Nature vs. Nurture on Frugalism

by Sandy L on August 14, 2010

Is Frugalism even a word?  I don’t care, I like it.

Today I’m going to ponder the age old question, nature vs. nurture with a twist.  Which of these factors makes a person inherently frugal in life?

Now up until writing this post, I was firmly in the nature camp.  We can all think of examples where there are several children in a family all raised under the same roof who turn out very different from each other.   I’ve only found examples where neglect has had a negative influence on someone with potential.  In the case where someone is lazy and has no work ethic, no amount of nurturing and setting good examples will change their character.

I’m going to take a little break for a Babci story. Babci says that one of the worst character traits one can have is laziness. She even said there was an old Jewish Curse* about it. I.e. shake fist in the air with a grave look in your eye and say “May your family be cursed with laziness.”   You see, you can be dim witted, ugly, introverted, or selfish and still get ahead by being a hard worker. Laziness usually comes along with other unsavory vices too. I’ve seen first hand that people feel a sense of  entitlement to things they haven’t worked for, they sponge off people and when they get desperate, some even move onto theft or other illegal activities. Working long hours doesn’t even occur to them as a viable option.

I digressed a bit there, but what about frugal living? Can someone be born frugal? I’m not talking about the person who’s just responsible with their money who chooses to save up for a vacation in lieu of going out to dinner.  I’m talking about the person who has $1/2MM in the bank but still has that same musty old couch from 50 years ago.

Given all the examples that come to mind of my frugal brethren, all of them went through some kind of financial hardship in life that molded their spending and/or earning habits.  Some learned earlier than others, but they all had at least one.   Either the person grew up with very little money, or they ate ramen for 4 years in college, or had a medical disaster or a loss of a loved one that caused financial hardship. Alternatively, there’s also the group who delayed the lesson by racking up the debt and either filing for bankruptcy or spending years paying down that debt. I can’t think of a single person who didn’t have some kind of character building time in their life that led them to their frugal lifestyle.  So for frugalness, I definitely vote nurture on this one.

So for those of you out there that have said “I’ve always been frugal by nature”….are you just one of those people who learned their lesson early, or do you think you’re just wired that way?

I’m not fully convinced of my argument, so I would love to hear a little debate on the topic.

*I don’t know if it’s an actual Jewish saying but Babci thinks it is.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole August 15, 2010 at 9:21 AM

As with most things, it’s probably a combination of both. Some people are born better able to delay gratification etc., but gratification delay can be taught.

This New Yorker article on the topic is interesting: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all

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Molly On Money August 15, 2010 at 8:07 PM

I agree with Nicole. It’s probably both.
When I left home and went out on my own to be a starving artist I figured I was always going to be poor. I was very frugal. I was frugal for over 10 years! Eventually I got a stable job and the money started coming in. I started spending and going into debt.
I had more money when I was young and poor then when I had a good job with a great income!

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Money Reasons August 16, 2010 at 10:34 AM

I agree with Nicole too!

I’ve seen families where 1 child was much more frugal than the other, but then later the nonfrugal child catches on and become frugal too.

I’ve also see the opposite, where a friend was frugal before being married, but after being married, became a spendthrift (a sad story really). My friend is now divorced, but still kept the spendthrift ways that he learned from the his spouse. Basically his wife was in massive debt before they even got married (over $20,000), and then continued her habits, teaching him along the way to do the same…

Great post, I’ll be sure to include it in my top blogger links this weekend :)

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Money Reasons August 16, 2010 at 11:08 AM

Shoot, I clicked submit too soon.

I just wanted to add, that I wasn’t frugal when I was young. The stimulus for me was the stories that my grandmother would tell me of the “Great Depression” and how rough she had it as a child. My Grandparents were auctioneers and later owned a small retail store. They were frugal overall, but did have some nice things that they bought after they saved up the money to buy them…

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Budgeting in the Fun Stuff August 18, 2010 at 2:38 PM

I lean more towards “nurture” than “nature”. I think we may be born with inherent personality traits, but I think a person learns the rest (including frugalism). I was probably born a smart-ass, but I learned to budget via money lessons from my mom and dad and grandparents. I remember the exact moment as a kid that I came up with a cheap budget for food for when I was a college student – it was after my mom went over the budget we lived on when I was a baby and she was broke after leaving my bio-father. I think being poor or knowing how to live poor created my need for financial stability and budgets.

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