Cheapwashing: Cashing in on the Frugal "Fad"

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For many of us, the frugal life is simply our normal. Whether we were raised by Depression-era parents or survived some lean times, or whether we are dealing with a rough economy, those long-term frugal-ers among us barely need guides and tips.

housewife cake

Credit Image: Steve Snodgrass on Flickr

But there are always newbies. People who -- for one reason or another -- never had to think about small-change adjustments in their lives, but are now faced with the challenge of living with less. Or perhaps some of these new frugalistas are consciously trying to downsize their lifestyles to a more sustainable level. I’m not here to analyze every possible motivation for living a more frugal life.I’m here to judge! Specifically, I’m here to judge, criticize, and cast aspersions at one of the biggest roadblocks to frugality: cheapwashing.

Googling, magazine flipping, and other forms of casual research will net you thousands if not millions of guides to simplifying your life. Frugality has become quite the buzzword. When something becomes that popular, there will always be a certain percentage of content written about it that will not be in your best interest. Everyone has an angle -– even I do! But some resources let their angle get in the way of reality, and that could cost everyone from new practitioners of frugality to the old-time thrifty among us.

I’ve identified a couple of cheapwashing trends I’ve come across, and I will briefly outline them for you here. I promise to try to be fair, but I defend my opinions, so no bellyaching if your favorite thing is on there!

Martha Stewart Complex

Poor Martha. She gets so much grief. Even if you’re not into decorating or crafting, you’ll know at least a little of what I mean when I say her name. Love her or hate her, you can’t ignore her influence on culture. She and her vast media empire do have some great ideas, and there are some eye roll-worthy ones.

But it’s not her so much as the domestic perfection she has come to symbolize that intrigues me here. There will always -– and I mean ALWAYS –- be perfectly photographed, “effortless” and “simple” recipes or craft ideas put out into the world by people with more time or resources than you. And there will always be photos of impossibly well-appointed rooms and impossibly adorable children in magazines that purport to offer a simpler lifestyle if you can “just” buy this expensive mixer or new hybrid car. In the long run, these things may well prove money-saving, but who has the cash to trade in their existing life for artisanal burlap and organic pet food?

Simpler Than Thou. Or, The Perils of Pinterest

As I said above, there’s always going to be someone more talented, more clever, and with more resources than me. I know this, and I try every day to love myself and my abilities as they are, not as I would want them to be, especially if I lose myself in a BoBo daydream. No matter how much I clean, create, and donate, there are going to be zillions of photos of people doing my thing Better Than Me. And they do tend to congregate on Pinterest, don’t they?

If you know this feeling, rest assured that you are doing the best you can at any given time. If you feel that there is something you can improve on, then OK. But it has to come from a desire to improve your life and the life of your loved ones, not keeping up with the Joneses. Buying into a down-scaling race with everyone else on the internet will get you nowhere except into more debt. I used the phrase “buying into” for a reason, folks. The impossibly perfect is made only by the impossibly wealthy.

Marketing Buzzwords

Let’s play Google-Frugal Bingo! How many synonyms or near-synonyms can you get results for? Authentic, slow-living, simple, thrifty? Sound familiar? It’s almost like there’s some sort of secret code. When you go to the grocery next, look at the magazines, and tell me that they are not all the same with different colors. All the buzzwords in the world won’t make an item or piece of advice reasonable if it’s not. No amount of adjectives will make something frugal if it’s an advert for advertisement’s sake. Nothing.

Deeper Issues (eg: Hoarding for “Thrift”)

This is the one I have the most problems with, as I have the most compassion for those going through this. Sometimes frugality, like any good thing, can be harmful when taken to extremes. Some frugal living tips seem to encourage hoarding behavior, which is not only un-frugal, it’s downright irresponsible!

Even if the author of an article or set of tips had good intentions, if they harp on saving too many things, they are going away from frugality. The point differs a bit from person to person, but there is a definite point of “too much” when it comes to stuff. Thrift is one thing, clutter is another, and clutter costs. Clutter costs in terms of physical space to house it, resources to maintain it (heating, A/C, etc.) and it certainly costs in terms of your physical and mental health. This is thrift gone sour, and it leads to keeping too much stuff. And keeping too much makes it hard to keep your space clean and functional. And from there you get into the sheer mental stress of having excess, which can cycle into all sorts of problems, like The Fly Lady’s CHAOS: Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome!

Coming to Conclusions

The moral of the story here would be to employ your Baloney Detection Kit with frugal tips (and all things, as well!). Watch out for faux frugal tips that attempt to separate you from more money. Be skeptical with your tips –- even mine! Learn to ask yourself questions:

Is this frugal tip a worthwhile investment of time or money? Does it concern something I would normally acquire, use, or do? Or is it just cool?

Do the necessary supplies or services pay for themselves within, say, 6 months? Will this save me money in the long run? How long is that run, and can I sacrifice cash now to save more later?

Can I learn how to do this or make this for free? Some skills do need special training, but can I pick up the techniques in an online tutorial, from the library, etc?

This process of questioning and rational decision making won’t put tons of zeroes behind the digits in your bank account, but they can be good tools for making your own life work a little more sensibly. And isn’t that what frugal living is all about, at the end?

 

 

-Liz

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