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Is There Such a Thing as Being “Too Frugal?”

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In the Bankruptcy Law business, we often preach the benefits of everyday austerity —facing financial troubles head on and dispensing with debt while also saving where and when you can. But are you saving the wrong way? Is there a time when frugality crosses the line? What happens when others bear the burden of your belt-tightening?

These were the questions posed this month by writer Jennifer Saranow Schultz in her New York Times piece on the limits of providence in a post-recessionary world. Responding to a recent Bankrate.com post, “Are you taking frugality too far?”, Saranow Schultz writes, “During the depths of the recession, when we stayed at an apartment rental, we stocked up on the hair products the owners had left for us to use. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether we were being frugal or we were stealing.”

Clark Palmer, author of the Bankrate.com article attempts to answer just that: in short, Palmer finds that “frugality crosses the line when “’you’re cheating yourself or others just to save a buck’” and when you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking a person in charge if what you’re doing is all right.”

Based on these criteria, it seems that many men and women facing tough economic times may have crossed a thin (and difficult to distinguish) line between economical and excessive. Here are a few concrete examples from this and various articles that could paint you as more “Scrooge” than simple skimper when it comes to overzealous saving:

You Take Shampoo From Your Hotel vs. You Take Towels From Your Hotel
As Palmer explains, and what may well be true, hotels have an expectation that customers will take toiletries and other smaller goods like shampoo, conditioner, lotion, shower caps, and therefore pad the room rate with these expenses. However, their hospitality has its limits, and what they’re not counting on is you nabbing more high-end items like hotel towels, tissues, toilet paper or even light bulbs. According to the experts, the former is simply being frugal; the latter is “crass cheapness.”

You Eat at Places Where You Can Afford Both Tip and Meal  vs. You Eat Where You Cannot Afford to Tip
Apparently, “being frugal in the right way” means only going to restaurants whether you can pay for the meal and are still able to tip your server afterwards. In the alternative, if you eat at a place so expensive that there’s no money left over for any gratuity, you’ve then pushed the limits of prudence—compromising others to save a few cents.

You Eat Generic Brand Foods and Take Generic Meds vs. You Avoid Healthy Foods & Healthcare?
While it goes without saying that in today’s marketplace, healthy foods like fruits and vegetables as well as quality healthcare can be expensive purchases, Palmer finds that people foregoing the basics to save a buck are essentially going to far to remain frugal. Instead of limiting quality food or medical care, instead try switching to generic brands for medicine and groceries, a measure that often doesn’t sacrifice quality or very much money.

As Saranow Schultz found, “Posts on the subject from other blogs, meanwhile, offer other examples of behaviors some consider to cross — and not cross — the line. The blogger at Frugal for Life, for instance,  considers stealing coupons from others’ papers and buying an item from a store with the intention of using it and then returning it not acceptable, while going to a food store to try samples is all right (though eating enough samples to make a meal is not).

On the other side of the coin, the Simple Dollar blog argues that “there is never too much frugality, as long as respect for others exists — what actually creates that line between frugal (good) and cheapskate (bad) is our other values.”

What do you think of these examples? Have you been “too frugal” in an attempt to live a more financially-sound lifestyle? What are examples of tactics that you might find overly penny-pinching versus simply penny-wise? What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to save money?

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