3 Signs When Being Frugal Doesn’t Work & What To Do About It

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Frugality essentially means trying to live on less of the assigned allotment. It is the process of creating a conscious surplus from what you are given and rolling that surplus to your advantage down the line. Being frugal is one of the main pillars of wealth building because a dollar saved is worth more than a dollar earned (because of taxes!). Unfortunately, frugality is not the quintessential element and solution for people outside of the six-figure income club.

(Holla if you are though – nicely done, high 5!)

I write these for my Soapy and all the Soapys we have in our own lives.

You can read part of Soapy’s briefing here:

Soaps is one of my best friends. She is a remarkable person and a free-spirited, creative genius. My Soap is the daughter of a very affluent multi-millionaire family. Her childhood was what one would call pure opulence. Today, she is in her 30s with a drinking problem. She has terrible health and cannot hold down a job.

Read the previous posts in Soapy’s Odessey:

21 Frugal Pantry Staples List on a Limited Budget

Practical Budgets For People Bad With Money

How To Effectively Overcome Credit Card Addiction

Why You Still Need An Emergency Fund While In Debt

Why The Rich Are Frugal Even When They Don’t Have To Be

To be honest with you, when I started The Frugal Gene, I didn’t have a clear goal in mind what I wanted to blog about or who I wanted to blog for. I wanted to make a blog, so I made one, ta-dah! Here we are.

All I had in mind was simply to document our money journey and demonstrate how powerful simple living could accelerate wealth. I chose that because frugality is something that I know and resonate with from the deepest depth of my soul.

We’re Happier Frugal

I still believe living with frugality is an integral component of building wealth. Frugality gets a bad rap sometimes because there’s a common concept that frugal people are living on the edge of squalor to save a dollar. I’m an opponent against that concept because the accusation made is a very personal one. Not to mention, they are assuming that frugality – the act of requiring fewer resources – somehow leads to misery when it can be more freeing. That’s one thing that’s fundamentally wrong with our “debt is normal” culture, we’re naturally drawn to more as a pre-requisite for happiness.

If the norm is broke then heyyyy, it’s good to be a freak! Jared and I ENJOY living frugally; it actually brought us closer as a couple.

I find frugality intensely amusing and stimulating. Perhaps because I didn’t know much else growing up and all of those cost-cutting behaviors eventually stuck to me. It’s one of the main reasons why I love going thrift store shopping, why I skip meal planning and go straight for the discount meat bins, and why we still live car-free in the rural suburbs on the city’s edge.

It took us about 2 years to maximize all the ways our family can save. Messing around with our budget sheet was like sculpting a piece of art. I don’t recall exactly what we gave up but whatever we gave up has not been missed yet. Check out our income and expense reports from all of 2017 where our budget experienced some creative trimming.

But – but – but what do you do when…

When Frugality Isn’t Worth It

First of all, not everyone enjoys living frugally like we do. Second of all, the result of frugality on a high income is drastically different than frugality on a low income. It’s more stressful and less effective.

Without addressing the income component, I’m only reporting on half of the wealth building puzzle and that makes me as useful as a splinter for a doorstop.

That’s when I realize why my blog is not a useful source for the people that I want to help. What have I been doing?

Like the many other realizations that came along in November, a lot of feelings of inadequacy as an effective blogger snuck up on me as well.

I have 2 friends (1 close, 1 casual) that have been going through their individual form of financial hardship. Hubby and I only knew that about one of them; I didn’t have a clue about the other friend. Their concerns were legitimate although they couldn’t be more different in terms of life stage. One is married and expecting, the other is woefully single. After looking over the basic math with the information available for both of them, I realized that cutting expenses and living frugally was not going to be enough for either of them, not by a long shot.

Related: The Dying Middle Class – “Two American Families” (PBS Frontline) – Film For The Weekend

For once, I carried my once unwavering beliefs about frugality over to the doubtful side. According to the cold numbers I got, there is very little room to cut or save anymore without endangering someone’s safety for one friend and risking a huge rubber band snapback response for the other friend. The worst part was that even if they both successfully stuck to the very tight budget, living frugally is not enough to get them to #NetWorthGoals – nowhere close.

1) Inadequate Income

You can’t squeeze a gallon of orange juice from just one orange. It doesn’t matter how hard you squeeze that poor orange, it only has a few ounces of juice in it in the first place. You could save as much as you want but when the income ceiling is low – it’s hard to maximize the power of simple living without feeling miserable and stuck.

Related: Reverse Budgeting Vs Traditional Budgeting

Living frugally on a low income can feel like the retelling of Sisyphus, a Greek man, doomed by Zeus to push a giant boulder up a hill just for the boulder to fall back down again.

Case in point, I knew this girl – Susan (alias!) – who graduated with her Master’s degree in informational sciences and eventually landed work as a librarian in Minnesota. The humble librarian position is not reputed for having high salaries or much prospects in terms of sector job growth. She enjoys her work though. But Susan is also carrying 6 years worth of student debt that has compounded from $45,000 to $60,000 since her graduation. She has expenses similar to mine when I was single. Right now, she is doing everything that could possibly be done to save money. That includes having two other roommates, limiting her budget on food, trading down her phone, using only public transportation, goose-egging fat zeros for entertainment and all other expenses.

If you think our monthly budget is lean, Susan’s budget is anorexic. Most of her categories are not even categories, they’re just earmarked zeros.

It’s still not enough and a low income mixed with extreme frugality will lead to eventual burnout, likely before enough progress is made. I’ve seen it lotsssss of times.

2) Running Negative

If you’re still running a negative or parking it in neutral, despite squeezing the last out of your budget for free cash, then the only thing left to do is to increase your income. In Susan’s case, frugality is not effective enough. She needs to increase her income. Increasing her income will knock off those student loans quicker than living on frugality since being frugal only keeps her afloat in the neutral standpoint. Susan’s take-home (after taxes!) will cover her living expenses and the interest rate on those school loans. She can’t always hit the principal of her student loans every month so she’s stuck on the debt treadmill until something gives (most likely her first, not the debt.)

Related: Will You Survive The Great Depression 2.0?

People like Susan will not outlast an unforeseen event or economic recessions staying at the standstill point. They will likely be knocked back down to somewhere worst and erase all improvements made during unless there was progress in knocking the principal debt balance down consistently.

Related: Why ‘The Millionaire Next Door’ Is A Myth To Most Millennials

The assuring part about wealth building is that it compounds so anything better than running on neutral will come with the magnification of progress.

3) Living in Constant Misery

Living in constant misery is a BAD combo with frugality. Frugality is a lifestyle overhaul that should be permanent. Let’s not make this a yo-yo diet thing. Frugality works better when one is not living in guilt over every little decision about money. We’re not machines that could be programmed to be constantly frugal (especially if it’s a new concept for those who were never taught discipline). Everyone is allowed to have a frugal fail once in a while.

Why does frugality have to be self-punishing? What’s with the regret and guilt?

Frugality done wrong is when you’re constantly miserable. If you’re constantly miserable, it’s time to significantly dedicate time to increase income first before cutting so lean you end up snapping.

I have seen “the snap” first hand and it’s not pretty. A friend of mine was doing very well for a couple of months, then she suddenly brought a new laptop, new UGGs, a new phone. Like a rubber band, she snapped back and has since done more damage than before and she didn’t get very far in saving in the first place!

Do not beat yourself up for a one-time frugal fail. You are allowed to beat yourself up if you do it 2+ times 😜 and by the 3rd time you should kick your own beehive once and reevaluate what in the world is wrong with you twice.

What To Do

If frugality isn’t enough for the math to make sense, consider the following supplements to simple living:

Ask your employer

When I was in undergraduate, I had a work-study with my department that allowed extra shifts and “overtime” pay if I took the job of a person who happens to be absent that day. Not very many people at my school knew of this hack. I got on the good side of the receptionist when I gave her some mooncake during the autumn moon festival. She took a liking to me and she offered me multiple shifts.

My point is to ask your employer if there is room in the payroll for you to work more. It will show initiative, it will show how determined you are to get ahead, and how responsible you can be. It can also give you a general feel where the company is going.

If they said no to any additional shifts then you can easily gauge what your job means to them, where the company is going, where the company is at now, and if you should start looking for a new job!

Cohabitate with significant other

Cohabitating also reduces things like rent transportation utilities. There’s strength in numbers. I just wanted to add that cohabitating with the right significant other can be a very cost-effective method in the long-run – especially if the significant other is frugal or save money as well. You get to build upon each other like Jared and I did when we started living together. We kept each other in line and in check. We are firm believers in cohabitating before marriage; you can learn a lot about that person.

Rent out a room

Airbnbs around me make an average of $3,000 and the $2,000 is the national average for Airbnbs. That figure is PER month. One can essentially increase their income by 50% just by renting out a room! Read up on me as a host – then if you’re like “yeah, making money is awesome” then use my link if you want to become a host.

Although it is not an option for some people, renting out a room is one of the easiest and most profitable options that you can do on the side to increase your income. Read our Airbnb tab above for the full run-down!

If you are a new traveler to Airbnb, you can get $40 in travel credit when you sign up here.

Hobbying + Gigs

Both in and after college, I was very, very good at sniffling out an extra dollar. After I met Jared and got married, I’ve become more or less accustomed to our life where income isn’t a big issue.

*Ahem, I became spoiled, pampered and lazy and stopped hustlin’*

I miss my hustler days. That was when I was the happiest. My crooked, cockroach DNA requires hardship to get going because I’m lazy.

Related: How I Paid Off $20,000 In Student Loans Working Part-Time

I was using my smarts to wiggle out a few extra Benjamins at the end of the month. So far I have worked on Etsy, eBay, Rover, Airbnb, Mechanical Turk, Fiverr, Shopify (x2) and probably some others that I forgot / never made much from.

The best part about a side hustle is being able to take advantage of hobbies and reinvest the proceeds in yourself.

My favorite inspirational stories are those who founded small businesses by following their passion and growing that passion. I don’t care how many millions we’ll have in the bank when we’re old, if I don’t end up being one of those stories, I am going to throw the BIGGEST tantrum at my funeral.

Readers, what do you think a person should do when frugality isn’t enough? Is frugality worth it for those running at a standstill? Do you have any ongoing gigs that you are profiting from?

Found this article helpful? Check out our sister blog that has all topics related to making extra money and working from home.

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56 thoughts on “3 Signs When Being Frugal Doesn’t Work & What To Do About It”

  • I think the best solutions in the long term for too little income are nonlinear with the time spent.

    So for instance if I drive for Uber, I might make an extra $15/hour spent but that money stops coming in once I stop doing the work. But if I lobby for a $0.50/hour raise at my job I would continue accruing that even after my 2 hour prep time and conversation with my boss to the tune of $1000/year. Or for 100 hours of resume prep and interviewing I might take a job for $2500 more every year.

    Of course, this is all dependent on what opportunities are within reach for a particular person and how urgently they need the money. Sometimes you need to hustle to get this month’s bills paid and that’s okay. But digging out of the low income trap in the long run may necessitate strategically finding actions that have a high up front time cost but yield benefits long into the future.

  • I like being frugal since it makes me feel more secure about the future and have more stability. I’m a stability kinda person. However, I believe in the power of increasing our income both at our main jobs and with side hustles.

    Frugality is def not sustainable if it’s not fun. People will get burned out and start feeling like they’re missing out on life. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too frugal and ask myself what I would regret not buying if I died tomorrow. And the answer is nothing. I’d regret not having spent enough time with my family. But I wouldn’t regret not buying an Iphone and whatnot. Great post!
    Ms. Frugal Asian Finance recently posted…5 Embarrassing Money-Related Facts About Me

  • This is super important, the “in” side of the equation is just as important if not more so than the “out”. I definitely agree with being strategic though. Using all your spare time on side hustles that bring you a few bucks may make you fall off the wagon even faster if you’ve no time to enjoy yourself. Figure out what things you like to do, and then brainstorm 3 ways you could get paid to do them. Then go from there.
    the Budget Epicurean recently posted…Cracker Cookies: An Heirloom Family Recipe

  • Frugality was the hallmark for my first decade of finances but it’s a companion to making more income. When I earned a pitiful salary, I worked three jobs to have enough to put some away for a rainy day. All that frugality wasn’t going to do a lick of good when a big emergency hit, as they always do.

    But to be honest, the biggest gains IME are made once you’ve put away enough money to have a safety net, and then dropping those side hustles to focus on the main job: building the portfolio of work that shows you’re a superstar, negotiating, taking new jobs, etc. That’s where my bread and butter come from.

    I’m not side hustling much these days. My full time job makes enough that it deserves my full attention, and the blog gets the rest of my attention when I have a bit of spare time. On the one hand, it’s a luxury that I can afford right now since it’s optional and doesn’t require the type of commitment that another job would. On the other hand, I’m positive that money blogging over the years is why I became so successful professionally. There was accountability, support, and a lot of inspiration from bloggers far ahead of me on their career journeys. I’m most grateful to those bloggers in traditional career paths who shared their stories for the sake of writing and not to make money blogging, their lessons were the most useful and replicable.

    If someone is stuck in the same debt / poverty cycle I was, I’d highly recommend exploring how they can grow in their current fields, what it takes to get there, and assess if that helps them enough to be worthwhile. Sometimes a change is necessary but you won’t know until you critically evaluate your industry and the strength of your professional reputation.
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…2017 Money Move: Maxing out annual contributions

    • “I’m positive that money blogging over the years is why I became so successful professionally. ”

      Ohhhh my gosh, I’ve never thought about it like that Revanche! But I totally believe it, I find myself in a better marriage and frame of mind (regarding money) after becoming involved in the personal finance community. It’s also a strong force for good (we do charities, chain gangs, etc.)

      For my example, I don’t know Su’s field that well but I always thought a librarian was all you can be…I mean, what’s above that? But she should be appliable for other jobs if she so chose to hunt them down.

  • Here’s to getting that hustle back on! I’m pretty sure you’ll find one that suits you.

    I’m not sure about any side hustles. Aside from part time jobs. I used to day trade (still?) during university lectures and invest in the stockmarket. But it was mainly a transition from playing video games to trading, treating it like maths, poker, chess, and RTS. Since then, it just stuck out of habit.

    For now, it’s the cryptocurrency bubble, MMJ, batteries and robotic sectors.

    Also, America’s Student Loan problem sounds hella scary!

    • Lol you’re one of those boys Will! Yeah I was the GIRL sitting behind you in lecture hall, looking at what you’re doing on your laptop 😛 Hahahaha. How did the day trading game treat ya?

      Years ago people said the student loan bubble’s going to pop but it never did. I don’t think it will, it’s going to be slow, painful draw because they can’t repossess degrees like houses.

  • We both are naturally frugal but when we were debt snowballing I was going crazy. We were pushing the limit too much that we had to take a small step back and issue a monthly allowance so I felt it was ok to spend a little money. I think that helped keep us from rubber banding.

    Growing your income is one of the best things you can do but is also the hardest. Seeing as though there is Infinite choice of side hustles you can experience a paradox of choice. Ms Blue Ribbon just started teaching Chinese kids English and is loving it.
    Budget on a Stick recently posted…Infinite Worlds In One Place

    • Pretty true Troy! Also, if you invest and count the growth of net worth then your savings can technically surpass 100%. Can’t argue with more income though 😉

    • Thanks Dave! Miserable AND going nowhere = not worths. If it’s miserable with the progress I would say keep hustlin’. Unfortunately for my friends, it’s the going nowhere / frugality combo and that’s simply not going to cut it.

  • Yup! Sometimes cutting expenses isn’t the way to go about improving your finances. It worked for us because our spending was out of control, but if you’re naturally frugal, it’s not always the answer. Income increases can help quite a bit. With anything else, make sure your side hustle is enjoyable and gives you enough return on investment to be worth the decreased personal time.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…23 Frugal Good Habits

  • I feel that the point about asking your employer in order to increase your income is of vital importance, especially for women. It’s frequently said that one (of many) of the reasons that women are generally paid less than men is because we are, by nature, less willing to ask for what we may deserve so as not to come across as “pushy” etc. Men, on the other hand, are often far more willing to come straight out and ask for a pay rise – and are rewarded accordingly.

    I certainly know firsthand how nerve wracking it can be to ask for more money – but it always annoys me when I get nervous as I know damn well that I, like many women out there, deserve it!

    • Preach!!! OH also, men apply for jobs they might not qualify for (like “why not!”) whereas women apply to lesser jobs because they feel they’re underqualified for the ones their male counterparts apply to! Talk about limiting yourself!

  • You are absolutely right that sometimes being frugal is not enough. That’s when you need to boost income. Speaking of which, I’m looking forward to reading about your work from home experiment. Please make sure you include the time you spend in the reports. Anybody can make money from home. The interesting part is if any of the projects make enough money to be worth your time.
    [email protected] recently posted…My Wins and Losses From Buying a Condo at 24

    • Thanks Jason! That’s exactly what my husband said!! For surveys that’s easy but for things like reselling…oof that’s going to be hard to quantify in terms of time because Lord knows what eBayers want…

  • For many, upping the income is going to be a major factor. For Susan, with the information sciences background (does she have an MIS?) she could parlay her analytical and research skills into a lucrative side-hustle. It might even out-earn her regular job. The days of fact checkers and super-duper researchers seem to be gone. Many business are in need of meticulous writers, researchers, etc. Some areas that come to mind: copyright, royalties/licensing (books, music, film, merchandise), real estate (liens, deeds, mineral rights), etc.
    Mrs. Groovy recently posted…Egotrage: Taking a Step Back Socially to Advance Two Steps Financially

    • Oh I’ll pass on your words Mrs. G. I don’t know if Su’s analytical. I recall having Stats with her and we both were terrible at it hahaha. Copywriting she can definitely do!

  • I think frugality , no matter what your income is, is still worth it. All the other factors are critical but frugality is always relevant. Side hustles is always a good alternative to get extra income or try to work towards any promotions at work (that worked for me).

  • My perspective is being frugal can be fun and addictive when it’s getting you somewhere. When your increasing your net worth whether thru a surplus or paying down debt. Frugality just to make ends meet is a whole different story – because you’re backed into a corner. There isn’t the sense of achievement nor are there any more options..it’s a depressing rut. Income level is definitely a factor especially for single income families or singles

    • 10000% LOVE THIS, ROSE!!!! It is addictive! That’s perfectly said. Fudgeeee…you just summarized my 1500 words into an easy to read paragraph!!! Wanna write for me??! x)

  • I find there is a difference between being frugal and cheap. I am not working really hard so I can eat ramen and not be able to spend money on the people I care about the most in my life, I do not see the point in that. l understand the message of being frugal and less is more and think that is important. If you can learn to live on less it will serve you well. If you have to skimp to become a millionaire you will not be that happy of a person once you get there.
    Damn Millennial recently posted…Market Monday: Impact Investing

    • Oh dear my that’s genius. “If you have to skimp to become a millionaire you will not be that happy of a person once you get there.”
      I’m pretty much proof that that’s true 🙁

  • I agree with you for the most part. It can be very stressful to be frugal when you have a low income. Unfortunately, if you have a low income, you have no choice. You have to be frugal in order to get by. The problem is compounded when people with low incomes are not frugal and start buying useless crap that doesn’t make them happy then dig themselves deeper into debt, causing them to be even more stressful. While it’s easier said than done, people with a low income should definitely strive to earn more. This can take time. In the meantime, they should continue to live simply and frugally because it is much easier compared to increasing income.

    By contrast, living frugally as a high income earner is not stressful because it is more of a lifestyle choice (rather than a necessity). My wife and I are both high income professionals but we have always been frugal. We think of it as a fun challenge 😉

    Oh, and I would like to add that it is not worth it to be frugal if it negatively affects your health. For example, if you’re eating at McDonald’s every day from the dollar menu because its cheap…what’s the point of being frugal when you are making yourself sick and contributing to your early demise?

    • Totally agree doc, we think of it as a fun challenge too but that’s not going to be the case if my butt is on the line and I’m on my last fiver.

      P.S. I apologize for the delay reply! I thought I replied on my phone weeks ago but I guess it didn’t go through!

  • i like to have a little “treat” bucket in the budget. like mrs. smidlap and i each have some of our own funds (hers from selling artwork and mine from overtime). you’re right, the lifestyle won’t stick if it feels like constant needless deprivation. if one of us wants to pick up the occasional tab or round of drinks it’s ok. it’s a treat!

  • Part of the key to frugality is ignoring what others have. Sure, that hard to do sometimes with more visible things, but I started making a habit of not even paying attention to what coffee maker my friends have or what kind of phone or tablet. Ignorance is bliss. Then I have nothing to compare to, and my frugal habits just seem normal.

    • Aha, I’m right there with ya. For most of my life I’ve been blind to it (too poor to afford prescription glasses) – very helpful of a headstart.

  • You never make too much or too little to start a side hustle. I think that’s the easiest way to start digging yourself out of debt and building a nest egg. So many options today too with the internet, there’s no excuses to not start!

  • “Susan’s take-home (after taxes!) will cover her living expenses and the interest rate on those school loans. She can’t always hit the principal of her student loans every month so she’s stuck on the debt treadmill until something gives (most likely her first, not the debt.)”

    Nailed it, Lily. For many people, creating that gap and generating some breathing room is as much about enlarging the income side as it is about controlling the spending side. Like a hammer, frugality is a tool that isn’t suited to every task. Sometimes we got to pick up the work-more-hours tool, the change-fields tool, and the side-hustle tool. It sucks. But there isn’t always a better option. Great freakin’ post.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…Building Groovy Ranch: Update 1

    • Thanks Mr. Groovy! That was one of my personal favorite lines too. I told “Susan” this too. Unless her (and anyone with student loans) interest or principal goes down, the debt is staying put longer than the economy is willing hold.

  • There has to be a balance. If we are miserable, something is wrong. Being frugal is awesome, but it has to be balanced out with some spending on things that add joy or ease to life. If we are having a difficult time, more earnings might be needed to accomplish this.

    • Thanks Dave! I’ve dedicated most of 2018 to experimenting with various side hustles – I’m hoping to bring in $18k on the side (online) – wish me luck! x)

  • You have hit a good discussion point!

    I am ALL about frugality and it is largely the reason for my early track towards financial freedom. You raise a great point though in that depending on the income/debt level, frugality can lead to potential misery. It has the potential to make you feel completely beneath the world, feeling like you will never rise up.

    Being frugal is only one side of the coin. If it is paired with average to above average income combined with zero debt, then it can launch you towards financial freedom. I will also argue that the potential misery that comes with being frugal on a low income can potentially launch someone into doing everything it takes to rise from that scenario. You never know how far you will go until you are truly backed against the wall!

    Thanks for the insightful share!

  • When income and debt level desparaity is too large and payment plan can’t lower the overall debt from an unmanageable interest rate then one time bail out clearance is the only solution to debt clearance. Maybe some personal or private deal written and notorized. The bailer is basically giving away free money to the recipient.

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