Saturday, February 28, 2009

When Frugality = Insanity



My friend Ramit recently issued a challenge to fellow personal finance blogger Trent of The Simple Dollar after Trent called Ramit's "Scrooge Strategy" short-sighted for arguing that small frugality tips are counter-productive because they require too much effort for too little gain:

Over a period of 1 month, starting Monday, March 2nd, I say we each pick a group of 50 readers and send them 4 tips. (I’m just going to take the first 50 people that sign up for The Scrooge Strategy.) I propose that we’re also allowed to do one hour of private instruction to them (webcast, phone, email, etc), but no more. We let the tips stand on their own.

At the end, we see which group has saved more — the Scrooge group or the frugality group. And I’m willing to bet, if you are: I suggest the loser pay $1,000 to the charity of their blogs readers’ choice.

Alas, Trent did not take up the challenge (despite Ramit's use of the nifty Wii Boxing graphic above), though he did respond with a thoughtful post on why he felt that the best course of action was for people to practice frugality in both the big and little things.

I'm a bit conflicted on this one--on the one hand, Ramit is a dear friend, and I like nothing better than a good fight (when the Malice at the Palace broke out, I remember telling my wife, "I am so glad that I am catching this on live television)--on the other hand, I am famously proud of being a cheap bastard, and I've often complained to Ramit that he spends money like a drunken sailor.

In the end, what decided it for me was reading some of the comments on Trent's blog, which included one person who said:

I wash Ziploc bags, and I wouldn’t consider myself any kind of extremist. But for me, reusing bags (and plastic utensils, and jars, bottles, and containers) is more about not being wasteful - why would I want to throw something perfectly good in the trash just because it’s dirty? - and less about piniching every penny. Although I do pick up pennies I see on the sidewalk. So maybe I *am* an extremist.

The bottom line is that the two blogs have very different audiences.

Ramit's blog is designed for young people with decent incomes who don't think rationally about their finances, and rightly tackles automated big wins.

Trent's blog is designed for people are are already unusually frugal, and want to improve their frugality by learning about new ways to save even more money.

You can even see the different in their styles...Ramit's is written in an edgy, wiseass tone that in a previous era, would be been dubbed "extreme." His job is to break through the clutter in an unfocused person's life and shock them into taking the first, important steps.

Trent's is written in a soft-spoken, straightforward style that makes even my writing look impolite. His job is to preach to the converted and help move them even closer to perfection.

This may be why Trent didn't take the challenge--his readers are already so frugal, that they simply couldn't save that much more (versus Ramit's readers who include the profligate Manhattan "Sex and the City" types).

It's true that Ramit's advice ignores certain opportunities to save money. But it's also true that not many people have the discipline and willpower to follow Trent's advice.

It turns out that all of us have a limited amount of willpower. This resource, which scientists call the "executive function," is responsible for restraint and decision-making ability. Each time you use your executive function to use less toilet paper, you use up a bit of it, leaving less for everything else. Like anything else, you can develop more willpower with practice, but in the short run, it's a fixed resource.

If you're living a fast-track life, you probably expend much of your executive function on your career; if you then try to tackle a laundry list of frugal activities like making your own laundry detergent, you're rapidly going to run out of gas.

If you're living the simple life, or if you're unusually blessed with executive function, you may have the juice to spare to focus on frugality.

I admire Trent's readers for their frugality, but I suspect that most people are more like Ramit's readers. Whose advice you should follow depends on your own assessment of your available executive function.

With that in mind, I've prepared this handy-dandy guide:



My guess is that most people think 3) is nuts, and 4) is truly cuckoo territory. Of course, right now some of the frugality people are thinking, "Yes, if I can just obtain some surplus Bulgarian toilet paper, the high thistle content will let me wash and reuse it!"