Dr. GoodCents: What Does Thrift Mean?

Written By:


thriftyA clinical psychologist with nearly 30 years of experience, Dr. Shapiro is ready to answer questions, offer advice and share strategies to help you alleviate the mental stresses of money management. Send your question to GoodCentsDr@gmail.com and it may be answered in an upcoming column!

We need food, clothing and shelter to live, but beyond that, money and material things are mostly about meanings. Our financial choices are largely determined by the meanings we perceive in money and the different ways that money can be used.

The advertising industry is all about imbuing products with alluring meanings that give us that must-have feeling. Marketers try to convince us that their brands will bring us sex appeal, power, success, social status, and so forth. People who try to control their spending must contend with this endless stream of messages, which never encourage saving and always encourage buying, and which have become entrenched in our consumer society.

Values Autonomy

Buying every advertising message means buying every product that’s dangled in front of us, and there’s no way to be financially responsible while doing that! One key to financial discipline is the ability to resist the seductive meanings vibrating in all the products out there, so we can stay true to the values we want to guide our spending and saving.

[Check Your Credit: Don’t Guess. Know.® Get your free credit report and score. No credit card required.

By becoming more aware of the money-related meanings and messages swirling through the culture, we can exercise our own judgment and make conscious choices about what we truly believe. Psychologically, values autonomy is crucial to financial self-determination and responsibility.

What Does It Mean to Pass Up a Purchase?

In the science of financial behavior, the focal moment occurs when an individual pauses to consider a purchase in a store or on the Internet. What through your mind at these moments? How do you decide what to do?

The advertising industry is all about creating a surge of pleasure when we overcome our financial inhibitions and say yes, I’ve gotta have it. However, financial health depends on our ability to pass up purchases and feel okay, or even good, about doing so.

One Primary Meaning: Vocational Success vs. Failure

At these focal moments, one of the most important variables is whether we view a decision to buy as a reflection of our success as a money-earner, which means a decision to forego the purchase makes us feel like a failure. Whether we need the product or not, no one wants to feel like a loser, and everyone wants that sweet glow of feeling successful, so this meaning drives many spending decisions.

Some people buy this meaning, and some do not. Which of the following thoughts are more similar to yours?

  • Buying this would make me feel like someone who is doing well in life.
  • I don’t “need” this, but that’s the point; successful people can buy things they don’t need.
  • Saying no to this purchase will make me feel like a loser.
  • It would be pathetic to pass up this purchase because the money isn’t in my budget.
  • Buying this will cost me money I’d rather use to pay down debt.
  • I don’t “need” this, and buying it won’t make me any more successful than I already am.
  • Saying no to this purchase will make me feel like a careful, responsible person.
  • It would be smart to pass up this purchase because the money isn’t in my budget.

Hidden Thoughts Become Feelings

Thoughts like these might not occur as words going through our conscious minds, but when such thoughts occur unconsciously, we experience them as feelings. If you are not aware of verbal thoughts during your focal moments, what emotions and physical sensations do you experience when you make different decisions at your financial choice-points?

If passing up a product or service gives you a satisfied, safe feeling, thrift will be easy and comfortable for you to achieve. If saying no to a purchase gives you a sinking feeling in your stomach and a vague sense of shame, financial self-control will be hard. But it is a struggle you can win.

Changing Thoughts Changes Feelings

The whole field of cognitive psychology demonstrates that people can change their emotional reactions by changing their thoughts. The first step is to listen closely to our emotions until we perceive the thoughts that lie underneath them, whether we are aware of this or not. The second step is to take a fresh, new look at these thoughts, and to ask ourselves whether we want to continue believing them.

[Check Your Credit: Don’t Guess. Know.® Get your free credit report and score. No credit card required.

The equation of material wealth and success is not a simple issue. Is it necessarily true that effective people who lead excellent lives own lots of expensive possessions? Do people who have high-paying jobs necessarily contribute more to society than people in lower-paying jobs? Does America need more hedge-fund operators and lawyers, or more teachers and people who simply do a good day’s work for their pay? And what about people who are putting their financial situations in order so that, later on, they can enjoy luxuries with a clear conscience and sense of safety? Such individuals frequently pass by shiny objects as they conserve their resources and make good use of the things they already have.

There are people who accumulate lots of expensive possessions as they dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt, and there are people who live thriftily and intelligently as they save money for long-term goals and a secure future. The second group is a lot less flashy, but the more we think about the meanings of money and material things, the better their option looks.