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Fighting frugal fatigue

Is all this scrimping and saving getting tiresome? One man hits the wall.

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / November 19, 2009

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For the past year, Stephanie Anderson drove her aging-but-paid-for Eagle Talon as a badge of frugal honor. Recession and employment uncertainly scuttled all dreams of a sporty new car. Like many Americans, she thought big purchases were a thing of the past as the economic sky continued its freefall.

But something in Anderson snapped last weekend when a broken ball joint left her Talon undriveable. Instead of dragging the car to a mechanic, she traded in her clunky wheels for something a bit flashier - a 2010 Mini Cooper.

“I have definitely hit the wall with frugal fatigue,’’ she said. “I ordered a new Mini without a trace of guilt.’’

Anderson, who is chief spokesperson at Sylvania in Danvers, may be an extreme case, but it seems that after a year of watching our wallets, bank accounts, and 401(k) plans with the tenacity of a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, some are throwing up their hands, taking out their credit cards, and wading back into pre-recession spending habits. The official term for this behavior is frugal fatigue. It started creeping into the lexicon last spring, and now frugal fatigue - the idea that we’re getting worn down and stressed out by constantly watching our budgets - may as well be an officially diagnosed psychiatric disorder.

“The idea of frugal fatigue is certainly plausible,’’ says Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona. “Anything that is perceived as a burden and stressor that persists over an extended period of time is very likely to cause detrimental effects on physical and emotional well-being.’’

Cilona says symptoms of frugal fatigue can be as extreme as anxiety, fear, and even colds, flu, and depression.

This analysis of frugal fatigue was brought on by my own behavior. When it began to look like my next residence would be a well appointed refrigerator box with a scenic view of the underside of the Southeast Expressway, my carefree and lazy afternoons of shopping came to a very quick halt and I took on the existence of a monk - sans sandals.

But about a month ago, I found myself breaking out my credit card again when a pair of killer boots were practically screaming my name through cyberspace. Out it came again when I saw the perfect navy sweater. At some level I knew this was wrong, but it was almost a relief to buy a treat for myself.

“When the recession started, people viewed frugality as something novel and fun,’’ says psychotherapist Dr. Thea Lobell. “Frugal spending was hip and chic. Just like a shiny new toy that has lost its luster, being frugal is no longer fresh.’’

The evidence of frugal fatigue can be seen most clearly in sluggish economic recovery numbers. Consumer spending is outpacing job recovery. The danger of frugal fatigue, especially as we are catapulted into the holiday shopping season, is that shoppers will spend more simply because it feels so darn good. It’s the retail equivalent of getting bombed at the office holiday party because the Peppermint Choco-Tinis are irresistibly tasty, and then waking up the next morning with a headache and the phone number of that co-worker who collects porcelain clowns.

Not everyone agrees with the theory of frugal fatigue. There are dyed-in-the-Rayon bargain shoppers who are loving the new climate of taut purse strings. Mary Hall, who runs the blog the Recessionista (www.therecessionista.blogspot.com), tells me that traffic at her site is up more than 30 percent and that “I can tell you unequivocally that frugal fatigue has not yet set in.’’

But most of the experts I talked to told me that frugal fatigue is something they are seeing in increasing numbers, and it’s not going away soon. Matt Wallaert, a behavioral psychologist who specializes in consumerism, says budgeting can help fend off frugal fatigue. He compared the scenario to dieting: If you gradually dip from 2,500 calories a day to 2,300, you’ll have a better success rate than an extreme drop of 2,500 calories a day to 1,500. It’s the same with your budget. If you cut out all your favorites, eventually you’ll start rebounding, and may even spend more out of sheer stress.

“One of the ways we have to combat this is to remind people that things are not super terrible. They may be bad, but they’re manageable,’’ he says.

His advice: Don’t deny yourself the occasional small, inexpensive pleasure. In the end, they may end up saving you from buying a pair of expensive boots when they start calling your name from the Internet.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.