Unnecessary, Compulsive Frugality

by Joshua Michtom

There is a marvelous picture from the late ’70s of a friend of mine, when she was about three, out for a walk in Leningrad with her mother. In the photo, my friend’s mom wears oversized glasses and drab clothes that look, even in a faded photograph, decidedly scratchy and Soviet. But my friend is dressed as some kind of animal, wearing a full-body costume, including fuzzy feet and a hood with little ears. The shot is casual, not posed, and neither mother nor child seems excited about the costume; they’re just a couple of Russians, walking around.

The story behind this picture is that my friend’s aunt, who had already come to the United States, sent to costume back to Russia as a gift. It was meant to be pajamas. But my friend’s mom, eminently practical, concluded that a garment so warm and well made would be wasted on just sleeping. Many years later, the mom explained to me, “It’s Soviet Union! We said, ‘What is pajamas? This is good clothing!’”

That sensible approach served my friend and her mother well when they were poor, recently arrived immigrants in the United States. Eventually, though, my friend’s mother married an American of modest means who, some time after they were wed, had the good fortune of inventing something that made him rich. By the time I met the family, they lived in an enormous old house in an affluent east coast suburb, and any trace of that no-nonsense Soviet frugality was gone. The mother’s well-used kitchen was well stocked with highly specialized, one-use gadgets, and my friend’s first apartments were full of appliances and furniture with minor flaws that her mother had summarily replaced. A saying her mother loved was, “Any problem that can be solved with money is not really a problem.”

I think about this whenever I peel and mince garlic. Like all right-thinking people, I love garlic, but I dread getting to the scrawny cloves at the inside of the bulb, which are every bit as laborious to peel as the fat outer ones, but yield so much less garlicky magic. Garlic is cheap and plentiful, and despite a young adulthood marked by fiscal imprudence, I have reached a point in my life where if I wanted to, I could just throw out the puny cloves and start on the next bulb. I doubt this would increase my yearly garlic spending by even twenty dollars. But I don’t do it, because it feels stupid and wasteful. Instead, I curse quietly while I am peeling the tiny cloves, and wonder how rich a person has to get to stop giving a damn.

Of course, I am not uniformly miserly. I allow myself the pleasure of good beer, periodic meals out at places where the entrees cost more than ten dollars, and, now and again, a vacation. But waste still feels deeply difficult. When I buy beer, I drink all the beer, and when I eat out, I clean my plate or carry the leftovers home. A few weeks ago, the store didn’t have the kind of toothpaste I usually get, so I got some other kind. It tastes terrible, and every day I hate it actively. But I will be goddamned if I ever throw it out unfinished.

Part of what I am undergoing, and what my friend’s mother seems to be immune to, is what psychologists call the “sunk costs” effect. Classical economic theory suggests that people should make rational decisions based on possible future benefit and disregard past expenditures that can’t be changed. But many psychological experiments have proved that past expenditures do matter, and that people who have spent money on something will be less likely to abandon it, even if doing so would provide them with a benefit more valuable than the sunk cost. This is certainly true for me: the awful taste of my current toothpaste is definitely worse than the loss of $3.00 I would incur to get better toothpaste; the pleasure I would get from not having to peel tiny garlic cloves exceeds the extra pleasure I get by choosing a good pint of beer over a lousy one and would cost me much less. (Here’s a research paper with lots of interesting examples of this phenomenon.) And yet, I persist.

Why? Money blogger and general advocate of frugality, Mr. Money Mustache contends that frugality is its own reward because, as everyone’s dad used to say, it builds character: “Spending more money on yourself can spare you from hardships. But hardship is just an unpleasant way of writing ‘effort,’ and effort is really the only thing getting you out of bed in the morning. Effort is the spice of life.” That is probably true for a lot of things, but I don’t think it applies to my garlic- and toothpaste-based frugality, or to the many other weird privations that I can’t quite abandon. If I didn’t live with another, more sensible adult, I’d still eschew a toaster, a microwave, and a potato peeler.

Hal Arkes, the professor who has probably most studied how people deal with sunk costs, has suggested that persistence in the face of diminishing returns is a question of reputation, that no one wants to look like a dope for having spent money foolishly in the first instance. That, too seems inapplicable to me, since I admit quite freely that I bought the wrong damn toothpaste and this stuff we have now tastes like shit. Some research suggests that frugality is inherited, which would be plausible in my case, since one of my parents is thrifty and the other profligate.

Other researchers (caveat: in New Zealand) argue that people who are unreasonably frugal live that way because frugality, even when it isn’t imposed by circumstance, is a lifestyle choice that they subconsciously imbue with moral implications. So maybe that’s it: my friend’s mom was probably genetically and philosophically predisposed to spend freely, but constrained by communism. I, on the other hand, carry some combination of learned and inherited thriftiness, even though I live in Connecticut. I suppose what that means is that the classic economic theorists are actually right: wasting garlic would actually cause me a degree of psychic pain well in excess of the pleasure I’d get from not having to deal with the puny cloves.

Dear readers, what are your idiosyncratic frugalities? Do you drive under the speed limit on the highway to save gas? Do you hop the subway turnstile whenever you see the opportunity, as a friend of mine used to do long after he had enough money to stop? Do you save soap scraps till you have enough to combine them into a full-sized bar? And do you feel as strongly wedded to your irrational behavior as I do to my tube of disgusting toothpaste?

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