Sometimes, It's Okay to Spend

Extreme frugality may be a sign of a deeper emotional issue, but in most cases, you can learn to spend without pain.

You may have heard the news reports about Ron Read, a Vermont man who spent his working life as a gas station mechanic and janitor yet managed to amass an $8 million stock portfolio. When Read died recently, he bequeathed much of his fortune to the town library and hospital. Neighbors and even a stepson expressed shock at the hidden wealth of a man who drove a 2007 Toyota Yaris he’d bought secondhand and who occasionally used safety pins to hold his coat together. Once, reported the Rutland Herald, a customer at the Friendly’s where Read liked to eat breakfast paid for his meal because he looked like he needed the help.

The news got me thinking: Is our Vermont friend to be admired for his investing acumen? Or pitied for not enjoying the fruits thereof? I’ll say yes to the former; by all accounts he was a diligent student of the markets who accumulated a diverse portfolio of blue-chip stocks that he held forever.

As to the latter question, we don’t know enough about Read to determine whether his frugality crossed the line to an unhealthy extreme. But for 24% of the population, spending is a struggle, says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has looked into the psyches of both tightwads and spendthrifts. There’s a difference between tightwads and the merely thrifty: Highly frugal people are driven by the pleasure of saving, whereas tightwads actually feel pain when forced to spend.

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Outliers on the saving continuum are usually grappling with more than sticking to a budget. “When you’re talking about extremes, you’re talking about emotional issues,” says Mary Bell Carlson, a certified financial planner who speaks and consults on behavioral issues. Extreme frugality is often the result of early deprivation—think of a childhood marked by the Great Depression, for example, or by a family business going belly-up or a parent with gambling troubles. Without sufficient emotional support, survivors of such events might never shake the fear that the sky could fall tomorrow. Or tightwads could be status seekers (even if they don’t look it) because of the value our culture puts on money and net worth as an indicator of character and success. Severe limitations on spending might also be an expression of a need for control, whether over oneself or others.

Lessons in Spending

There isn’t enough money in the world to fix an emotional issue that requires therapy. But for most super-savers, spending wisely is a money lesson that can be learned. Retirement can be especially challenging. “Frugality is a decades-long habit for some that is now a way of life,” says Susan Zimmerman, a chartered financial consultant and licensed therapist at Mindful Asset Planning, in Apple Valley, Minn. The realization that work income has stopped can be paralyzing. But a clear analysis of your nest egg and a reasonable withdrawal strategy can build confidence.

Young frugalistas can be conflicted, too. Lance Cothern and his wife, Victoria, are in their mid twenties. They’ve paid off more than $80,000 in student debt, have a year’s worth of emergency savings and are socking away 20% of their income for retirement. “Now that our savings goals are where they should be, we’re trying to make the shift to spending money rather than just squirreling it away,” says Lance, a CPA who writes a blog called Money Manifesto.

To feel comfortable spending on “wants” instead of “needs,” the couple evaluates large purchases based on several criteria. Is it a planned purchase or merely a splurge? Are they getting a high-quality item that will last, even if it’s a bit more expensive? Finally, the Cotherns set a price limit—and not surprisingly, they stick to it.

Anne Kates Smith
Executive Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Anne Kates Smith brings Wall Street to Main Street, with decades of experience covering investments and personal finance for real people trying to navigate fast-changing markets, preserve financial security or plan for the future. She oversees the magazine's investing coverage,  authors Kiplinger’s biannual stock-market outlooks and writes the "Your Mind and Your Money" column, a take on behavioral finance and how investors can get out of their own way. Smith began her journalism career as a writer and columnist for USA Today. Prior to joining Kiplinger, she was a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report and a contributing columnist for TheStreet. Smith is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., the third-oldest college in America.