these people are necessarily doing anything wrong.

I started out this post knocking people too eager to give advice, but I will close with some for myself.  Be more tolerant of others.  Many times people are doing the best they can with the resources they have to work with.  We may not know the whole story.  We may not understand what psychological factors they are dealing with.  Don’t be quick to look down upon people who don’t live the same way we do.  Now, go be a frugal leader!


  1. You’re right on about the gray areas of personal finance. There’s more than one way to meet our goals. If the goal is to take a nice vacation, then that’s OK. Once you are debt-free, a certain amount of cashflow become surplus. Then you have to figure out where to allocate those funds – investment, sunny day fund, beefier emergency fund, etc.

  2. Very nice words. I am a true believer that every situation is as unique as a fingerprint. Supporting others through this complicated journey is extremely beneficial.

  3. Great post. Nothing turns a person off more than being preached to like they don’t know what they are doing. I have to remind myself of this from time to time and remember that I had problems with things like credit cards and debt at one time.

  4. Oooh yes, I have been guilty of this. I’m trying to temper my responses with my spouse and my kids. Just because I don’t agree with a purchase decision, I need to remember that it’s not my place to preach at them about it. Likewise, I show on a daily basis that I’m hardly perfect, either. Less preaching and more concrete examples from real life definitely make a difference.

  5. I have seen this attitude so often in finances. I believe that we should not only avoid criticism, but also actively celebrate small steps toward living frugally. When my daughter (8) suggested that we go out for breakfast after church, then stopped herself and suggested that we go to the grocery store and pick up some breakfast items instead, we had that celebration (and we made a great breakfast together as a family – she did the pancakes). Our decisions about why we choose to cook instead of eat out became her lifestyle choice. My wife and I have tried to model this for years – and we talk to the kids about the cost of convenience all of the time.

    I believe we kill people’s spirit on changing bad habits with our “it’s not good enough” attitude. When my wife started an exercise routine, she almost gave it up because a loved one was telling her that a little bit of exercise wouldn’t do any good – that she had to do more. If it wasn’t going to do any good, why do any exercise at all.

    When the people who respect us are taking small steps in the right direction, we need to celebrate with them! We need to realize that even a small step forward is keeping them from backsliding.

  6. @Scott: “I believe we kill people’s spirit on changing bad habits with our ‘it’s not good enough’ attitude.” Great, great point! We all need to remember that progress is progress. The pace of that progress is up to the individual, and is influenced by a variety of factors which may or may not be obvious to us.

    @Dana: Funny, I almost didn’t include a picture with this one because I was having a hard time coming up with something on theme. For kicks, I put in “self righteous” in the Flickr Creative Commons search and saw a few bumper sticker pictures. I then tried “covered bumper stickers” which led me to that picture. It seemed appropriate, and amusing.

  7. Great post.

    I couldn’t agree more about leading by example.

    Like FFB already mentioned, no one likes to be preached too, and it usually will just turn people away from the intended message. But when people see someone getting the results they desire to achieve, they’ll take notice to how they are doing it.

  8. Well put… Its extremely hard for me sometimes to resist the temptation to try to “butt in” to other people’s lives with my own suggestions on how they can more effectively life frugally. Frankly, its really not my business to comment, and its been something that I have been working on with myself for a while. It sounds cliche, but being a “frugal leader” and tolerant of others habits really is the best way to go.

  9. I completely agree with living as an example of frugality. I’ve learned to not be “preachy” about much of anything in my 30-something years. (I still can’t help it sometimes though.) There are areas of gray here though. In the family, one cannot only sit back and expect your family members to take up from your example. In many situations one must just put their foot down for the good of the family. There is a difference between nagging and being the voice of reason. Many individuals become enablers because they cannot discern where the line is in that “enough is enough”. This is how people develop bad habits and addictions (not just physical or emotional but financial as well). There are situations where a scolding or reminders must be enforced over learning by example. You wouldn’t let you child or spouse harm themselves or the family in order to learn what not to do. In some instances the financial harm can be more ruinous than other types of negativity (ie. nagging, scolding).

    On the other hand, people will do whatever they want to do. One must be wise enough to know when to not allow that person’s behavior and choices take your life down a bad path. One should be wise enough to know when to intervene. One should be wise enough to know when to shut up and leave well enough alone because they will learn it on their own just as well. In that vein, this comment is ended. Go in peace.

  10. Being frugal has at times made us feel even more poor, because we are constantly discussing what we can and cannot afford. But I believe that it will pay off as our incomes grow and we have developed good personal finance habits to make that extra income go even further.

  11. thanks, I realize I am too preachy and am shocked if anyone mentions what they pay for something. I live on about $25,000 a year, have 2 kids, and no debt. But my car was $300, so when I hear someone paying $500 a month I do a double take. I have to be calmer and not so shocked by what I think is a waste of money. And I also have to not give advice unless I am asked for it, this is so hard, but I am trying! -Becky

  12. I think it takes a really big person to look inwards and see fault. We can all grow as human beings and if we learn from our mistakes then we can only grow smarter. I appreciate you sharing your experience.

  13. I think most people will take a comment about their lavish spending as a reprimand, hackles come up, and there is that very negative space between you.

    Therefore, I try to remember that I am only in charge of MY life, not anyone else’s. My priorities are not their priorities, and theirs are not mine. We each have reasons for being frugal, and that’s that.

    About ‘not doing enough’….think ‘baby steps, baby steps’… as long as it’s a step in the right direction, it is a Good Thing 🙂

  14. Wonderful post and awesome attitude! I certainly don’t want to become the wife that gives my husband the stink eye when he indulges himself a bit. I’m very lucky to have a spouse who appreciates my frugality, but doesn’t bat an eye when I do spend some money.

    There’s no faster way to turn some against your cause than to tell them you’re right and they’re wrong. Frugality is an excellent arena in which to lead by example by being happy with your own choices.

  15. Excellent post! It is very easy to fall into that trap. Usually its because we’ve seen the light and we want to be helpful, but it ends up doing more damage than good.

  16. I TOTALLY get this. I had to keep my mouth shut last weekend with a group of moms who were talking about how good of the deal the school supply packets the school sells as a fundraiser were. They are NOT. They are $35 buck or more and for that I can buy school supplies for all my kids (4) and have a ton of extras to give to anyone else. Plus, they never have the same quality as the stuff I buy. It is usually of lesser quality. I bet the school makes very little off of them too…some fat cat company is making all the money! I’ve even thought of making my own to sell for half the cost. LOL!

  17. Great point about the kids. Micah grew up in a family which was poor. His mom was awesome and frugal and managed to pay down debt while getting herself a degree which brought them up to lower-middle-class, but he’s always associated frugality with poverty. They drank only powdered milk, for instance. Fortunately, he’s pretty easy-going, so he’s ok with overall frugality. He just can’t quite separate the two (poverty and frugality) in his head.

  18. Very good thought on this subject. Although, I must admit it’s damn frustrating waiting for stuff to rub off on other people. Sometimes, you need a little bit of persuasion to prod things along.

  19. Frugality is not a competition. It isn’t about who saves the most money or who has the most pared-down lifestyle. It’s about using money intentionally and making smart financial choices.
    That said, your frugal lifestyle CAN serve as an example to others. But only when they’re ready to change the way they live.

  20. Lead by example – a great piece of advice. I have found that if I tell my friends and family about money they have no real interest. However when they see that I am managing my money well they seem to come to me to ask me questions.

    I found that strange at first but now I realise that if you can be a good example then people will try to follow your lead especially if they are struggling with their finances themselves.

  21. My parents were smartly frugal. While I might not be quite as thrifty as they were, their values did rub off on me. Great article.

  22. I had to chuckle when I saw the title of this post. But it is the truth.

    Whenever you preach something all the time, people will get sick of you and then they wont listen to you WHEN IT’S IMPORTANT.

    I have to hold my peace sometimes because I don’t want to be that person. I normally keep my mouth shut until someone asks… then I have no choice but to lay the smack down. 🙂