When Did We Decide Being “Good at Money” Meant Not Spending It?

Here’s a question…

When did we decide being “good at money” meant not spending it?

When did that become the goal. The badge of honour. The sign you’ve made it. Congratulations, you’ve arrived at your destination, please exit to your left, the end.

I can’t seem to get far into a personal finance blog without reading the words, “I’m going to lose my personal finance card this, but…” or, “bad personal finance expert, but…” because they’d just spent money on something they—or perhaps more accurately they worry others—deem expensive.

They ate out when they could have eaten at home. They got the pricier hotel room. They bought a new purse. A fancy one, with a label and everything.

Sometimes it’s said as a joke. But often it reflects a sincere guilt that frankly, I find concerning.

Where did this narrative come from? Why is that our conditioned response? Why is the personal finance community feeding this culture of judgment we’re trying so hard to get away from?

If there’s one thing personal finance doesn’t need, it’s more shame.

Being good at money doesn’t mean you don’t spend it.

And not spending it doesn’t make you good at money.

Frugality isn’t some virtuous badge. It can just as easily be a crutch, a vice, a way to hide. A box to tick without actually tackling the underlying habits, emotions, and fears that drive you.

Being good at money has very little to do with tangible indicators like budgets and account balances. It’s a mindset. An internal process. And it’s constant.

There’s no endpoint. No definitive, Aha! Look everyone, I’ve made it.

People don’t like that. Because it can’t be measured. It can’t be boiled down to visible, laddered achievements. It’s not fun to talk about. It doesn’t fit neatly in a box.

It’s a lot like being happy. You’re the only one who knows if you are.

Though we try our damnest—with happiness, money, and anything else in life worth pursuing—there’s no external yard stick we can point to and know we’ve made it. No formula, metric, or app can tell you where you are on that journey. You and you alone have the answer.

Which is why self-awareness is so important. Why it’s important to teach people to cultivate that, not just teach them hard and fast rules like “keep your spending under x percent of your income”. To do that we need to look far beyond the boundaries of what we think personal finance is.

We need to empower people, not rules.
We need to teach people how to think, not what to do.

We need to teach people what questions to ask, not what answers to look for.

Ya. It’s uncomfortable.

It means you can’t just throw a template over it and bam *dusts hands together* you’re sorted. Disagree? That’s fair. But with all the readily available resources and budgets and frameworks… why isn’t everyone getting this stuff? Why isn’t everyone saving and investing and feeling good about their money? If the content’s all there, why aren’t people implementing it?

Obviously, it’s not that simple. There’s more to it.

So even if we don’t have answers, can we acknowledge there’s room in this industry for better questions and start asking them?

We need to lean into this discomfort. Because ignoring it isn’t serving anyone.

Oh look, a winding muddy path to a beach which could be delightful or entirely disappointing and we won’t know until we’re there. Fitting, yes? Taken at the Scarborough Bluffs in, well, Scarborough, this summer. 


About the author

Kate Smalley

Kate is a marketer, maker, and freelancer living in Toronto. She works with small businesses to help them narrow in on their purpose, share their ideas, and tell their story.

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  • Oh my gosh I have so many thoughts on this!

    All of my purses are expensive ones. But! I haven’t bought a single purse this year and all of them have lasted for many years. One of them I already have under $1 CPW after 2-3 years and I’m sure the others will get there. Sometimes buying nice things mean you get to make fewer decisions because they last longer!

    My husband and I bought a brand-new leather sectional last fall and it is absolutely incredible and we love it to bits, far more than you should really love a couch. I’m certain it will last us for decades. Unlike my prior cheap fabric couch. Someone told me I should turn in my frugal card just for hiring an interior designer. My husband and I made the conscious decision that it was cheaper to hire one and re-furnish the living room than to sell the condo, buy a bigger place, and move. (It totally was. A bigger place would have cost us an additional $200-400k.)

    People like to harp on weddings too. But I am SO excited for our reception – incredibly glad we didn’t just elope and that be the end of it! You can’t fully put a price tag on sharing the joy with all of your close friends and family. For our city and the size of our families, I think we’re not doing too badly with the costs of it.

    • Oh man, all for this! You have to feel good about how you spend your money. If you’re always looking around waiting for someone else’s stamp of approval… misery awaits hah.

      Like you’re saying, this is all about CHOICE. Awareness, conscious decisions. That’s the important bit that’s easily overlooked. Just saw Luxe Strategist’s post on expensive clothes and OH MY HEAVENS so good. http://www.theluxestrategist.com/buying-expensive-clothes-not-just-status-symbols/

      I find it incredibly ironic that a community that’s trying to offer an alternative to the traditional finance world that’s riddled with shame and judgment and fear… is, well, riddled with shame and judgment and fear. Not all of it obviously! That’s a massive blanket statement… Just, it’s still happening and I don’t think we always see that we’re doing it. We don’t mean to.

      Sigh.. so many thoughts. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Fantastic post. I personally have an axe to grind against frugality bloggers, as almost all of them (okay, us) gloss over the inconvenient fact that their incomes are usually way above average. So, sure, if that’s the case frugality suddenly seems like all you need. It is a virtue.

    But we might acknowledge the fact that this won’t work for everyone, or even most people. When the median individual income is right around 30k, a focus on spending (or rather, showing how you’re good at money because you didn’t spend X percent of your income, as you put it) is NUTS. And insulting. And tone deaf.

    • Thanks so much!

      Ya, there’s a whole lot of ways to look at this. I’m liking the use of tone deaf haha that really hits it.

      It’s hard to share your opinions/beliefs and how you do things while acknowledging it doesn’t work for everyone, or not being judgemental. I struggle with that for sure. I guess the first step, like you’re saying, is being aware of these things and acknowledging them. This is WHY is works for me, etc.

  • I’m certainly guilty of falling into this trap myself. Part of it is because I’m not pulling in fistfuls of money from my job and I am still actively trying to quit my ingrained spending habits, so in some ways spending money does have an effect on my bottom line that month. But you know what, I’m doing just fine, and it’s not like I’m spending money I don’t actually have. But I still sometimes feel like I fail (especially as a PF blogger) if I do spend money on something that’s not the basics. It becomes an “oh damn, I’m going to have to justify this in my monthly spending report, aren’t I?” thing, as opposed to just something I bought because I thought about it and decided for whatever reason I wanted or needed it. I’m trying to get away from that guilt of spending money period to just making sure every purchase I make is a conscious one.

    • Conscious spending, I’m all for that 🙂 It’s not nice to spend money on something you feel good about and then to have in the back of your mind.. “I’m going to have to justify that.”

  • This is such a good question.
    And I can’t help but think of my grandparents and their generation- always worrying (and saving) because they lived through the Great Depression. And they accumulated so much and much of it passed to the baby boomers who were happy to spend it all. I think it can be hard to strike a balance between smart and Frugal vs. YOLO and reckless.

    Great question!

    • Definitely hard. I think about that too, it’s interesting where we get our money mindsets from and how those change across generations. Balance… what a loaded word haha.

  • Such an important post, Kate! We can get caught up in metrics and yardsticks, not understanding the why and not producing lasting/meaningful change. ‘Teaching people how to think (for themselves), not what to do’ is an awesome statement. Thanks for writing and sharing!

  • Great article Kate. I love the premise of it. I fall into the “no spending” trap often, and I am trying to snap out of it. I’ve learned over the last year that it is okay to spend your hard earned, saved money, for those experiences that you want or things that will add some sort of value to your life. You save so you can afford to create those memories, and I think that is sometimes what is missed. We are too focused on seeing our accounts increase that we miss the forest from the trees (couldn’t resist inserting that cliche, it fit too well haha). I saw another commenter talk about spending on their wedding reception. It is okay. You can be frugal about it, sure. But the right answer isn’t to forgo a wedding reception just to save money (unless that’s what you want). People sohuld spend on what they value and what they want. You’re right. There isn’t a one size fits all answer to budgeting or saving and each person’s situation, values, and life preferences are different. We must treat it this way!

    Phew – thanks again for the amazing read!

    Bert, One of the Dividend Diplomats

    • Thanks so much for sharing this, Bert! That cliche totally applies haha. I say to myself often, “don’t lose the picture for the frame.”

      It’s hard, I have an obsessive personality so it can be easy for me to want to lean on black and white rules. That serves me in some areas of my life but not so much in others… Yup, we have to remember the importance of making those memories that can’t be measured.

  • Great article in so many ways. Basically, let’s all do what’s right for ourselves and families and just support one another. Thanks for sharing this affirming perspective! 🙂

  • Fantastic! I know I love my fine dining or luxury goods while still save or give >40%. So I don’t do reviews. So when it’s something scary (being deem expensive or personal security reasons) I just need to hide them under all the budget, knowing that I got things under control (even if I could have did better).

  • Amen! When I’m on podcasts or talking to other people that the whole point of being better with money means spending it on your values, and not necessarily about spending less, I get looks. Yes, you’ll naturally spend less overall, but just because you spend money on a designer purse, doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Heck, I used to stay in 5-star hotels as a hobby and I’m still good financially 🙂

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