Wednesday, September 7, 2011
When Frugal People Seem Hypocritical
On the other end of the spectrum, some blog readers might not understand how it is that I don't go stir crazy, living such an austere lifestyle, cramped into a teeny tiny home with my growing family, eating foods that are 'beneath the dignity' of most people to ingest. It may seem like I'm depriving myself and my children of all enjoyment in life, living in our “decrepit hovel” and subsisting on “food scraps and weeds”, and that when my children grow up, they'll resent all this “lack”.
And lest you think I'm just imagining this happening, I can tell you of numerous times when I've been on outings with my kids, licking a (shared) ice cream cone. Real life friends aware of my extremely frugal lifestyle and writing have gone as far as to tsk me, literally wagging their fingers at me over my “naughty indulgence”. Of course they reassured me afterward that they meant it as a joke, but you know what they say- every joke has a bit of truth, and they may have been feeling subconsciously that I was being just the slightest bit hypocritical.
And there are other real life friends who have shaken their heads at me sadly, feeling sorry for me that our family is subsisting on such a tiny budget and therefore living a depressing, melancholy existence, especially after being in my apartment and seeing how small of a space we live in, too tiny to have any couches without making our home too cramped to function, so we choose to live without a couch, etc... and make comments about how we'll need to find a new apartment soon, and don't we go out of our minds from the lack of space?
Its interesting how two different people who see how I live my life might think the exact opposite things- one that I'm living a life of luxury, and one that I'm living a life of austerity and poverty. The reason some people can have such drastically different views of my life is that its hard to tell “at a glance” just how someone lives their life. You can't really see the whole picture unless you're actually living our lives.
Those people who see my fancy shmancy double stroller might not realize that it was purchased second hand from someone who imported it from another country only to see it didn't suit her lifestyle, so sold me her brand new stroller for cost price, and that cost price abroad was significantly cheaper than buying a brand new, simple, cheap quality stroller locally. They probably also wouldn't know that it was a gift purchased by a wealthy friend for me when she knew I was really struggling and couldn't afford the double stroller I needed, especially since I live without a car and have my children with me all day (no day care), making a decent double stroller a necessity if I want to be able to function at all.
Yet even though I know that stroller cost me nothing, and that even though my friend generously gave me the money for a stroller I still looked for the cheapest thing I could find, I know that in my non well to do community, I got many envious stares from neighbors, many comments about how nice and special it was, and felt very self conscious using that stroller. Were they judging me harshly for the stroller I had? It almost made me not want to use it.
And that ice cream cone I was sharing with my kids? Note- 3 people sharing one ice cream cone. I hunted out the cheapest place and got the cheapest option. No, it wasn't a necessity, but its little treats like that that make a frugal life actually enjoyable and prevent us from feeling deprived. Its not like I go out and buy my children ice cream all the time. In fact, its probably a once every few month treat.
And honestly? I cut back on our grocery budget so much, we do without so many other things that are considered to be basic necessities, even in my poor community, that we do have some extra cash left over at the end of the month, and we can afford 3 dollars on ice cream every few months. We prioritize how we spend our money, eliminating the things we feel we can do without in order to save money, and then use that money for things that matter more to us, in this case, little pleasures that make life more enjoyable. A treat here and there. An occasional gift. Etc...
Lee, our older son (who just turned 4, by the way! When did he get so old?!!) has some special toys that aren't found so frequently in our non well to do neighborhood. He has two (knock off) Lego sets, and a shiny, red bicycle with training wheels, among other things.
I've noticed quite a few envious stares from children in the neighborhood when he takes those wheels out for a spin. Kids asking, begging, pleading for a ride on his pretty, shiny bike. Kids asking their Mamas to please get them a bike just like Lee's. Kids really enjoying playing with Lee's Legos, and then going home to ask their parents why they also don't have Lego like Lee.
I know the truth. I know that we got Lee a bicycle because we felt it was a worthwhile investment. That encouraging physical activity was a good thing, especially since we have no yard and only a really small home. That a bicycle isn't the type of toy that breaks after a few minutes or even months, but is generally the type of thing that can be used until outgrown and then passed on to younger siblings. That we had looked in a few different stores in the city for used bicycles, and then a man came to our neighborhood selling brand, spankin' new bikes for roughly the same amount as the used bikes in the city, allowing us to avoid the hassle of finding a way to transport the bike home from the city without a car. And that we were able to afford it by making do without so many other things that are the norm throughout the "civilized world".
I know that the Lego sets we got are actually a knock off brand and practically half the price of real Lego, but just as good quality. That the Lego are actually an educational toy that we bought both for enjoyment, but also because it helps develop creativity and problem solving skills among much else. That those Legos won't break or be outgrown within a day or month or year, but are the type of toys that will still be around (and even fun to use!) when Lee is an adult and has his own children to entertain.
I know that these toys are good investments, especially because I feel it is worth spending money on quality toys that will last a while and have many benefits.
I know that.
But do the children know that?
Are the children that are envious of my little Lee's bike and/or Lego and then go begging their parents to buy one aware that Lee doesn't get the standard chicken for supper every night that is standard around here? That he doesn't have the standard daily puddings and sweetened yogurt that the other kids in the neighborhood have, that he doesn't have all the junky snack foods that local kids assume is their birthright? If their mothers didn't buy these things that the kids insisted on, if the kids themselves would be willing to make do with less and the mothers also would, then they too might free up enough money to be able to afford those things.
But obviously no. They're kids and they don't know the whole picture, the same way adults don't know the whole picture of other people's lives.
They just see something that another kid has and they don't, and they get jealous.
I know that we live within our small means, that we are no more wealthy than other families in our neighborhood, and that actually, in terms of income brought in each month, we're probably a lot poorer than most people here. We have certain things that we value a lot, and other things that we value only somewhat, and then other things that we see as unncessary and frivolous even if the rest of society would disagree. We prioritize our money and eliminate the things that don't matter to us so that way we can be able to afford the things that are more important to us.
Other people may have different priorities, but I assume that if they are money savvy in the slightest, they allocate their money for the things that are more important to them, and leave the things they consider less important aside.
I often wonder, as someone living in a non well to do community, especially as I'm living in the spotlight because I am, suffice it to say, famous for frugality if I have a responsibility to not appear to be hypocritical. For me to appear to practice what I preach. Because practicing what I preach is certainly what I do- I preach to live within (beneath) your means, and prioritize spending on things that matter most to you. But still, to an outsider, it may seem that I'm making frivolous, unnecessary, expensive purchases. It may seem like I'm living the "high life", even though I'm not.
As someone who is the representative of frugality in my neighborhood, in my social circles, and online, do I have more of a responsibility to not appear to be hypocritical? To not "flaunt" flashy, expensive merchandise that others may not be able to afford to buy?
This has been weighing heavily on my mind. Every time I use my double stroller. Every time I take Lee out for a bike ride. Every time Lee plays with his Legos with his friends.
Do I have to hold myself to a higher standard than others, do I have to appear to be living "poorly" and not make others jealous if it'll tempt others to live above their means?
Please, I'd love to hear your input.
Readers, are any of you known in your location or in your social circles for being "Mrs Thrifty"? Do you feel pressure to do things a certain way so that you don't appear to be a hypocrite, or do you just live your life as best as you can without worrying about how you appear to others?
Do you feel any people have the responsibility to not raise the bar too high of what people in your circles would consider to be the "norm"? Or do you think you can and should do what you please and that others have to take responsibility for their own spending habits?
Linking up to Frugal Friday, Frugal Tip Tuesday,