Question for Readers: When Does Frugal Become Embarrassing?

As part of a new normal here of featuring my readers, I thought we’d start off with this question sent to me by Daisy.

A drawing of Daisy's family by her three-year-old


“I didn’t enjoy being part of a frugal family as a child. I was conspicuous and just wanted to fit in. I never had the ‘right’ clothes and my lunch box was strictly home-made. No processed pre-packaged items like the rest of the kids.

“I did grow up in the eighties, which was definitely a time of conspicuous consumption and things have certainly changed. Home made is cool (again? for the first time?) and people are wary of processing, packaging, preservatives, pesticides, etc.

“It is no longer an insult to say that your mom makes your clothes, but I’m guessing it will never be cool to have your mom cut your hair.

“Despite the embarrassment I felt as a child, I too have become quite frugal. I see the benefits of what my parents did, but I’m doing things a bit differently. I’m trying to find a balance that suits me and my family

“When does being frugal go too far or become embarrassing?”

Good question! While my parents weren’t particularly frugal, like Daisy’s, I did feel pretty goobery.

The popular kids ate cheetos, Wonder bread PB&Js, and oreos from their Dukes of Hazard tin lunchboxes. I had carrot and celery sticks and sandy all-natural peanut butter on multi-grain bread in a red plaid lunchbox. I didn’t get to stay up late playing ghost in the graveyard or watching Love Boat.

Me reading my cousin's comic book at age 9 (1978)

It’s so funny, because just like Daisy, I have adopted the same embarrassing practices with my own children. They take healthy (sometimes strange) food to school, they don’t watch TV shows, and they aren’t allowed to stay up late unless it’s a sleepover or New Year’s Eve.

So here is another question:

Is it OK to embarrass your children in order to do things your way, uphold your values, or save money for your own retirement?

Please let us know in the comments!

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  • Kim December 29, 2011, 9:53 pm

    When I was in school if one of the poorer kids got something that was trendy that all the rich kids had. The rich kids would still try to one up them by saying theirs cost more.

    • Amy December 29, 2011, 10:02 pm

      Hi Kim,

      That’s unbelievable! Kids are so crafty. I guess the trendy stuff was a way of trying to stay on top and distinguish themselves, but I feel bad for the poorer kids.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Daisy September 1, 2011, 8:05 am

    This was my question and it has been great to read the opinions people have posted.

    I think the point of being frugal is to avoid spending money unnecessarily so that you have money for the important things. I liked what Sarah said about how important it is to her kids to have the Dora stuff or the flashing light shoes. I realise the things that are important to children might seem silly to me.

    Hopefully I will be able to find a good balance with my children. Teach them to be sensible with money, but not make them feel deprived.

  • Gayle August 28, 2011, 11:15 pm

    OMG, I love that pic of you, Amy! So cute!!

    • Amy August 29, 2011, 9:22 am

      Funny, right? I asked my dad to find an embarrassing picture of me when I was little, and he came up with this one. I’m convinced that he could have found much more embarrassing ones than this, however!

  • SleeplessinSummerville August 22, 2011, 11:28 am

    This is a good question and it’s an important one to think about now that we have children to think about. What’s most important in all this is to be frugal and teach your kids about it, but we also have to give them a say in it. There is no telling what children will be looked down on for at your child’s particular school. It was hard growing up being broke and attending private school at the same time, but the thing that strikes me in looking back on everything was (my parents were divorced) that both parents had to live within their means, but one took great care to try to get me things she knew I really wanted and that were important to me, even though I was just a kid and my preferences must have seemed silly. And the other one was (and remains) simply an inconsiderate person who would use the money/frugality issue to justify not buying things I wanted that were deemed frivolous. As an adult I realize this person’s priorities in life were seriously askew and that is the reason he wished to avoid spending additional money on me.
    As an adult, I am quite cheap (right now I look it, too), but I know that if I want my son to learn my values, I have to value his feelings too. So we will talk about money and talk about how sometimes we have to choose between two things we really want because we can only afford one and I will give him a choice about how I spend money on him.

    • Amy August 23, 2011, 11:10 am

      Hi Sleepless,

      That does sound tough going to private school and feeling self-concious about your lifestyle. I think you are taking a common sense approach: sticking to your budget but explaining what’s going on to your children and valuing their feelings.

      Thanks for writing in!

  • Sarah August 22, 2011, 4:10 am

    I found this post really interesting. I grew up in a family with plenty of money, but my mom stayed home and thus it was a matter of pride for her to only send home-made lunches, etc, to school. I was born in 1981. Now of course I am glad I didn’t get fed a bunch of processed crap while my brain was still developing but I do remember longing for those little bags of chips and fruit snacks. I don’t remember feeling embarassed, but I was jealous occasionally. We never bought thrift-store clothes but we weren’t allowed to get stuff that she thought was too tacky/trendy-looking. I never felt like I looked “cool” like the popular kids, although the clothes were nice quality. I now have two little kids and I let them wear stuff that’s plastered with Spiderman, Hello Kitty, Dora, etc because I know it’s important to them. Even though I would prefer to dress them exclusively in Ralph Lauren, haha, they would rather have the junky Disney clothes.

    • Amy August 23, 2011, 11:07 am

      Hi Sarah,

      I totally identify with what you are saying about not having the same symbols of pop culture as the other kids did.

      It’s not easy to sacrifice our own tastes in order to please our kids, and I admire your courage.

      Thanks for writing in,

      • Sarah August 24, 2011, 2:42 am

        Yes, here’s to pop culture!
        One another thing that suddenly came to mind was that for several of my preschool/elementary school years I REALLY wanted shoes with 2 velcro straps instead of laces. My mother, thinking (quite rightly) that they were ugly, never let me get them, and bought me shoes which I am sure were much cuter. But the cool kids had velcro, and I wanted it too.
        Now my kids have cheapo Velcro strap shoes with blinking lights and tacky Disney characters, and they love them. I think they are super ugly but it makes them happy (and popular?).

  • Lisa @Granola Catholic August 21, 2011, 10:55 pm

    Absolutely. While I don’t think we would intentionally embarrass our children to hurt them, they may go through a time when they are embarrassed by our life style choices. We do many things that other average and ordinary families do not. However, my children are not average and ordinary. They love going to the farmer’s markets and thrifting. My teenager has a keen interest in natural beauty products and makes her own. (It seems cider vinegar can cure many beauty problems). My children seem to be enjoying our unconventional lifestyle.

    • Amy August 23, 2011, 11:03 am

      Hi Lisa,

      I agree — we aren’t trying to embarrass our kids, but sometimes it happens because we go against the grain. Usually, however, these lifestyle choices are either out of necessity or because we really believe in something. Eventually kids will come around to see our side!

      Thanks Lisa,

  • Vanessa Jubis August 20, 2011, 11:11 pm

    Hi Amy!

    Great post! This is my first comment to your fabulous blog (yay!). I’m raising my daughters with the notion that if you can have something for less and its just as good as something ‘new’, then why not? I shop at our local children’s consignment store and the girls LOVE it. They’re always eager to find a ‘new’ gently used dress or cute shoes (they are 7, 5 & 3). They don’t feel embarrassed at all because I’ve made this a ‘normal’ thing for us to shop second hand. As a matter of fact, my eldest (7) offers up her two cents (no pun intended-LOL) about something we may have picked up with a ‘Mommy got this (blank) at the consignment shop and only paid four bucks!’ There you have it :)

    I love your blog and I’ve recently read you on Babble! Congrats!


    • Amy August 23, 2011, 11:02 am

      Hi Vanessa,

      Yay, I’m so happy you wrote in too! I loved hearing about how you make thrift store shopping normal and fun in your household, and how the kids get into the whole bargain thing.

      Good for you — and thank you for stopping by!


  • Joan August 18, 2011, 12:02 pm

    Being frugal provides you freedom, as it allows you to save more and not be tied to spending your every last dollar. My husband lost his engineering job 3 times, before the current recession, and not once did we have to sell off the furniture. He was out between those losses an entire year and a half.

    Living within your means is critical today- especially since the economy is very unstable. Shop Aldi’s, Build Lots, Kohl’s awesome sales…and ignore the labels. I spend what I feel is appropriate for school clothes with a few new itmes but it’s not like they have nothing left from last year. If the kids want expensive labels – they have to pay- YES go out and babysit , do chores… If THEY pay they realize $ doesn’t fall from trees!!!!

    Good luck

  • Samantha @ Let's Get Digital August 17, 2011, 7:29 pm

    I don’t think this is a problem until middle school. Kids that are different will be made to feel different by the mainstream. Just the way it is. And unfortunately, when something is trendy, I really don’t think there is any acceptable substitute. My mother refused to buy anything trendy, period. It created some big battles and a lot of bad feelings. One of the many reasons why I have every finger and toe crossed that by the time my son enters middle school, his public charter school will be offering those grades as well. Why – school uniforms!!

    • Amy August 17, 2011, 9:16 pm

      Hi Samantha,

      You are so right about how substitutes don’t cut it in terms of trends. It HAS to be that certain brand, or it’s all over.

      In light of all this, school uniforms sound so enticing! I wish we had those too.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Jen @ Jen Spends August 16, 2011, 11:12 pm

    I love this post–for some reason I was just thinking about this very subject earlier today! I can definitely relate to Daisy, having grown up in the 80’s in a low-income household. There were times when kids at school made fun of me for my odd thrift store clothing or if I wore the same outfit too frequently. Kids can be so cruel. Of course I grew up to see the wisdom in a lot of my parents’ choices, but some of the negatives had a lasting impact that I am still trying to shake. My son isn’t in school yet, so I have no idea if he’ll face the kind of issues that I did, or exactly how I will be raising him at that point. I do feel, though, that it’s very very important for parents to be involved and aware of how their children are feeling. I want to instill in him a lot of the same values that my parents taught me, but if there is a way that I can make him feel more comfortable around his peers without betraying those values or living beyond our means, then I will do everything in my power. I plan to do what I can to keep up with the times, so that even if I have to do his school shopping at thrift stores, he won’t look outdated or dorky. He will definitely be toting healthy lunches rather than processed junk, but I can make it seem “cooler” by preparing or packaging it in a fun way. Most of all, I want to instill self-confidence in my son and explain to him why we make the choices we do. I know he won’t sail through school worry-free, and he won’t appreciate a lot of my opinions until he’s much older, but I hope he will feel comfortable being a little bit different. I want him to be a leader.

    I don’t really have an answer to any of the questions, but I think the embarrassment factor can be mitigated if parents pay attention to their children’s preferences and concerns, and work to find solutions that fit within the framework of their values. Never settle. Thanks to all the creative ideas on the internet, I think it’s easier than ever!

    • Amy August 17, 2011, 9:14 pm

      Hi Jen,

      This is all great food for thought.

      My heart went out to you when I heard that people would make fun of you for your clothing.

      Your approach to your own son’s upbringing sounds right on to me: mindful money saving, explaining and involving, and sticking to your values.

      Thanks for sharing your story!