Confessions of an Out-of-Control Penny-Pincher


two women holding hands on the beach at sunsetIn the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.

Today, one woman shares how her constant anxiety over money caused her to go overboard with her frugal habits, which adversely affected her life in many ways.

I was a pretty lucky child growing up in a suburb of New Orleans. I attended summer camp, went to private schools and learned to play the piano and dance ballet. With their upper-middle class incomes, my parents were able to provide for me in a way that many families can’t.

But while I never knew what it was like to want for anything, my parents did think it was important for me to learn the value of money. Once I became a teenager, they encouraged me to get a part-time job, so I could foot the bill for hanging out with my friends and any shopping excursions. At 14, I got my first gig as a babysitter, moving on to restaurant host and day-care worker during the rest of my high school years.

My paychecks were mine to manage, and I had my own checking account. By the time I graduated, I felt financially independent because I was responsible for all my own spending money.

So I naturally figured I would be able to juggle jobs with school in much the same way once I got to college. But college was a totally different world—and it didn’t take me long to realize that “having enough” would take on a whole new meaning.

My Path to Obsessive Penny-Pinching

In the fall of 2007, I entered Barnard College in New York City. And although I was a straight-A student in high school, keeping up with undergraduate coursework was decidedly more difficult.

From 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., I attended classes, studied, wrote papers and managed to sneak in meals. Unlike many of my fellow classmates, my parents didn’t give me spending money. They took care of my tuition, room and board, and plane tickets home, but I was responsible for scrounging up money for day-to-day expenses.

Because of my nonstop schoolwork, I could work only on the weekends. By my senior year I’d held a medley of odd jobs: babysitter, translator, English tutor, dog sitter, house sitter, model and personal organizer. I never made a lot of money—$200 a week at most—and that didn’t go very far in Manhattan.

As a result, I developed some extremely frugal habits that helped me reduce my spending and save some of the little money I was making—but also launched me on a path to a near-crippling obsession with cutting costs.

RELATED: Your 5-Point Plan to Prevent Financial Stress From Keeping You Up At Night

  • papillon

    You don’t sound like you were out of control, you sound like you were barely scraping by. If you truly could only afford bagels for her birthday, she should have been grateful for the gift and you should stop beating yourself up about it.

    Being poor is hard enough, now we’re supposed to feel guilty about it too?

    • Elaine

      I get the feeling that she wasn’t truly poor, she was just stuck in ‘The Depression’ mentality – i.e. won’t spend a penny, even though there were pennies that could be spent. While I agree that a night in a hotel in New York City and dinner, etc. might have been out of the question on Victorine’s salary, surely a more meaningful gift than a bagel would have been in order. Granted, I don’t require fancy gifts, much less expect them, but at that stage in a relationship it’s a different story, and often people equate money with love. Yes, it’s important to get past that, but sometimes you have to get through it first.

      Victorine, you’ve learned so many important lessons so early in life; you should be proud of both your thrifty ways and your learning to let go when it’s important.

      • papillon

        Victorine was bringing home $1600/month. I don’t see where she had extra pennies to spend but maybe I missed it?

        • Elaine

          I agree, she doesn’t have a LOT of pennies. But if you read the last paragraph, she herself admits that the occasional splurge wouldn’t have been her downfall. When it’s the exception and not the rule it can be an enjoyable experience.

    • theleakypen

      It’s definitely not good to shame people for what they can/can’t afford, but it sounds to me like this person *could* afford more than she was willing to spend on and was artificially living below poverty level.

      That said, this is one of the big reasons I don’t want to live in NYC when I finish my fellowship next July. It’s just prohibitively expensive for people starting out.

  • mostlywentzel

    I think it’s great that you learned how to be frugal at such a young age. There is nothing wrong with that. I don’t know if your partner is as good at financial planning as you are, but in any relationship, it’s a good thing if at least one partner is cautious. I’m the cautious one in mine. My husband would just buy everything he could if I let him. But he balances me – he reminds me that it’s OK to treat myself. I make sure we cover what we need, and then with the extra, we treat ourselves. Keep doing what you are doing. Just remember to set financial goals, and when you meet them (as a couple), treat yourselves (as a couple). You’re in it together.

  • ew

    I regret reading this stupid article

    • SO

      I totally agree!

  • ford

    It sounds like you were very wise in your financial matters. However, cookies for breakfast are a bit much. Sometimes we cut corners in one area, just to cut corners in another area — our health. However, in an age where same sex relationships are acceptible, you kind of lost me when you mentioned your female friend, then you mentioned marriage.

    • pamb

      I don’t understand your point. First you say that same sex relationships are acceptable, they you say she lost you when she said she was married. Which is it? I was momentarily surprised when she mentioned the name of her partner, and I realized that it was a woman, but what’s the big deal?

  • MoneyLaa

    I don’t see her frugal spending as a problem. More of a brag.

  • David Rae

    Good job getting the emergency fund, and retirement account started. Being financially responsible can be hard,

  • bgoode

    Not out of control, but it was a sad life. Could you imagine if you had got hit by a taxi and that was the end? You died a boring life. I’m glad you changed your ways to make your relationship better. One thing I caught… “I have enough savings to cover myself for five months if I lost my job.” Sounds like that would come out of the mouth of someone who is single.