Peppy Ways to Fight Budget Burnout

Do you suffer from budget burnout? Are you weary of worrying? Do you feel like the pennies you're pinching are starting to pinch back?

What you may be suffering from is a newly diagnosed disorder called "frugal fatigue." No, it isn't likely to be recognized by the American Medical Association anytime soon. But far too many recession-roiled Americans know the symptoms: feverish financial fears, debt-drenched night sweats and elevated levels of economic anxiety.

Frugal fatigue has probably always been with us. But the economic shocks of the last few years have made the malady more widespread and brought it out in the open, says Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or NFCC. In January, more than 70% of respondents to an NFCC website poll said they had "frugal fatigue," though the term wasn't specifically defined. Two-thirds said they had no choice but to stay the course on frugality.

Forced frugality has been "a significant lifestyle change" for many people, Cunningham says. "You're denied what you want." Even more debilitating is the fact that "you're having to think about it all the time. You're absorbed almost to the point of distraction."

Certainly, frugality itself isn't bad. Households should focus on spending habits and budgeting in good times as well as bad. But taken to an extreme it can produce frugal fatigue, which prevents you from enjoying the good things in your life that a recession can't sweep away. It might also produce dangerous behavior like rash spending, similar to how crash diets give way to eating binges.

The good news is, you can treat this disorder yourself and enjoy a lifestyle that's fun and frugal. But just as hundreds of viruses cause the common cold, frugal fatigue is brought on by many different situations. Proper diagnosis of what's causing your frugal fatigue is the first step to finding the right remedy.

Where to begin?

Start with group therapy, Cunningham says. Financial fears and frustrations can seem worse if you keep them internalized. That produces feelings of isolation, which contributes to frugal fatigue. So consumers should open up and talk about their feelings with their family, a trusted friend or their financial adviser. A personal support network -- built by you -- can be strong medicine for frugal fatigue.

"A joint effort yields a greater result," Cunningham says. It's OK to share concerns with your children, though not to the point of scaring them. Think of it as "a teachable moment" to develop their coping skills, since inevitably they'll face their own financial challenges as adults.

But maybe it's not a conversation you want. Maybe it's happy hour with an old friend or a meal in a restaurant that uses flatware made of metal.

Just do it. One symptom of frugal fatigue is the feeling that any type of fun is unaffordable or selfish. But treating yourself to small indulgences on a regular basis is a great antidote to frugal fatigue, says Rebecca Schreiber, a financial planner at Solid Ground Financial Planning in Silver Spring, Md.

No, don't order a round for the house when you meet your friend for drinks. And skip the chateaubriand, for that matter. But a regular series of affordable indulgences can make a frugal lifestyle much more palatable than joylessly sacrificing for a big, far-off reward like a well-funded retirement. Be "good to yourself often instead of being good to yourself once," Schreiber says.

Ronit Rogoszinski, a wealth adviser in Long Island, N.Y., for Arch Financial Group, concurs. She advises regularly scheduling perks like a shopping trip or night out, and says reasonable splurges may even help people stay on their budgetary track. "You're not just being frugal endlessly forever, but you know you're going to get something positive out of it," she says.

Needs and Wants

A classic symptom of frugal fatigue is simply feeling powerless, particularly if frugality doesn't come natural to you -- or was forced upon you by a trauma like a job loss. Reassessing your life as well as your budget may be your prescription. "It's a hard pill to swallow," Rogoszinski says. "It really goes back to sitting down and looking over (your priorities)."

An older, unemployed worker may need a creative approach to professional reinvention in order to bring in more income. Or perhaps you don't have a revenue problem -- you have a spending problem. "What are some things that aren't negotiable to you?" Rogoszinksi says. "Do you really need that or do you just want it?" If your budget has you constantly holding your breath, you need to develop one where you aren't always waiting to exhale.

Finally, a long-term perspective helps. Economic cycles turn. Circumstances change. The Great Recession produced an epidemic of frugal fatigue. It's reasonable to expect the recovery will help many victims recover. "At the end of the day," Rogoszinski says, "it's temporary, and you'll get through it."