Stop Feeling Sorry For Me – I’m Frugal, Not Broke

The other day I had problems with the old van I drive to and from work. A friend saw me struggling to get it started in my employer’s parking lot, and the next day said, “Man, I felt bad watching try to get the old van running. When do you think you’ll be able to buy a nicer car?”

That afternoon, while standing outside waiting on a ride home, and feeling a tad bit sorry for myself, it occurred to me that living frugal often gives people the wrong perception of your financial health. When others see you making frugal choices, they automatically assume you are doing it because you have to, not because you want to. Sure, I could go out and sign the next five years away with a new car loan, but I choose not to.

Over the last year or two there has been a growing trend towards frugality, and many people in the media are anxious to see if it lasts. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will, for one main reason.

Most Americans, myself included for far too much of my life, are overly concerned with what other people think of them. I mentioned the ability to ignore what others think of us briefly earlier this week, as part of my seven steps to financial independence, and Neal mentioned comparing ourselves to others in yesterday’s guest post. Living a frugal lifestyle means living within our means – our means, not within a fairytale lifestyle depicted in the media as the norm.

As we go through our day making little sacrifices here and there, voluntarily passing on opportunities to spend a lot of money, people not living a frugal lifestyle will naturally assume we can’t afford to keep up with them. That’s fine; you can’t control their thoughts and assumptions.

The fact is, most frugal people are in much better financial positions than those feeling sorry for them. The classic example is Sam Walton, who right up until his death drove an old pickup truck around Bentonville, Arkansas. Those who didn’t recognize him probably thought he was just an average guy not able to afford a “nicer car.” We know he could have easily carved $60,000 out of his billions for a shiny new Mercedes, but he didn’t need one. His old truck suited him just fine.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t think that way. So the thought of living frugal frightens many egos out there into thinking they may not appear as successful, or wealthy, if they shop at thrift stores, drive old cars, cut their own hair, clip coupons, and make their own homemade laundry detergent.

Just remember my take on a line from Dave Ramsey:  If people are laughing at you, or feeling sorry for you, you are probably doing something right when it comes to your financial plan.


  1. I always say… if people think what I’m doing is weird then I MUST be on the right track! And I truly believe that. 🙂

    What most people don’t realize – and what the media doesn’t portray – is that debt kills the ability to live out your dreams. How can you follow your dreams when you owe? At the very least it limits your opportunities.

    I say STOP LIMITING YOUR OPPORTUNITIES, stop caring about what others think and start living like no one else so you can start living like no one else!

    Cheers – and thanks for the link Jason.

  2. Great post! I just picked up the book, The Millionaire Next Door, at the library (wouldn’t want to pay to buy it!). I’m hoping to become that person, slowly but surely…the frugal millionaire next door, not the broke person!

  3. Great post, and I completely agree with the previous comment. When we buy into the idea that new and expensive material things define who we are, the only ones who benefit are the big names in Corporate America. I choose to line my own pockets rather than theirs.
    Its not easy, though, and its not simply about choosing to spend vs. not. It also has a lot to do with having the self confidence to go against the grain, which, sadly, a lot of people are lacking these days. If we want today’s frugal mentality to continue, we need to educate our young people to have the confidence to believe that material possesions will never define you more than how you define yourself.

  4. I get this response whenever I don’t go out with people to lunch at work. One, I wouldn’t spend the extra money, even if I had it. Two, the food is usually vastly inferior to anything I cook (if I do say so myself) :o)

    And my truck, well, it needed fifteen hundred dollars worth of work this year, but, according to all accounts, Chevy S-10s will last for up to 250,000-300,000 miles. I think $1500 for another 80,000-100,000 is a bargain.

  5. We all are affected by what others think of us. This is just part of being human.

    I think we need to do more to create a society in which there is a counter to the voice of advertising telling people that there is no cost associated with spending all that one earns.

    To some extent we can teach that lesson through example. Sometimes its appropriate to put it into words. Sometimes we need to know to keep our mouths shut. But we need to know that we are trying to achieve peace with ourselves. We live in societies and we need to care about those who are being hurt by the excessive commercialism and don’t see it.


  6. I gave up worrying about what others think of me long ago *grins*.

    Your mention of homemade laundry detergent a few weeks ago inspired me and I am now making my own. It works great, by the way, made just like the “recipe” at Jabs site. The best part is that this helps me stay out of Costco, where I get a pretty good deal on detergent, but also make too many impulse purchases. Thanks for all the great frugal ideas!

  7. @Sara: Glad you like the recipe… my wife & I love it. As I’m sure you’re finding, making your own products is not only good for the pocketbook but it’s also an awesome exercise in self reliance. I will warn you – once you start it will probably snowball. Just last night I made homemade toothpaste (I’ll be posting it to DFA soon!)

    With every homemade project you save more and inch ever closer to independence! 🙂

  8. This is so true. I love the story of Sam Walton. I read his biography many years ago. He was not motivated by money. He simply loved what he was doing. It is encouraging to know that he continued to live a simple life. That is the secret, I believe, to real wealth. It’s not necessarily meant to be spent.

    Mrs. White

  9. I mostly agree with your post.

    What we see on TV isn’t reality. Living beyond our means to keep up appearances probably won’t make us happy. It certainly won’t make us wealthy. It will take away options. I try not to worry too much about what others think.

    But, as Rob pointed out, it is part of being human. We know others are judging us by what they see, just as we are judging them. We just have to live within ourselves.

  10. What gives me great encouragement is that I have several friends 15 years older than myself who have never had their wives working, lived frugal lives (but always generous when needed to help others) who in their early 60s have very comfortable homes and lifestyles, largely because they lived most of their lives without debt, driving old cars in their younger years, and can now afford new vwhicles. I’m $45,000 away from being the same – can’t wait!

  11. This is the flip side of all thoses “rich” folks we observed in prior years tooling around in their SUV’s, living in McMansions, and flying off to Cancun. We all know now that most were NOT wealthy, they merely managed the illusion with unmanageable amounts of expensive debt.

    And at the risk of stating what we all were taught in the first grade, it is far better to spend your time with people who like you rather than people who are impressed with your toys~~~or WORSE, think that there is any correlation between bank balance and value as a human being.

  12. This happens to me all of the time. In fact, I’ve had people offer to loan me money to “rectify” the situation.

    I try to explain that it is not that I can’t afford it, it is that I chose not to and have not budgeted for it.

    I drive an 8yr old Nissan w/97k miles, my wife drives a 9yr old Chevy Van w/110k miles. Both run great and have been paid off for years. They might not have that “new car shine”, but the serve their purpose.

    A car is a utilitarian device…like a hammer. Why buy a shiny new expensivey hammer when the old one still drives nails in straight? I don’t get it.

  13. I can totally see the point, but I’ve dealt with the “flip side” too — people seeing what you sacrifice for and assuming you’ve got a lot of disposable income. I can imagine either perception isn’t fun, as it’s totally false.

    Funny enough, my youngest car is eight years old…. But we’re “rich”? I haven’t gotten anyone to explain that to me yet. She’s also a Honda. We cut expenses where it doesn’t matter so we can spend on what does matter, which happens to be what sits in our driveway for all to see.

    Sadly, nobody who wants to judge us for it ever asks, because we have plenty of friends who are simply amused at the lengths we go to for the sake of spending on what makes us happiest. (I’m also working on what I hope to be a “frugal” wardrobe — high quality clothing with a big upfront cost that I hope to have for years to come! Another thing that may make me seem rich, but really I’m not…. I like what I like and will sacrifice quantity for quality any day.)

  14. Ah, the good old “Keeping up with the Joneses” issue. Luckily for me, I’m only concerned about being able to pay my bills, take a nice vacation every few years, and save, save, save. I have no need for that new Mercedes, or a bigger house, or designer clothes. Some people just aren’t happy unless they buy the newest stuff, but I’m willing to bet that happiness is short-lived.

  15. I get that attitude a lot from the other moms in my area, sometimes about our house (a townhouse–smaller than yours, yes, but a lot less to clean and maintain!) and because I’m a SAHM. I made a choice to stay at home, a choice to have less money, I suppose, but I also have incredible benefits. And now that I’ve mastered living on less, I actually have more than a lot of moms I know. We take vacations, do a lot of things other families do, but without the stress of car loans, consumer loans, etc. It’s truly a feeling of freedom.

  16. Awesome article! I catch myself wondering why I still drive a 2000 Nissan Maxima instead of a brand new financed car. But then at the 1st of each month when the extra $500/month that would be my car payment goes to pay down student loans, I tend to become happier with my financial decisions.

    Any why would Sam Walton want a Mercedes anyway? His dog, Roy, wouldn’t be comfortable in it :O)

  17. This is SO true! I used to work in HR, so I knew what everybody’s income was, including the young folks with their new, hot cars who only made around $30k. When I drove to work in my old pickup with the worse paint job ever (that I paid my Dad $800 for) and only a cassette player, I could have cared less what they thought. I knew they were more than likely living paycheck to paycheck with their car payments and rent and felt sorry for them.

    We finally sold that old truck b/c the transmission died (a mechanic bought it) but still have ’99 and ’01 Altimas that run great (paid for with cash saved). We will pay cash for our next car too.

  18. Great post. I love my 1997 Honda Accord and I don’t care that it does look like a 2009 Accord. For me, it’s all about a balance of pain. Which pain would you choose? The pain of having to fix your paid-off car every once in a while or the pain of shelling out $400-$500 bones every month for a trouble-free car?

    For me, the pleasure of a paid for car far outweighs the pain of the occasional repair (and/or pitiful looks)

  19. Hi Frugal Dad,

    I agree and disagree.

    If you’re driving a new car, financed it, can barely afford 6 or 7 years of payments, and bought a certain brand just because you thought it would make you look cool, then yeah, I don’t agree that’s the wisest decision.

    But, you can go too far in the other direction too. If you’re driving an old car that breaks down often and you can afford a newer one that doesn’t break down as often, I would say that’s a wise investment.

    I’m not sure how often your van breaks down, but you have to consider what your time is worth. If it’s breaking down once a month, and it’s costing you 3 hours of time (1 hour waiting for pickup, 1 hour inconvenience time out of whoever’s picking you up, and 1 hour driving back and forth from the auto repair shop), plus repair costs, it might be better off to get a more reliable car.

    I drove my last car (purchased used) for 8 years, until the A/C stopped working and the repair guy I trusted said the entire engine would need to be replaced due to major issues. I then donated it. I plan to drive my current car 8 years, too.

    There is always a point when the repair costs and your time (which is valuable — you could have spent it creating content!) aren’t worth holding onto an older car. It’s worth considering where that line is for you.


  20. There is a fine line between being frugal and being cheap. Frugality is about conciously making choices in order to maximize the benefit and quality of your purchases while minimizing cost. Cheapness is always going for the bottom line, regardless of quality, inconvenience, or other non-monetary costs involved.

    If you are driving a vehicle that is no longer reliable, when you could afford to either repair it or replace it with a more reliable used vehicle, then you are not being frugual – you are being cheap.

  21. @Erica: I’m about there! For a while the old van help up pretty well (it’s 19 years-old now), but here lately I’ve had a problem every couple months. I guess it’s sticker shock that keeps me away from a new(er) car. Well, that and the fact I refuse to finance a car, so I am waiting on my car replacement fund balance to catch up with prices!

  22. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I came to the conclusion long ago that no matter what you do there will ALWAYS be some critic on the sideline judging it. That being the case why not have money sitting in your bank account rather than being spread thin?

    Someone said that homemaking stuff will snowball…and for us it has! We make our own deodorant, toothpaste, soap (which we use for EVERYTHING), lotions, candles, food, etc. We enjoy doing it and our kids look forward to making it right alongside us. We spend so much more time together as a family rather than go out and spend a lot of money, or sitting in front of the T.V. (we got rid of cable because we watch so little television anymore).

    We are working our way out of debt and have very little left. So, while our neighbors are out on the weekends ‘comparing notes’ and whispering about the “strange” family on the block (that being us ;o) tee hee) that keeps to themselves, we just keep increasing our projects that contribute to our self-reliance and fatten our wallets while they scramble day-to-day to make ends meet.

    BTW, we live on one salary and we are better off financially than most. When we started this journey I didn’t think we could do it financially, but IT CAN BE DONE. It takes a lot of hard work in the beginning, but after the first 2 years things have began to come together for us.

  23. I completely agree. You hit the nail on the head when you said that if you wanted to, you “could go out and sign the next 5 years of your life away” but you choose not to. That’s so true. I also like the irony of the situation in that image – meanwhile you’ve got one of the most successful personal finance sites and this guy is worried about how old your van looks:)

  24. I like the mention of Sam Walton driving a vehicle that suited him. I used to live in Omaha and I might add Warren Buffet as an example…I was continually impressed with the simple, modest house he lives in. That’s more impressive in my book than any mansion could ever be.

  25. @Natalie: Yes, Buffet is certainly a frugal role model. Modest home, and I think he drives a Ford Taurus, or similar sedan not of the luxury brand. Gotta love a guy with billions who doesn’t have to flash it all over town.

  26. Love it! I often feel like people look at me walking with my infant son like because I look poor I am not a fit parent 🙁 Luckily we have a nice family that we get hand me downs from and the baby is always dressed VERY well! 😉 They can take their assumptions and put them you know where. I DON’T spend all my money on drugs regardless of what you thing. >:(

  27. I find it interesting that you use the automobile to make your point, which has application in many other areas. The reason is because the automobile ITSELF is a keeping-up-with-opinion element.

    I’ve been living on the frugal side by choice for nearly 40 years, now, and getting rid of the car was my ticket of passage. (See my article in Mother Earth News, issue #3). It literally bought my way out of the job world! People thought I was nuts, but it returned my life to me, from the 40-hour-giveaway that had preceded it.

    Anyway, I wanted to say that the first time I had any exceptional amount of money after that – a small inheritance – I made another valuable discovery: Nothing that I bought with that money was nearly as worthwhile to me as the happy sense that I COULD spend it on so many, many things if I wanted to. In other words, money in the bank is, in the end, worth far more to me than the various things that I actually choose to spend it on.

  28. I gave up thinking what people thought of me when I got laid off. Suddenly the fear and panic of being able to put food on the table took precedent over everything and if people didn’t like me, the way I look or the way I acted then I couldn’t care less!

  29. Fabulous! Thanks for this. I just learned that my kids’ (new) school nominates poor kids to take part in a charity-sponsored holiday party. I gulped – what if put my hand-me-down wearing, lunch-packing kiddo on the list?!

    But as you say, it probably means we’re doing something right. Like saving for college instead of buying pricey sneakers!

  30. I really liked this post, Jason. It’s true that being frugal sometimes makes me feel poor. And it DEFINITELY makes other people think I’m poor. But by the same token, I bet a lot of times I think people are rich when they are carrying loads of debt and living paycheck to paycheck.

    It’s easy to say “don’t care about what other people think.” But it’s basically impossible to do because we are social creatures. We care about other people, so we care what they think.

    The thing is to not care what everybody thinks about you, just the people you care about. If my mother told me she was really worried about me, I would listen. Wouldn’t you?

  31. All I can think is that you must make lousy cars in USA. My 1991 Corolla Hatchback (made in Japan) runs like a dream down here in Perth Australia. Maybe our weather conditions are kinder on the vehicles. I plan to drive it another 5 years before paying cash for the next vehicle. I do make sure it always serviced every 10,000km to head off any problems developing. I found visiting 2nd and 3rd world countries helps to get things in perspective.

  32. We’ve always bought our cars with cash. I’ve never financed a vehicle. If we have a car that is in bad shape, we just save up and buy another used one. I believe the most we have ever paid for a car is $2,500 or so. We simply do not have the money to buy brand new and never have. These used cars last us quite a few years.

    I just posted something on my blog about money and living simply. It has to do with the Frank Capra movie in the 1930’s called, “You Can’t Take it With you.” Here is the link for anyone who is interested:

    Irv (#28) – Excellent comment.

    Mrs. White

  33. As MoneyNing pointed out in their most recent post, perception IS important… but it’s not everything. As you say, far too many Americans are more concerned with what others think of them, living for the short-term satisfaction that much of their spending brings, and not planning or saving for less frequent, larger purchases that are usually much more valuable. I think this is where many people’s debt crises are rooted.

  34. I know exactly what you mean. People misunderstand me all the time. Especially since me and my wife are younger. We are debt free and older people have tried to give us advice on how to sign our way into debt slavery. I don’t care if they think we’re weird – I’d rather be a weird wise man than a suave fool.

  35. You know, I totally agree with you. Sometimes people do act like they feel sorry for you and don’t realize that you are making a choice so you can have some freedom from debt!

    My friend and I quit our jobs at the same time to stay home with our babies. But she had to go back to work a year later and I didn’t. That’s because she continued living a two-income lifestyle on a one income budget. She didn’t make the necessary adjustments to live more carefully.

    I have a friend that always teases me about how we live and keeps telling me “time is money” and thinks that doing the things that I do to save money is a waste of time (because time is so valuable).

    I say if you are using that extra time to watch t.v. or play on the computer and not to save money, than how can it be so valuable?

  36. This article is the truth.

    The fastest way down the path to being broke (and possibly being out of house and home) is trying to APPEAR rich!

    Matt Jabs hit it right on the head about being weird. Statistics show that “normal” people can’t retire when they reach retirement age. So why be normal?

    Being financially independent is not that complicated… once the mind is free.

  37. I’m very impressed with your posts and blog. I paid cash for my first car right out of college- a 3 year old Honda. I drove it for 8 years and then sold it. It cost me very very little to drive during that 8 year period. I had absolutely no repair or other problems with it the entire time.

    I then did something that I still think makes sense. I bought a new Honda with cash. I planned to buy a used one, but the prices on a 2 or 3 year old Honda were very close to the price I could get on a new one. I had never had a new car and wanted to splurge a little.

    Safety is also a factor. The new car has 6 airbags and some other new safety features. I have kids and appreciate these.

    The new car also had a warranty which is nice.

    Because it was new, I plan to keep it for 10 years or so and then sell. The per year cost will still be very very low.

    Could I have reduced the per year cost of ownership by buying a 3 year old Honda instead of new? Probably, but the small amount of savings would not have been worth it to me for the loss of comfort, safety features, and warranty.

    Used is usually the right choice, but not always. If I had to finance, for example, I would never have bought a used one.

    Also, if people think I’m poor and won’t associate with me because I drive an old car (my “new” car is now old), or a Honda instead of a Mercedes, I don’t really care. I don’t need those kinds of “friends” anyway.

  38. Something in regards to cars (at least in Australia) I’m noticing is that small cars second hand often two or three years old are often only 3 or 4 thousand less than new. So if purchasing a small car I would possibly still consider a new car, as possibly better value. A Mazda 2 new can be driven away for $18,000. Definitely a different story with the large Australian Fords and Holdens, they seems to have lost have their purchase value within 2 or 3 years of purchase. Does the same thing occur in the USA?

  39. What an awesome post! I couldn’t agree more. We can improve our lives in so many ways if we can just free ourselves from useless conditioning. I find GREAT pride in doing everything I can for myself and cheaply. It’s actually a fun challenge. For instance, I’m a documentary filmmaker. I made two broadcast quality documentaries for less than $1000 (plane ticket from NY to Florida and Rental car for 2 1/2 Weeks). I take great pleasure in doing what I love for next to nothing (if I still lived in Florida, I would have done them for free). And I also teach other filmmakers how to do high quality docs for nothing. My point is, I’ve had other filmmakers scoff at me when I tell them this because of course they are getting second mortgages to make their films but then they see my work and feel sorry for themselves. So I do this in as many areas of my life as I can. I’ll drive my old paid for car until it won’t run anymore (once I bought a very awesome 1966 Chevy Biscayne from a towing yard for $250 and it ran fantastic. Drove it until the rear wheels froze up) 🙂 What’s also awesome is Being on that site makes me want to make everything myself and have fun doing it and teaching other people. I won a broken 26″ HDTV on Ebay for 1 cent and fixed it myself. The part was only $21! I’m sorry, I’m rambling I just wanted to express that being frugal can also be fun and help you help other people and improve yourself as a person. If I wasn’t trying to be frugal, I never would have learned how to fix cars, set things up to use solar power, fix HDTVs, make great movies for cheap, and be a more humble, stress free person and a whole lot more. I’m not quite debt free but I’m on my way!