Gemma and Robert Hartley had been living frugally for five years when he broke down and decided he couldn’t do it anymore. They’d reduced their overall debt, which include a mortgage, credit card debt and medical bills, from $130,000 to $105,000. And supposing their incomes continued to increase, their penny-pinching plan would leave them debt-free within another five years, with even their house paid off in full.
But Robert had reached his limit. He was tired of living with their three children in a three-bedroom house in a rundown neighborhood in Reno. He wanted something bigger and nicer, even if it meant adding years to Gemma’s debt-paydown plan. More than that, he was exhausted by the frugal lifestyle his wife had imposed on their family. They walked to the grocery store and bought all their homeware items secondhand. They didn’t vacation and only went out when the activity was free, such as hiking. Instead of going out to eat, they invited friends over for potluck dinners. “It worked well for me, but not for him,” Gemma says. “He resented me for always being the one to call the shots and preventing him from feeling like he had any control over our money.
So Gemma relented. They shifted some of the financial decision-making to Robert, started going out for dinner and drinks more frequently and bought a new house — one that cost more than twice as much, and increased their debt total to $285,000. Gemma says they’re happier now, but she still feels the occasional pang of guilt over their new, relatively free-wheeling lifestyle.
“We’re currently looking at being debt-free when we’re 55,” says Gemma, who, like Robert, is 28. “[Fifty-five] isn’t a terrible age to be debt-free, but when I think about how I could’ve been debt-free by 30, it’s a hard number to wrap my mind around. I definitely get anxiety about not saving as much.”
The Hartleys are not alone among people for whom the cost of living frugally proved too much and who abandoned their original financial goals so they could spend more freely. Their financial prospects may have lessened, but their mental health has improved.
After all, vowing to save more money and/or pay off debts often requires more than a few changes in behavior; many times, it requires completely overhauling one’s life. People who have successfully paid off their debts report that it came at the expense of their relationships and happiness. They trade expensive hobbies for cheap ones, live in squalor, lose friends, take up side gigs and remain homebound at almost all times.
“Saving takes a toll emotionally,” says Terri Orbuch, a sociology professor at Oakland University and an expert on the intersection of money and relationships. “People know they should save, live frugally and pay down their debts. But when they look around and it seems like no one else is doing that, they feel alone.” (No wonder money is the leading cause of stress in the U.S.)
Ariel Lawson, 23, of Jacksonville, Florida, gave up frugal living three years ago when she fell in with a highly active group of friends. Previously, Lawson spent most of her time playing video games and hanging out with a controlling boyfriend who forbid her from socializing with anyone else. The isolation allowed them to save between $4,000 and $5,000 a month, however, and after two years together, they put a down payment on a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom home.
When they split up, Lawson was liberated, and suddenly found herself not only having friends, but part of a 30-person friend group that had social activities lined up every day of the week. (She also got to stay in the house, and rents out the other three rooms to pay down the mortgage.) Every Wednesday, they went to see a friend DJ. Every Thursday, they went to a bar that offered free beer and pizza from 10 p.m. to midnight. Every Friday and Saturday night, they went dancing…