Dear Captain Awkward,
I have a stable job, am financially independent, and have savings for a rainy day. Yet I have trouble when it comes spending money on myself, and I’m having increasingly emotional reactions to people who comment on how I spend money.
I feel guilty when I spend on necessities – if it’s stuff like health, or personal well-being, I can ignore the guilt. I’m fine when I buy presents for friends. However, the more these items fall into the “personal wants” category, the more agitated I get. But I want to! I want to pamper myself occasionally, or buy new jeans to replace my old ratty ones, etc. It’s my money, and I’m spending well within my means, logically that should be enough. Sometimes I go ahead and spend it… but then I start rethinking my decision and agonizing instead of just enjoying it. Other times, my mind just doesn’t stop overthinking whether I should be spending that money in the first place, and I just don’t spend it.
It doesn’t help that my parents are extremely thrifty. Their reactions to my purchases have always been along the lines of, “Oh, you got 3 shirts for $X? I could have gotten 5 for that same amount”; or, “How does this contribute to your personal development?” Some of my friends do this too. And though they are also financially secure, they might sometimes opt to buy movie tickets in person so they can save on internet booking fees, or choose to skip lunch to save the money. I have no issues with this, until I get roped into it – like if we end up missing the movie because they didn’t want to book seats early (and it’s insanely hard to reschedule due to our conflicting schedules), or if they naturally assume I’m skipping lunch with them – and when I speak up about it, they say something like, “Well I’d rather not spend that money, but we can do that if you want to”, which makes me feel like I’m making them spend that money just to assuage me. Or I’d be telling them about buying something for myself and they’d comment, “Wow, that’s expensive. Someone’s rich!”
I don’t know which came first – my problem with not-spending, or my unhappiness at such comments – but they keep bouncing off each other and it’s making me feel extremely confused and upset. They’re entitled to their opinions, yet I can’t fight how upset I get, which makes me feel unhappy about overreacting. I’ve started feeling like a horrible person for wanting the things I want, and feeling like I don’t deserve to spend on myself if I react poorly to such comments.
Am I silly for wanting them to lay off these comments? Is there any way I can stop having such extreme reactions? I’d greatly appreciate any advice you could give me. Thank you so much.
Scared of Spending
Dear Scared of Spending:
You’re not silly!
A thrifty and organized person like you probably already has a monthly and yearly budget, but if you don’t, it’s time to make one, and if you do, it’s time to add or beef up some categories in it, stuff like:
- Clothing: For replacing old things and investing in new things. Also, alterations, mending, sewing on new buttons, fixing hems, dry-cleaning winter coats, etc. Make replacing your ratty jeans or getting something seasonal and snappy into planned expenses.
- Fun: Include the cost of the occasional movie ticket AND the $1.50 convenience fee as you figure out the cost of 2 movies/month or whatever. Mentally adjust the ticket price up so that it’s the real total price of buying the ticket online in a way that is convenient for you.
- Upkeep: Regular haircuts, personal grooming, etc.
- Lunches: Whether you bring lunch from home most days and eat lunch out with friends sometimes, this assumption that you’ll somehow skip a meal (??!!!!??) is super not working for you. Put a set amount for lunches in the budget.
- Giving/Charity: You probably already do this, too, but if you don’t, put a small amount toward giving money to a cause you believe in. You are fortunate right now, and this will feel really good to do. It will help you feel in control of your money.
- Rainy Day Fund: You’re already building this. Keep going!
- Short-Term and Long-Term Savings Goals: Retirement & emergencies, yes, but what else are you saving up for? A great trip? An educational opportunity? A house? Daydream a little bit.
Your budget doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s budget and you never have to show it or justify it to another living soul. Make a new one, and/or edit your existing one to add in some things that are important in your life. Track your actual expenses against your budget categories using whatever method works for you (paper notebook, keeping receipts, various apps). Schedule a few times a year where you tweak and adjust your budget based on changing goals and actual spending information.
Got your budget? Great. Here is your script for your friends and for yourself, now and forever:
“It’s in my budget.”
Your friends: “We’re skipping lunch today, aren’t you? Who wants to spend all that money?“ or “We just assumed you’d be skipping lunch, too.”
You: “Why would you assume that? You do what you want! I’m hungry, and it’s in my budget.”
Then eat lunch if you want to eat lunch! Starving yourself to conform to friends’ ideas about thrift is not reasonable.
Your friends, commenting (rudely) on a new purchase: “Whoa, someone’s rich!”
You: “What a weird thing to say. Anyway, it’s in my budget.”
(Or “Wow, someone’s rude!” or “Wow, it’s so weird to comment on another person’s spending like that, what’s that about?” or a gentle “Why would you say that to me?”)
Your friends: “We’ll just get our ticket at the theater, we hate paying the $1.50 fee.”
You: “I’m going to get my ticket in advance. The fee is in my budget.”
Them: “Why would you pay such a useless fee?”
You: “I don’t love it, but I budget for it because it’s worth $1.50 to me to not have to spend the next three months planning another time we can all be together. Hopefully I’ll see you at the theater.”
It’s okay if they don’t want to pay the fee. It’s okay if you do. Express your own needs without judging theirs and hope they’ll do the same.
You: :internally freaking out and feeling weird about a purchase:
Also you: “Wait a second. I planned for this. It’s in my budget.”
If it’s not in your budget, and you still want it, put it in your budget. Is it worth saving $5.00/week to have it someday? Is it worth trading off for something else you want? Only you can decide that.
Changing how you respond to these pressures may lead to an interesting conversation with some of your friends. “Don’t you think the way we talk about money is messed up? Where do you think that comes from?” Try some baby steps first and see who is responsive.
Now, let’s talk about your parents. You are a self-supporting adult and unless you are asking them to be reimbursed for some favor you did them, you never ever have to tell them what you paid for anything ever again.
Your current pattern:
Parents: “New shirt? How much did you pay for that?”
Current You: “I got it on sale for only $10.00.”
Parents: “$10!!!! That much? I could have found it on sale for $3.00!”
Current You: Feels annoyed and ashamed even though you haven’t done anything wrong.
Parents: “New shirt? How much was it?”
Future You: “You like it? Thank you.” + [subject change]
See if you can get away without discussing price at all.
If they keep pushing, like, “No, seriously, how much was it?” you can say “It was on sale, but I don’t remember exactly how much.”
Yes, I am advising you to lie and say you don’t remember how much it was. You are trying to break a weird pattern of shame and blame and “kids these days!” and how much the shirt was is not actually important information to anyone, or anyone’s business but yours, ever. Don’t tell them the prices of things anymore.
You can also say “What a strange question, why do you want to know so badly?” or a very gentle “Ma, what are you really asking?” and put the awkwardness back on them. See what happens when you absolutely avoid giving them a number. One possible thing is that they will accuse you of paying too much/not being thrifty, like so:
Parents: “You probably paid too much!” (+ generalized grumbling because they sense a pattern is being broken)
AGREE WITH THEM. Don’t give them an argument. “I probably did pay too much, anyway, this soup is great is it Grandma’s recipe?” or “Maybe so! But you’ve taught me to never pay full price and to stick to my budget, so I feel good about it.” + subject change of your choosing.
Okay, let’s talk big picture for a second:
Competitive and performative thrift like this is a habit that’s often born in real deprivation and fight for survival. It’s cultural, it’s tied to class, it’s generational (meaning the attitude can be handed down in families even if the current generation is much more prosperous), it doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t go away overnight. It can be a way to turn a source of deprivation into a virtue in a culture that hates and shames and devalues poor people, like, I may be poor but look at how ingenious and wily I am to find these bargains! It can quickly get toxic when people yuck other people’s yum (the way your friends are doing, or the way every wedding planning community has the totes superior person who fed their guests only moonbeams and wove their dress themselves out of autumn leaves & recycled garbage bags) but it’s not coming out of nowhere.
It also speaks to what people value. Some people value getting the best deal above all else, where others are focused on the opportunity cost and the time involved. You value time with your friends and the ease of making plans with them more than you value that $1.50 for the movie ticket, and that’s an okay thing to value. Many times I’ve been in a grocery store with Mr. Awkward and he’s pointed out that potatoes are slightly cheaper at another grocery store and he’s 100% right about that but also we are not in that other grocery store and for the money & time it would take to go there we might as well buy these bourgeois potatoes? He’s trying to conserve money and I am trying to conserve spoons and both of these conservation attempts are rooted in us having lived very, very, very close to the bone where that extra $.30/lb or that extra hour on public transit to get to the cheapest potatoes adds up to misery and deprivation. Being poor is exhausting, mental illness is exhausting, and it’s hard to shake those stressed-out habits of mind even when circumstances get better and we can just buy the damn potatoes.
I say this to remind you to have compassion for your friends and your parents and also for yourself as you try to change the dynamic. Go slow. Be gentle, especially with yourself. You can’t control how your friends or your parents will talk or think about money, and you might keep getting rude or nosy or judgmental questions for long time while people adjust. Some people in your life might really resist your change in thinking and behavior around money, but others might find it liberating to not have the pressure of having to find the absolute cheapest (shirts/potatoes/movie tickets) hanging over them all the time. Finding a way to sustainably live in a way that’s true to your values, where you can have pleasure and financial freedom is a good and worthy project, and I wish you the best with it.
Thanks to Hannah & Matt of Hannah & Matt Know It All who chewed on this question with me on their podcast this week.
Moderation Note: Money talk brings up a lot of weird feelings, right? Probably people guessed this, but it bears saying that this is not the thread for sharing handy money-saving tips or extreme thrift brags or cheap life-hacks. This is one of those things like diets and food where a) do what works for you! b) don’t judge other people’s habits, and, d) there are entire websites that aren’t this one devoted to people sharing the intricate details of their personal programmes – if that appeals to you, go find one and have fun!