Adrienne Gibbs was trying to be helpful when she shared her latest purchase online.
The Chicago-based freelance editor found a great bag that was perfect for both work and kids, one that could hold both her tablet and a few diapers, leaving her hands free for carrying her baby and holding her 5-year-old’s hand. But when she posted about it on social media, she didn’t get the appreciation she was expecting.
“I post about a designer bag and people jump up to say, ‘I hope you didn't pay full price for that.’ Or, ‘You could buy a year’s worth of formula for that,’” Gibbs said.
If you have experienced this type of criticism, online or in real life, over a purchase that didn’t meet others’ standards for thrift, you too have been a victim of frugal shaming. In some circles, especially places like meetups for money savers or in the comments sections of personal finance websites, competing over who can pinch the most pennies is a constant pursuit.
Frugal shaming can even happen to the most financially responsible of us, because no matter how careful you are with your money, there’s always someone out there who would have spent less and saved more.
This phenomenon is not only unkind; experts warn it can also be harmful, since it can discourage people from making positive steps in their financial life.
“We hear a lot about 'keeping up with the Joneses.' People fall into the trap of comparing what they have with what their friends and neighbors have, which leads them into this cycle of never-ending consumption. Frugal shaming is the flip side of the coin. The results might be better for their pocketbooks, but no less damaging to the psyche,” said J.D. Roth, a personal finance blogger.
Just as there’s no limit to conspicuous consumption, there’s also no limit to frugality.
On a reddit group dedicated to frugality, one participant learned this when he got flamed for sharing his excitement over finding a great deal on soda.
“Tap water is free,” a critic sniped.
Frugal shaming is so rampant online that groups have specifically banned it in their rules. The /r/financialindependence subreddit, which focuses on frugality, disallows shaming people for their spending or for having too little saved. “We want the subreddit to be an area for positive, constructive discussion, not for putting others down,” the guidelines explain.
That chilling effect could do more than take the fun out of sharing a new purchase. It could discourage people from talking openly about serious financial issues such as how they’re strategizing to pay off debt. Young adults may especially regret missing out on the opportunity to talk openly about their financial situation. Millennials are more likely than Gen Xers or baby boomers to want to talk honestly about their debt, according to a survey of creditworthy Americans commissioned by Marcus by Goldman Sachs. Six in 10 millennials would like to talk about it, compared to four in 10 Gen Xers and only three in 10 baby boomers, the survey found.
Why do people shame others for their spending habits? They are probably trying to help, Roth said.
“When people scold others for spending too much, their intention is to make the other person aware of their habits and to change them, to spend less,” he said.
And it can work. Sometimes.
“Judgments of others’ shopping can have potentially beneficial effects,” said Nik Gurney, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, who is researching how individuals make sense of economic situations. If you know your frugal friends will roll their eyes if you order delivery instead of making dinner, the pressure could help you stick to your budget.
“But … consumption shaming is a very blunt-edged sword that can equally easily push people in counterproductive directions,” Gurney said.
Labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci sees shaming over budgeting as part of a larger problem. It’s common in our culture to hold individuals responsible for their entire economic situation, she said, from how much they spend on a car to how much they have saved for retirement. And this finger-pointing can backfire.
“Shaming people into doing what they should is shown in clinical environments — in stopping smoking, addiction and other behaviors — not to work,” said Ghilarducci.
For instance, a 2015 review of research by Pennsylvania State University found that the social stigma felt by smokers can motivate some to quit, while making it even harder for others to quit because the shaming causes increased stress and lower self-esteem.
“In some circumstances, shaming in order to persuade can make a person feel weak and powerless, and therefore not in a frame of mind in which to learn or move with confidence,” Ghilarducci said. “In order to change a behavior for the good, we have to feel comfortable and compassionate with ourselves, and these are the characteristics that shaming actually destroys.”
Ghilarducci worries that people who feel shame over their financial situation are less likely to take action that would help them, whether it’s making a budget or attending an employer seminar about 401(k) matching.
“You would think, ‘That is for other people who are better than me,’” said Ghilarducci, who has observed that shame can make people feel like outsiders. For example, if people feel ashamed about being overweight, they may avoid the gym because they see it as a place reserved for fit people.
What really bugs Roth about frugal shaming is that, having reformed from profligate spender to a saver himself, he knows there is no one route to financial responsibility. People, especially those who learned to be frugal only recently, have the tendency to feel “the zeal of the convert,” believing that the way they save money is the only way there is, Roth said.
“People sometimes have the perception that anyone who spends more is stupid, but anyone who spends less is crazy,” Roth said.
Is there a way to help friends who are clearly shortchanging their future by spending too much, without inflicting the hurt feelings and potential harm of shaming?
It’s possible, but experts agree that this is delicate territory.
Attitude is key, Ghilarducci said. That’s why she recommends opening by talking about your own struggles, not by pointing out someone else’s behavior. “If you see your friend spending what you think is too much, depending how close you are -- because money is deeply personal -- lead with compassion and say, ‘I’m struggling to save for my retirement. I’m wondering if you have those struggles too,’” Ghilarducci said.
Roth focuses on positive reinforcement. He honed this tactic while training his puppy, but he’s found it works on people too.
“If my brother were to sell his convertible to buy a beat-up pickup, I'd tell him how smart he is,” Roth said.
The biggest mistake would-be helpful frugal shamers make may be timing. If a friend asks for recommendations on whether to buy a new or used car, that’s a great time to share your experience with saving money by buying a used, late-model vehicle. But if they post a photo on Facebook of their brand-new car, commenting that they could have saved money is just mean.
George Loewenstein, a Carnegie Mellon economics professor who works with Gurney, said timing matters when trying to be helpful and not hurtful. “After the purchase is made, it’s too late, and the main thing you’ll accomplish by commenting negatively on another person’s purchase is to make them feel bad, or dislike you,” he said.