Did you ditch the TV? Watch out for the neighbors.

Why trashing the TV and other acts of frugality often create a backlash from friends and neighbors.

Richard B. Levine/Newscom/File
A discarded analog television set awaiting pickup by the sanitation department in New York in 2009. Telling people you've ditched your TV or made other radical steps to simplify your life can provoke strong negative reactions.

As you might recall, last Sunday, I reviewed a book I quite liked entitled The Joy of Less by Francine Jay, who blogs over at the quite enjoyable miss minimalist. My book review got the attention of several more popular blogs, including Lifehacker, which chose to link to one of Jay’s more intriguing posts, 100 Things I Don’t Own. The resulting furor caused Jay to actually eliminate much of the post, stating simply:

A few months ago, I published a tongue-in-cheek post entitled “100 Things I Don’t Own.” It was meant to be a fun, light-hearted twist on the popular “100 Thing Challenge.” Unfortunately, it has recently caused some controversy; and since I never intended to offend or upset anyone with it, I’ve decided to remove it.

My lifestyle is unique, and I can understand why the post might be upsetting to some if taken out of context. My husband and I share a 500-square-foot apartment, and simply find life to be much easier when we don’t have a lot of stuff. We recently moved to London, and spend much of our free time exploring this beautiful city.

I live a minimalist lifestyle because it makes me happy, and would certainly never judge anyone else by what (or how much) they own. I’m just trying to keep my own life as simple and uncluttered as possible, so that I have the time and energy to truly appreciate it.

So why am I mentioning this? One of the commenters over at Lifehacker asked a question that left me thinking deeply about minimalism, frugality, and confrontation. Here’s what kbbales01 had to say:

Several commenters have noted that an article about reducing possessions generates strongly negative, even angry, comment. I’d love to hear more discussion about this, for example those who felt angry or dismissive after reading her article – what made you feel this way? I’m not making judgements, I am just really curious about talk about stuff can motivate emotional reactions.

In my own experience (and I have plenty of stuff!) as a person who doesn’t have a TV, I find that when someone says “did you see X” and I simply reply, “no, sorry, I don’t have a TV” – there is often a very defensive reaction, and a long rationalizing response, ie, “I only watch PBS! There’s a lot of good stuff, etc etc.” What’s that about?

I see this type of response pretty regularly. Whenever I mention doing something that’s outside the norm – like making laundry detergent or striving to make under-$1 meals at home – I get emails and comments strongly criticizing what I’m doing. It’s so routine at this point that, frankly, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to enraged negativity because it’s not worth my time or energy (think of “the boy who cried wolf”).

Why, though? Why do people get upset when they see someone else doing something that’s radically different than their own life choices? I have a few explanations for it.

First of all, the status quo bias is pretty strong – and often stronger than we think. To put it simply, the status quo bias means that people choose to do the same things they’ve always done unless there’s a strongly compelling reason to do things differently. For many people, saving a bit of money on each laundry load or striving to make a very low cost but still healthy meal is not a compelling enough reason to do things differently.

Tied in with that is the basic human instinct to avoid loss rather than to gain. It’s called loss aversion and it’s a heavily-known cognitive bias. Again and again, people would rather avoid any kind of loss than gain anything. This is why you see massive stock selloffs whenever the market takes a dip – and you see commentators talking apocalyptically during a normal economic down cycle. It’s also why you see people thinking things like, “Yeah, I could save $50 a month, but I don’t want to lose the possibility of getting off work early and having the house be perfectly cool when I arrive, so I’ll not bother programming the thermostat.” People are usually more interested in avoiding loss – in other words, keeping the house always cool so they don’t “lose” the ability to come home to a cool house mid-afternoon – than gain – that $50 a month they’d save on their energy bill.

The big one, though, is the Lake Wobegon effect, or illusive superiority. People constantly overestimate their positive qualities, abilities, way of life, and possessions in comparison to others, resulting in a sense that they’re above average in most ways. Thus, if someone else is doing something distinctly different than them, they must be doing it wrong.

The Simple Dollar largely attracts readers who are at least somewhat frugal. Why? People who are frugal think that what I write about is normal and it reinforces the above biases for them. People who are not frugal, on the other hand, think what I write about is not normal and want either to alert me of it or feel superior to me because my way is different than theirs. Because they believe their way is right, they’re often offended that I don’t do things their way.

Guess what? That’s normal.

One of the big reasons I write The Simple Dollar is to show that a normal person has a normal life that incorporates financial responsibility and frugality. People who stick around for more than an article or two quickly realize that I have hobbies and passions and interests, that I dote on my wife and children, and that I have a lot of foibles and quirks (for example, I still want to use the word “unthaw”). I put things that I do and learn out there for one reason and one reason alone: for you to pick and choose among them to find ideas and things to make your life better.

Yes, in some ways, I’m sure you believe you’re doing some things better than I am. But here’s the thing – the reverse of that isn’t true. A typical writer – like me – sharing details about what I’m doing doesn’t have any idea what you’re doing. I don’t know what you buy for laundry detergent or how you wash your dishes or the decision-making process you’ve made for daycare. All I can know is what I’m doing and how I would handle some situation – and all I can do is share that.

If you feel that it’s some sort of judgment against you … well, that’s essentially impossible. I don’t know the specifics of your situation, what you value, what you believe in, or anything else. I only have a handful of tiny assumptions about my readers – mostly that they’re usually trying to better their lives in some fashion. Beyond that, I can’t possibly judge you. All I can do is share, and sharing is the farthest thing from judging.

If I do something different than what you do, make up your own mind about it. I can only see what I do and share what I do. You can see both what you do and what I do and you can decide for yourself which way is best for you. Maybe your way is better – I have no way of knowing.

That’s the idea behind most advice writers you read out there – me, other personal finance (and related issue) bloggers, book writers, and so on. We only know what we know and we can’t know your specific ideas or ways of thinking or ways of doing things. If you feel like you’re being judged, that’s not our doing. Instead, step back and ask yourself if you can’t learn something from this. Why do you feel judged by a statement of what someone else is doing who does not know what you’re doing at all? Dig into that and you might find some things that will change your life. I ask myself that very question quite a bit, and exploring it is almost always rewarding.

Miss Minimalist, you’ve reduced your possessions beyond a level that I would feel comfortable with. I wouldn’t do what you are doing and, yes, I think my way of doing things is better. However, seeing what you do gives me food for thought, and I’ll keep reading. I think that’s always the healthy way to approach new information and advice that’s given openly and reasonably.

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