Cheapness is often about fear and control


A Wave reader in Ocean Pines writes:


Dear Dr. Hurd,

I saved your column from last year about how to handle money problems in a relationship. Your insight is most valuable, but my problem goes further than that.

My husband is a tightwad. I have tried to make it better by saying ‘thrifty,’ or ‘cautious,’ but he is just plain cheap. In the rare moments we dine out, he leaves a 10% tip (calculated to the penny); hasn’t bought new clothes since (at least) the Nixon administration, and whines over every bill. We are not poor, but he makes me feel guilty about enjoying what we were supposedly earning for a comfortable retirement. Even a simple trip to the grocery store elicits complaints and grumbling. Why does he act like this, and is there anything I can do about it?

I hope my email reaches you through our ancient, hamster-powered computer.


Dear Reader,

First of all, I want to caution you about something. You say your husband ‘makes’ you feel guilty. Nobody can MAKE you feel guilty about anything. The reason you feel guilty is because you allow yourself to feel guilty. Instead of feeling guilty, point out to yourself how you worked hard for your retirement, and that you deserve to spend your money. I recognize that your husband makes this task more difficult, but you’re still free to live your life as you see fit, even if he chooses to live his differently. It would be better if you and he agreed, but you still have to do what’s best for yourself.

I suggest that you be prepared to do things alone or with other people who don’t act the way he acts. Calmly let him know that you’re going to the grocery store without him. When he asks why, don’t become defensive. Tell him, in a calm and factual tone, that when he comes with you, you notice that he seems unhappy. In all honesty, you don’t enjoy his company when he’s miserable and grumbling, so you’d just rather go without him.

The point isn’t to punish him. The point is to simply be honest while holding him accountable for his actions. It’s healthy for us to be held accountable for our actions. It brings us more in touch with reality and challenges us to grow beyond our weak points. This is part of what a loving spouse does (or should do).

You don’t have to argue with him. If he invites you to become hostile or defensive, simply remain calm and say, ‘That’s how I feel. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.’ When leaving a tip, make up the shortage with your own money. Systematically override his cheapness. Don’t be afraid to tell him that he embarrasses you. Let him know that even though you otherwise love him, you’re ashamed of this part of his personality.

Although I’m clearly advising you not to excuse your husband’s cheap behavior, I encourage you to try and understand it. I can’t say for sure what personal experiences and thinking habits made him that way, but generally speaking, people are cheap because of fear and/or a need to control.

Concern about running out of money is not an unreasonable fear to have. But what cheap people forget is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to become poor overnight. People who face personal bankruptcy (mostly, I am told, from credit card debt) will acknowledge that they simply should have paid more attention to their finances before disaster ‘snuck up’ on them. So, if you pay attention in a rational way, you’re not likely to ever encounter financial ruin. Cheap people feel like they have to stay petrified because staying petrified will somehow protect them. Sadly, all it ‘protects’ them from is living a happy life.

Cheapness can also be about control. Some people have an irrational need to exercise control over others. It gives them a ‘high’ or a ‘rush’—an unhealthy one, but a high nonetheless. What better way to impose control than to keep a tight grip on the purse strings!

Yet, even control is ultimately rooted in fear. People who try to control others are, beneath the grouchy surface, deeply frightened. They lack self-esteem, and feel a constant sense of losing power over their destinies. Though many turn to alcohol, drugs, or other compulsive behaviors, some begin to obsessively manage the household finances. They can benefit from psychological help—if they are willing to see themselves as vulnerable and suffering from some form of anxiety disorder. But nobody can force them into it. The only thing you can do is to stop trying to change him, but don’t let him ruin your time, either.

We’re all entitled to have fun and enjoy life. Refusing to tolerate this obsessive behavior shows the controlling spouse that you have self-respect. It’s a win-win. If he backs down a little, great. If he doesn’t, you can still enjoy your activities, as you deserve to do, minus his grousing and penny-pinching.