Frugal Burnout: Fad Or Portent?

Guest post from Abigail who blogs over at I Pick Up Pennies. She and her husband are in debt from health-related expenses, and she talks about getting out of debt on relatively low income.

I’ve seen several articles lately that indicate spending is up. We could take this to mean that the recession is receding, and certainly that is what the media seem to believe. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the real cause. I think we’re in a round of frugal burnout. People have been frugal too long (or so they believe), and they simply can’t take it anymore. They start to indulge here and there. The purchases are small, of course, but they will grow exponentially. And the spending is indicative of a big problem: entitlement.

Americans got into this mess by believing that we are owed certain things. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen commercials use the word “deserve.” It’s patently untrue that we deserve any material goods all, beyond the basics needed for survival ““ and even those aren’t assured. Still, the public is smitten with the idea that people are due a certain amount of possessions and luxuries. It’s understandably alluring. It’s just not true.

In the wake of massive layoffs, rampant foreclosures and the economy teetering on the brink of destruction, people finally seemed to wake up from the dream of entitlement.

The problem is that Americans have very short attention spans. And we’re even worse at delayed gratification.

Anyone who has paid off a lot of debt (or is in the process of doing so) knows that frugal burnout is a natural part of the cycle. It’s natural to get sick of doing without. You have a small relapse: a fit of spending or one too many meals out. Then you get over it. It’s frustrating, but it’s part of the process. The trouble is that you have to work hard and be responsible ““ and dedicated ““ in order to get over frugal burnout. Because, let’s face it: The old ways were a lot more fun, at least until you go the bill. I think that the average American just isn’t dedicated and disciplined enough to pull out of a spending tailspin.


Whether the spending comes from frugal fatigue or new-found, steady employment, the result is the same. Once frugality isn’t strictly necessary for survival, I’m betting that these new habits start dropping off. And why will this happen? Because we don’t want to believe in Newton’s law (financially speaking) that what goes up must come down. We’re all for the boom, but we’re still perpetually flabbergasted by the bust.

I’m afraid that, by and large, we just don’t have the stamina for true frugal conversion. As frugal burnout hits, especially if the recession is easing up, more and more Americans will gladly resume spending. We’re simply too immersed in a culture of instant gratification (and far too many cool tech toys) to do anything else. I think it’s noteworthy that, during the recession, plenty of technological innovations ““ Blue Ray, the new iPhone, etc ““ were successful. If we were truly bent on changing, don’t you think those lines to the Apple store would have been a lot shorter?

Please don’t mistake me: I don’t doubt that there are reformed souls out there. Nor do I doubt the sincerity with which the rest of the country claimed to have seen the light. I’m sure they truly meant it at the time. I just believe that Americans, like Oscar Wilde, can resist anything but temptation.

Photo from Shutterstock

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Comments (10)

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  1. ctreit says:

    I share your concern. Let me tell you a little anecdote. I know this couple who lost their four homes in the real estate bust. They declared bankruptcy and moved on. Now they are renting a gorgeous place which also needs to be furnished equally well. In come a new bed-room set and a new very classy looking kitchen table. This stuff does not look cheap. I make a bit more money than they do and I have never declared bankruptcy, but I don’t think I could spend as much money on this kind of furniture as they did. Then again, I have always lived a pretty frugal lifestyle.

  2. Sam says:

    With Tyson plant here laying off 400 people I think the recession isn’t over yet… either that or maybe we’ve entered a new chapter in our history.

    While yes, I think for some folks it’s frugal burnout, I think others it’s having to replace stuff as it breaks. Things just don’t last as long as they used to.
    For example : Both of our phones are barely functioning right now & they are only 5yrs old. My parents had the same phones through my entire childhood & my Mom used the phone a lot!

    My dryer has died & my washer is limping along in a noble fashion – I have to replace both & have been looking around for 2yrs…. I keep getting spooked when I read online reviews about new appliances – seems like they are only made to last 5 years now….

    So it could be some of the spending increase is due to things needing to be replaced. However, I have been called a chronic optimist before.

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  4. Great post.

    However, anyone who is fairly financially well off (except for the super rich) in my opinion has had to cultivate the ability to resist temptation, or they wouldn’t enjoy any financial successes

  5. Kate says:

    I think the problem lays in the fact that there is an misunderstanding of the word or being frugal. It shouldn’t mean just spending less it should also mean being less wasteful, leading a simpler more easy going lifestyle. If that was understood and grasped then i think there would be no such thing as frugal burnout.

    yes we all get fed up of tightening our belts all the time, but can you get tired or leading a more gratifying relaxed life?

    I wave the frugal banner all the time and hope that slowly more and more people start to get it and understand that if they led a more frugal lifestyle in its fullest meaning then perhaps we can turn this train of spend and bust around.

  6. Good post. I must admit that I have suffered from frugal burn out. Just the other day I passed by Pac Sun and saw a shirt that was nice. I thought to myself, you know, I haven’t bought anything in a WHILE. I’m gonna buy this!

    And I bought it. Cool shirt, but still, I’m out $30. But honestly, it’s a pretty cool shirt:) lol

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  8. Ken says:

    Old habits die hard. I think lots of folks do revert back to bad habits. It’s anti-cultural to save money and live on less than you make. I hope people see the big picture but a lot just revert back to overspending.

  9. Zaraditi says:

    Well it seems it always comes down to: Don’t spend what you can’t afford. People should really tame their ego and spend what they can earn!