In the Science of Consumerism, one commonly cited behaviour is the tightwad‐spendthrift (TW-ST) construct. This TW-ST model is represented as a scale, based on the “pain of paying”. It can tell whether a person leans toward being a tightwad versus a spendthrift when it comes to making purchases. Tightwads tend to experience a high “pain of paying” and spend less than they would ideally like to spend. On the other hand, spendthrifts tend to experience insufficient pain and spend more than they would ideally like to spend. But neither are happy with how they handle money. So where does frugality fit into all of this, and how is it different?

Much has been studied since the introduction of the TW-ST model more than a decade ago. An interesting finding is that the two extremes tend to attract one another, adding to marital conflict. Another interesting finding (from the same study) is that neither extreme is happy about being a tightwad or being a spendthrift. Both types consistently spend differently than they would ideally like to spend.

Research has also shown that just by “reducing the pain” of a purchase, a tightwad can behave like a spendthrift, suggesting that both tightwads and spendthrifts have comparable desires for goods (though their “pain tolerance” differs). This is how some freegans (who spend very little) still fall prey to over-consumption.

There have also been more recent studies which point to how parents, through conversations with their children about money, transmit their own tightwad‐spendthrift tendencies. Parents also can, through the use of material goods in parenting, foster materialism in their children.


Where Does Frugality Fit & How is it Different

I first “came out” as being frugal before the advent of the TW-ST construct. But its popularity didn’t help my cause; it only confused people when I told them I was frugal. “You mean you’re a tightwad and only buy things if they are cheap,” was the typical response.

Thankfully, lots of studies have come out since the TW-ST construct, which identified and separated out frugality from the TW-ST model.

There are many definitions of frugality. I like Reddit’s definition because it is brief and to the point. “Frugality is the mental approach we each take when considering our resource allocations. It includes time, money, convenience, and many other factors.”

Other definitions I like include “a lifestyle trait reflecting disciplined acquisition and resourcefulness in product and service use…in service of achieving longer term goals.” (Lastovicka, Bettencourt, Hughner, and Kuntze, 1999).

How frugality is different is that it is more closely tied to a “pleasure of saving,” whereas tightwaddism is more closely tied to a pain of paying. Thus, while tightwaddism and frugality both promote saving, they do so for very different reasons. Thus, frugality is tied to consciousness of not only the price of something, but also time, waste, self-control, and personal wants and needs. In addition, the desire for goods (which exists on a comparable level for both tightwads and spendthrifts) is far less for frugal people.

For me personally, frugality is also tied to valuing and being grateful for what I already have. And because my desire for goods is low, I also experience less disappointment.

One of the Google search terms that directs readers to this site is “frugality is painful”. But according to the definition and to studies, frugality is not about pain, deprivation, or denying certain material pleasures. It’s more about paying attention, counting your blessings, and thinking about what’s important to you and what kind of life you want to live. Its mindset is actually quite positive in nature.

I recently asked my husband, “Are you happy living this way?” as we were eating a home-cooked meal in our humble 3-room HDB flat. He said, “This life of voluntary simplicity has really paid off. We have less financial stress, less disappointment, and more financial security [no debt]. If we wish to spend on something that really matters to us, we are able to do so freely and easily [without pain or guilt]. If we have a financial emergency, we would quickly recover. Living this way where we think carefully about how we spend our time and money makes us slow down a bit. And that makes for a better life.”

What are your thoughts on frugality? Do you find it to be painful? Or is your experience generally positive?


4 Comments on Tightwads versus Spendthrifts, and How Frugality is Different

  1. I like your definitions of frugality, especially the characterization of joy of saving vs pain of spending. But I have a question. A friend of mine fully subscribes to this. He earns a million dollars a year but chooses to buy a second hand couch for $50 instead of a new one for his home. Is he taking it to too extreme a level?

    • Hi Chan, thank you for your comment. I had this exact same situation happen to me (though I don’t make nearly as much as your friend). For furniture, I always try to buy used. Not because of cost, but because I try to be environmentally conscious. I see a lot of perfectly good furniture get tossed out, and it bothers me. Maybe your friend also values eco-friendly choices. Or maybe he found a one-of-a-kind used couch that he values as a collectors’ item. For me, I ended up buying a new couch because I couldn’t find something suitable after 1 month of looking. I really, really wanted to buy used, but also felt that I was spending an excessive amount of time looking. And at some point, I choose to value time more than waste-reduction. For your friend, I guess it all depends on what he values and his reasons behind the purchase. And yes, frugality (just like everything else) can be taken to an (unhealthy) extreme.

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