Rambling Man: Help! Am I A Miser?

by Joshua Michtom

Hi Josh,

Do you have any tips for how to become less miserly? I’m 28, I have a pretty decent salary and healthy savings, but I still stress out about spending money on anything except necessities. I luv2save, you know?

I have a partner who makes significantly less than me, but who has no debt and has some savings. He is by no means careless with money. He thinks I save more than I need and that I should enjoy my life more, since I won’t be in my twenties and childless forever. I think he’s right! We’re moving in together and have had lots of conversations about money and financial goals. He refers to my savings as “my dragon hoard.” I fear my frugality will become something we fight about once we live together.

I’m not super cheap! I do travel! I do tip well! I just balk at appetizers and name-brand cereal not on sale. Okay and fine, I also balk and travel and tipping costs. I do it, but I balk. Luv2balk, you know.

Help me Josh. I’m at a point where “dragon hoard” feels like a compliment.


Dear Luv2Save:

Let me start by noting that, while it may describe a less-than-desirable character trait, “miserly” is a wonderful word. In some senses, it’s really not such a bad characteristic: we Americans love thrift and saving and being prepared. We love that fable about the two insects — what were they? a grasshopper and a beetle? was an ant involved? — anyway, one worked hard and put away food for the winter while the other went out carousing, and when it got cold, naturally, the party insect was ill-equipped and had to get help from the prudent one.

There was probably an original Hans Christian Andersen version of that fable where the miserly insect locked his doors, built a roaring fire, and sipped cognac while watching the other one get torn apart by wolves in a snowstorm.

But you are neither of those insects, whatever they were. [editor’s note: it’s the ant and the grasshopper, come on Josh]. It seems you’re somewhere in between: saving a decent amount, but also taking vacations, leaving good tips, and, I’d hazard, sometimes treating yourself to fancy cocktails with cucumbers and three kinds of high-fallutin’ liquor in them. So we should make a distinction: as much as I love the word, you’re not miserly. Miserly people are the ones who, like Scrooge before his ghost-induced epiphany, impose their frugality on others. Since you say that you tip well, it appears that you are merely frugal.

But! It is easy not to impose your character traits on other people right up till the point when you live with them. When you buy only Honey Nut Jolly-Os and Archduke Chocolinis for yourself, that’s frugality. When you insist on them for your partner, who fondly recalls his wholesome Iowa childhood by gazing on the Cheerios or Count Chocula box while shoveling cereal into his mouth in the morning, you are being miserly. (Your partner, in that scenario, would also be an overly sentimental fool, but we are going to leave that discussion for another time and embrace his imagined love of brand-name cereals for the sake of argument.) So your impending cohabitation raises real considerations.

The complicated thing about meshing your preferences with another person’s preferences when you live together is that the inconsistencies can lead to simmering resentment, and simmering resentment can lead to argument, depression, alcoholism, and murder.

Little offenses in a relationship are the butterfly flapping its wings in Madagascar that leads to the tornado in your partner’s boyhood home outside Sioux City. Some people I know who ended up getting divorced (by which I mean me and my ex) entered into marriage without any consideration at all of their respective approaches to money. They mostly just thought, “This person is funny and smart and shares my politics,” not knowing, at their tender ages, that those things are necessary but not sufficient for a happy relationship. As a result, they fought mightily every time they had to find an apartment, and then the person who gave ground spent the duration of the lease nurturing a grudge, and whenever something would go wrong with the apartment, that person would imagine saying, “See, this would never have happened if …” but would, instead, pour himself a drink.

All of which is to say, there is nothing wrong with being frugal, but a lot that can go wrong when you and your mate have divergent approaches to frugality. So how do you solve this problem? I am not sure! It seems like your spending anxiety is maybe tied to something in your past, some insecurity or calamity that you don’t want to repeat. That’s OK! Almost everything I do is tied to not wanting to be like my parents! But it is a big thing that you might want to address with a professional and not with an advice columnist who doesn’t even seriously believe in the value of advice columns.

That said, here’s my idea for an experiment you might try: did you ever see the movie Fearless? Not the one with Jet Li, the one from 1993 with Jeff Bridges. The premise is that Jeff Bridges survives a plane crash and finds this weird, zen peace where he doesn’t fear death and lives life to the fullest and eats strawberries even though he’s allergic. Everyone around him finds his behavior disconcerting, probably because he is acting just like Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski, but this movie preceded Lebowski by five years, so a counselor hired by the airline connects him with another survivor, played by Rosie Perez, who lost her baby in the crash.

She’s obsessed (understandably) with how she failed to save her child. Jeff Bridges keeps telling her it was impossible to save the baby and it wasn’t her fault, but Rosie Perez isn’t hearing it, and at one point they have a conversation in his car where she gets super-freaked out and is blubbering and praying. So then Bridges gets a toolbox from the trunk and hands it to her and says, “This toolbox is your baby. This is your chance to save your baby. Hold it tight,” and because it’s a movie, she holds the toolbox and keeps crying. He makes sure they’re both buckled in and starts driving faster and faster and saying, “Hold on tight, this is your chance to save your baby,” and then he slams the car into a wall and, of course, she doesn’t hold onto the toolbox — it flies through the windshield, and everyone learns a valuable lesson about physics and regret.

That’s what you need to do, metaphorically speaking: prove to yourself that the idea you’re clinging to — that any slackness in financial vigilance will result in financial ruin — is false.

Try this: have a month where you don’t save at all, and you don’t even keep track of that month’s wages. Obviously, you should pay your rent and your bills, but after that, refuse to think about money. Remember, you have the dragon hoard, so nothing you can do with one month’s earnings will really affect your financial position. Just have fun with your free time, without regard to cost. No plans for the weekend? Fly to Iowa, rent a car, and surprise your partner’s parents by driving them to Chicago for a Cubs game. (I know your partner’s probably not actually from Iowa, but I like the idea so I’m sticking with it.) Go out to dinner every night. You know those movies where you see previews and you’re like, “That looks good, but not movie theater-good; I’ll see it on Netflix”? GO SEE THOSE MOVIES AND DON’T EVEN BOTHER TO SNEAK IN YOUR OWN SODA AND SNACKS.

Obviously, you can’t do this every month. But it will be fun to treat yourself for one month. And afterward, you can look at your finances and see that everything is OK. The Scrooge McDuck gold coin swimming pool will still be there. Hopefully, this will help you to realize that it’s OK to cut loose with the money you have sometimes. It will definitely be fun for your partner and his hardworking farmer parents.

Rambling Man is the Billfold’s new advice column about trying to make a living and doing the best you can. Questions for Rambling Man? Email ester@thebillfold.com, subject line: Rambling Man.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.