Figuring out what is a problem and what isn’t a problem is harder than it looks. And nowhere is the confusion greater than in therapy.
Meet the Frugals
Human beings have most likely obsessed about money since the moment it was invented. Much of the time, we focus on how to get more of it, in the hope that boosting our incomes will make ends meet. As intuitive as this idea sounds, many find that expenses seem to grow right along with income, while leisure, relaxation and free time disappear with frightening speed.
Then there are those who focus more on consumption than production. While this collection includes characters as diverse as Stoic philosophers and extreme couponers, I’ll lump them under the heading of “frugals.” Frugals seek to minimize and optimize consumption for a wide variety of reasons. The environmentally conscious seek to live lightly upon the earth, while the time-conscious seek to spend as little time as possible on labor, freeing themselves for leisure or other more valued pursuits. Still others avoid expensive lifestyles in a bid to remain free of economic dependence on high-income careers.
Frugality has its origins in many religious traditions, Hinduism being among the oldest. The religious motivations for frugality (usually under the synonym “asceticism”) may include a bid to gain freedom from worldly desires, or to express devotion to the divine.
Henry David Thoreau represents another branch of the frugal family tree. Thoreau scholars will remind us that while Thoreau did go into the woods to “live deliberately”, he also went back into town frequently for food and to do his laundry, highlighting a tension between the desire to be free of material trappings and the very real, very intense pull of creature comforts. Thoreau also blazed the trail for later generations of frugal (or “starving”) artists and thinkers who minimize their “day jobs” to make room for esthetic and intellectual pursuits.
Philosophy, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. We can hear echoes of the pacifist Thoreau’s philosophies echoed in the modern ultra-violence of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (and better-known as the Brad Pitt-fueled cinematic juggernaut of the same name). “Men have become tools of their tools” Thoreau warned. “What we own ends up owning us” chimes in Fight Club’s Tyler Durden.
Housing has become an increasingly large obstacle to the simple life, prompting some extreme solutions. The “tiny home” movement seeks to replace 2000-plus square foot McMansions with sub-200 square foot tiny cottages set on trailer chassis. Urbanites can also play along with a new generation of “micro apartments” that fight back against the sky-high costs of in-town living.
Yet, for all its lineage, frugality has its detractors. The Underearners Anonymous, as the name suggests, builds on 12-step principles for people who feel they’re not working hard enough or not earning enough.
While it’s popular to blame a bad job market for a crop of highly-educated young professionals who are either unemployed, underemployed, or working outside of the professions for which they trained, Underearners Anonymous diagnoses the problem as an individual, characterological failure. UA members work hard on their problem of not working hard enough. As in Alcoholics Anonymous, they go to meetings, they have sponsors, and they work through specific exercises to change how they feel about earning and using their talents.
In taking a lower-paying job, frugals see freedom and independence, as well as free time and less stress, while a UA attendee would see compulsive avoidance of real responsibility and not living up to one’s potential. Where an Underearners Anonymous member might feel pride at an all-consuming, highly lucrative job, the frugalite just shakes her head at time that could have been better spent elsewhere. To summarize, almost everything frugals count as a value, UAs see as a vice, while the UA ideal is a frugal’s nightmare.
What’s is the Problem — in Therapy?
Although frugals in all their varieties, as well as their UA detractors, are interesting in their own right, the stark contrast between the two is what I most want to discuss. If we put frugals and UA members in a room, they would each see their problem as the other side’s solution and their solution as the other side’s problem. So what is the real problem?
The answer, at least for those of us who do therapy, is that problems are largely in the eyes of the beholders, or rather, the clients. Frugals, driven by overconsumption, exhaustion, and a loss of freedom, turn away from labor and material wealth. UA members, bothered by their lack of achievement and material success, run in the opposite direction. One could even imagine someone being a frugal at one point in their lives, and inclined towards UA at a later date. Politically or philosophically it’s a fair question whether in some objective sense, efficient frugals are more virtuous than high-achieving UAs, but not in therapy. In the absence of clear harm to others, a problem is only a problem when the client decides it’s a problem.
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