There’s Frugal, Then There’s Absurd Frugal

I like to think I am frugal, but sometimes I can be absurd frugal. Let me give you an example.  I have a pair of nail scissors that I once used for something other than cutting nails and broke the tip off one side.  I can’t remember what I was using it for, but it was probably something like trying to turn one of those teeny tiny screws on an electrical gadget. Anyway, I kept the scissors. After all, they still work as scissors everywhere except at the tips.

IMG_1300I don’t know why I kept those scissors because I have another, perfectly good, pair and both pairs live together in a jar on my bathroom shelf. Guess which one I pick out first every time I want to cut my nails? Right. The broken pair. It has been this way for months now and only today I decided I should throw out the pair that is now good only for unscrewing tiny screws. Why has it taken me so long? Because I am absurd frugal.

Some of you will recognize this syndrome.  It starts with being really, really careful with money for long periods of time. Then it morphs into being a bit cheap. Then it transforms, like the Swamp Thing, into….gasp!…Absurd Frugal.

I blame my parents. I can do that because they are no longer with us to raise any objections.  My childhood home was not impoverished by any means, but money was always tight. My parents raised six children on my dad’s very limited income for most of their lives. Later, after my mother went back to work, they had one limited income and one part-time income.  In order to make this work as brilliantly as they did, they counted pennies. Literally. There were little piles of coins on the kitchen counter for paying the coalman, the milkman, the insurance man, and so on. They reduced, reused, and recycled everything. Clothes were sewn, mended, darned, and handed down until they became rags. Table scraps were donated to the pig farm for pig food. Wrapping paper was folded and reused. Milk bottles were washed and returned. You get the idea. In a household of up to eight people, there was never more than one garbage can of waste each week.

IMG_1307This, then, was my understanding of how life was to be lived after I left home. In those first few independent years, I did my very best to account for every penny. In fact, I still have my account books from the early days of my marriage in which I itemized everything I bought, even the individual items at the grocery store. Once, when one of my sisters was visiting, her husband saw these and laughed. “What’s this?” he asked. “The ship’s log?”  And, I suppose it was, in a way. I was keeping us on an even keel.

One of the foundations for all this careful note-taking was a fear of debt. Back in the day, there was a moral imperative not to get into debt. It was as if the tentacles of debt would drag you down into abject shame and misery, so you just did everything you could to avoid it. Descriptions of workhouses were still in my mother’s family’s oral history. Banks had not yet figured out that it was in their best interests to lend money to ordinary people, so they made it extremely difficult. For women, it was virtually impossible. So, without the possibility of being given credit, all bills had to be paid directly and on time. If the rent wasn’t paid, you had to move out.  That’s what the song “My Old Man Said Follow the Van” is all about, and although it was intended to be humorous, it also packed a coded moral punch. If you get into debt, you’ll lose your house and end up wandering the streets, lost.

IMG_1303As time went on, banking changed, credit became possible, and my fear of debt subsided. The habits of frugality, though, never went away. Because of this, recently I made myself sick. I had decided to put some marmalade on my toast but when I took the jar out of the cupboard there was a little bit of mould on the top of the contents, next to the glass. No worries, I thought. I’ll just cut that bit out.  And so, I did. I cut out the mould and took marmalade for my toast from what was left. Big mistake.  I was sick with flu-like symptoms for two days afterwards.  I won’t do that again.

When I mentioned to someone that I had done this, she said that she always thought it was OK to cut the mould off of a slab of cheese until she read that the spores can spread all the way through.  Who knew? I’m pretty sure lots of us have been cutting mould off cheese for years. At least, those of us who are frugal have.

Now, though, with this new-found insight, we know we have been absurd frugal. It’s not worth it, folks.  If it’s broken or mouldy, chuck it out.  No, seriously. Chuck it out!! You will not be sent to the workhouse for discarding old, mouldy, or broken things.

Like an alcoholic in recovery, I am trying to shed my absurd frugal habits. It will take a while, though. One day at a time. I’ll start with the nail scissors.


  1. I can so relate to this!
    My folks had old pill tins where the money was put each week. Each tin had a label on the top.
    Frugal tight, whatever you want to call it.

    Drove me mad and still eats at me to this day.

      • I have no probs with the hoarding thing … my wife does!
        But the money issues and the fear of debt was, like you, drilled into us as kids.
        I think they got it from their folks and was probably had a lot to do with surviving the war.

          • This type of money management was not all bad, but the mindset seemed to be that one would not likely ever make much money so hold on tight.
            When I phoned my folks in the early 80s and mentioned we had bought a new car, my mother asked : ”How old is it?’
            She heard ”new” and understood ”different”.
            When I explained that it was brand new and I had driven it off the showroom she seemed flabbergasted.
            Who could buy a brand new car?

            They have gotten a lot better now they are older.
            I think that since they retired and have secure pensions and managed to save a bob or two in the bank I suppose, they don’t worry too much about money these days.

  2. There’s a lot of fear behind all that caution, isn’t there. Your story about the new car sounds very familiar to me. Your mother might also have been afraid that you were moving into a different social class and, hence, away from hers. My parents had very mixed feelings when some of their children went to college. It was alien territory for them.

  3. Frugal is good, but hoarding junk that cannot be repaired just causes clutter. I cleaned out my boys’ drawers and closet to get rid of outgrown clothes. Gave bags to friends with younger kids and snagged a nice North Face jacket for my oldest in the trade. Hubby fixed the snowblower after he ordered the parts, ready to go.
    My car died, 250k miles and repair cost was over $12k on a car worth $2500, so we looked and found a 2013 for a good price, my sister thought it was horrible, said don’t be such a tight@$$ , buy a new one, your husband can afford it. He can, by why incur such a large expense? My mother thought it was horrible that hubby trimmed my hair, he does a great job, as I want and it is convenient and free. Funny though she loved how he did the boys’ haircuts and how smart it was to do them at home as it saves so much money, but I am supposed to suffer the wasted time, hassle, expense and not being satisfied going to the salon? I guess people just have such preset notions of how people should spend their own money, but frankly they should be more concerned about their own choices of how they spend their own. Maybe then they could plan their retirement rather than cry poverty.

    • Your financial choices make perfect sense to me! The decluttering thing is ongoing, though, isn’t it? It seems like such a huge accomplishment but then a year later we find we need to do it again.
      I absolutely agree that buying a new car is not the best way to go from a financial perspective. We are better off buying one that is a couple of years old. That way we don’t lose that instant drive-off-the-lot surcharge.
      We each make personal choices about how to spend our money, but it makes no sense to judge how other people spend theirs. We don’t know the complex webs that lead to their decisions.
      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

  4. Decluttering is more than once a year for me as I may be good with the winter clothes now, but come spring I will be doing it again as they have outgrown the clothes from the previous year and need new shirts, shorts, sneakers, etc.
    Yes we went for buying used as for the depreciation, some cars lose over 50% that first two years and still have a lot of mileage to get from them before they need to be replaced.
    Also my “don’t be cheap” sister called begging for money to pay her water bill as it was being shut off, I guess you call the tightwads as they actually have money in their account as they didn’t blow it with frivolous spending. And the one I think is kinda funny is my mother was tight on money and couldn’t get an appointment at her salon, yet wanted her hair done before she went to her sister’s house on Thanksgiving called and asked if my hubby could give her a haircut. He said OK, and he gave her a haircut Wednesday evening. She was very happy with the result and it saved her $45. She did say thank you and the fact she called to ask was a compliment; while she may have thought it was horrible that I didn’t spend the money at the salon, she acknowledged that my husband has always done a great job with my hair and she trusted him to take scissors to her hair, which she is very picky with how it looks. Frankly I hope she continues to have hubby cut her hair, she is on a limited budget, we help her paying for her cell phone and bought heating oil for her. She doesn’t need to feel it is a compromise, she can call it a victory that she has a new stylist that does a great job giving her haircuts as she gets time with her daughter.

    • It sounds as though your family has found ways to work together to make ends meet, which is wonderful. In the end it doesn’t matter if we think someone is a tightwad or a spendthrift. What matters is that we care enough to help each other out.

  5. I used to be frugal, then I got un-frugal and now I’m going back to being very frugal! I moved last ear and have decluttered massively but still have odd things like your half broken scissors that I can’t throw out ‘just in case’… time to do a bit more decluttering I think!

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