About a month ago, I was interviewed by a reporter on the subject of becoming fatigued from living frugally and burning out on living by a budget. Unfortunately, it appears that the article never went live, so rather than let it collect dust, I am posting a transcript of the interview.

Are their outside factors (advertising, big sales holidays, etc) that lead to frugal fatigue?

How you respond to outside factors can lead to frugal fatigue. You can mourn not being able to shop a big sale and come to resent living frugally. But, again, this is one response. A better response is to reassure yourself that you can shop the sale next year, especially if the reason you are living frugally is to get out of an unpleasant financial situation or want to feel more financially independent. The more common scenario, though, is dealing with car repairs, home repairs, sudden illness or another unexpected event that puts pressure on your budget. Unexpected expenses can leave you feeling like you're spinning your wheels and never getting anywhere.

Is there anything people are doing without realizing it that leads to this problem?

There are four main things you might be doing that are setting you up for frugal fatigue. You might be setting goals that are not measurable or attainable. You can also set too many goals. You might be isolating yourself from friends because you don't want to spend money when they go out or because you need time to clip coupons or find new deals. And you might constantly tell yourself no to purchases unless the item is on sale or you have a coupon.

Is frugal burnout a temporary problem, or can the overload cause consumers to give up entirely?

Frugal burnout can definitely leave you feeling like you want to give up on living frugally, and in that sense it can be permanent. I don't think there are many cases of a person saying a few months later that they want to try again. If it didn't work the first time, then it won't work again. Once this happens, it is likely you can only get back on track with the help of a professional, whether it's a coach, financial planner, licensed counselor, or someone else who can work with you to define your goals and set reasonable objectives to reach the goals.

Is there such a thing as trying too hard to be frugal? Can worrying about money cause other problems in our life?

You can definitely try so hard to be frugal that it consumes you and defines who you are, the same way narcotics and alcohol can consume a person. This is the opposite end of the spectrum, a sort of hyper-frugality that can lead to an unhealthy emotional imbalance. Worrying about money can have very serious consequences. I recently conducted a survey of over 250 marriage and family therapists, licensed professional counselors and psychologists on this topic. All of the respondents, who incidentally were located in Mid-Atlantic and Southern states, indicated that financial concerns can and do affect an individual's mental health and relationships. But I believe worrying about money can also lead to dissatisfaction with life, feeling unfulfilled, and giving up on life goals.

Can consumers do anything to prevent this from happening?

Get help. When a ship is taking on water, the captain doesn't rely on himself or the crew to solve the problem. He calls for help, and other ships or the Coast Guard send resources. I can appreciate, if you feel you need to live frugally or you are worrying about money, that you don't believe you can afford professional help. But that doesn't mean help is not available. You can talk to your doctor, minister or spiritual advisor, or even just a friend to talk things through. If they are unable to help, they may be able to refer you to someone who will work with you. You certainly don't need to be alone during a time like this. There is help available.

How can people know when to let go and just spend/live a little? How dangerous can this be to our wallets? [I will answer these two questions together because they are related.]

The temptation is to feel entitled to a reward after living frugally for awhile and “let go.” Unfortunately, it can cause a significant setback to your financial goals, wipe out the benefits of frugal living, or even create a budget problem by spending too much money. It is certainly ok to let go from time to time, but you need to have control over it. Take control by defining how much you can spend on "living a little" without defeating the purpose of frugal living. Also, if you let go too often, then you will not make any forward progress, and if you don't let go often enough, you can set yourself up for burnout. I recommend to my clients that they plan to spend a little on themselves about every 6 months.

Once you're fatigued, what can you do to get back on track? Any practical tips for riding out the storm or beating the problem all together?

Well, the first tip when you feel fatigued from frugal living is to not swing the pendulum the other way and blow the budget on binge spending. Although tempting, it will create financial consequences that can be more difficult to resolve. Figure out where you're headed. Why are you living frugally? What have you accomplished already? What's next and how long will it take to get there? What you want to do is review your goals to make sure they are clear and achievable, and re-write them if necessary. Nothing will lead to frugal fatigue quicker than not having clearly defined goals, having unrealistic goals or even having too many goals. I believe you should be reaching one goal about every 6 months and certainly no more than every 12 months. If you only have one big goal, then divide it into several smaller goals, such as saving $5,000 in 12 months. The more common scenario is having a lot of goals, and then it's best to rank them by importance and start with small steps, such as paying off one small credit card or saving $1,000.


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    Climbing the Money Tree


    R. Joseph Ritter, Jr. CFP® is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(TM) and founder of Zacchaeus Financial Counseling, Inc., a non-profit organization providing financial planning services to low-income households and households experiencing financial strain.

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