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How to be a frugal moderator (aka Why I Don’t Do Challenges)

How to be a frugal moderator

Gretchen Rubin (of Happiness Project fame) has written frequently about the differences between people who are abstainers and people who are moderators.

Basically, moderators are people who get panicky at the idea of something being off limits and who are able to enjoy vices in moderation.

(They can eat two cookies and stop, but a no-cookie rule leads to eating 57.)

Abstainers find it far easier to stick with a good habit if they make hard and fast rules, and they have a hard time stopping once they start with a poor choice.

(A no-cookie rules leads to 0 cookies, but one cookie leads to 57.)

Me? I’m a moderator.

chopped chocolate for fudge sauce

The idea of giving up chocolate forever makes me want to eat All Of The Sugar, but if I know I can have chocolate, I will contentedly eat a small portion of dark chocolate after a meal and stop right there.

(This is why I will never, ever  do a Whole 30.   I would much rather make mostly healthy choices on a regular basis than set restrictive rules for myself.)

If I think I have to workout every day, I feel like I’m in prison, but if I just tell myself to exercise when I can, my 7-minute workout calendar fills up pretty nicely.

While I fall pretty hard in the moderator camp, I think all of us are a mixture, depending on what we’re talking about.   There are certain cookies that lead to 57* for me, even though I’m a moderator. 😉

*Ok, not literally.   Even I can’t eat 57 of the thin mint cookies from Aldi.   This may be because there aren’t 57 in the package…

chocolate oatmeal sandwich cookies

(not thin mint cookies. They’re chocolatey-double-crunchers)

The abstainer/moderator differentiation is often discussed when healthy habits (eating, exercising) are the topic at hand, but I’ve been thinking about how this is super applicable to frugality as well.

For instance, my friend Katy follows the Compact, which means you commit to buying nothing new for a year (although she’s been doing this for years and years).

For her, this works out really well.

But I’d be super unhappy to be locked into a set of fairly absolute rules (though you can make your own exceptions to the compact).

I mean, I do buy a lot of my things second-hand, I repair things instead of replacing them, I upcycle clothing, and I am all for reducing demand for newly manufactured items.

how to fix merillat bracket

But I like not having rules around those choices, and I like having the freedom to employ lots of different frugal tactics.

(Can’t find second-hand jeans for my tall, lanky son? I’ll be on American Eagle’s website when they have a sale.   Send me some 28x34s, please and thank you.)

Other frugal abstainer examples are 30-day spending freezes, $29 food stamp challenges, and eat-from-the-freezer-only challenges.


I know for some people, these rules provide welcome structure, and I don’t begrudge them that at all.

(I’ll be me, and you can be you.)

But for me, restrictive plans aren’t helpful.   They make me unhappy, I chafe at all the rules, and they do nothing to positively affect my long-term behavior.

I make far better choices when my choices aren’t restricted by all-or-nothing rules.

If you’re like that too, don’t feel bad!

Abstaining and doing challenges and Whole 30s and all of that is fine, but it’s not the only way to live.It’s quite possible to just chug along through life, free from absolute restrictions, making good choices most of the time.

What does frugal moderating look like?

Well, instead of an eat-from-the-freezer-only challenge, do like I did and commit to eat through your freezer, but give yourself permission to buy ingredients that help make your freezer ingredients into meals.

Instead of putting a ban on eating out, give yourself a once-a-week budget for a meal.   Knowing you have that little splurge coming up will make it way easier to cook at home the other days.

takeout pizza

Instead of committing to no spending for 30 days, give yourself a small monthly allowance for fun spending.   The promised allowance will help to keep you from feeling punished.

Instead of promising to only ever buy necessities at the grocery store, tell yourself that you can buy one fun food item each week.

the frugal girls' groceries-Aldi

You get the idea, I’m sure.   Give yourself rules, not absolute restrictions, and make sure you’ve given yourself some options for indulgence.

If you’re like a lot of moderators, having the indulgent option there will keep you on the straight and narrow, even if you don’t choose to partake of the indulgence.   It’s all about knowing that the rules you have aren’t absolute.

Basically, you have to know yourself, figure out what works for you, and then do that.

If you’re an abstainer, then jump headlong into all the challenges!

And if you’re a moderator, skip the challenges, or modify them so they’re less absolute, and you’ll be a happy camper.


Are you a moderator or an abstainer?   And how does this play out in your efforts to save money/live frugally?

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Melissa Gentry

Monday 4th of May 2020

I'm definitely a moderator, but my husband is an abstainer! It makes things tricky, for sure.


Friday 19th of February 2016

I don't like being defined or classified as an abstainer or moderator. That's far too narrow of a focus for me. It enables more Black and White thinking that the food disordered spend hours in therapy - working on being free from. One person has managed to group 1000's of people into tiny little boxes and they're all made out ticky tacky.


Thursday 21st of January 2016

Clearly this was a memorable post for me--I'm still thinking about it two weeks later! It was a real insight for me--I read an often-contentious personal finance forum and I am realizing a lot of the arguments come up when the abstainers try to hold the moderators to their personal standards (or sometimes when an abstainer and moderator are married to each other :)

One of the frustrations I sometimes have is that the majority of behavior modification advice seems to be from an abstainer point of view. Some years ago the dr. told me I needed to get my triglycerides down, and she suggested I try cutting carbs. When I went to research what that might look like, everything out there was about ultra-low-carb eating--no sugar, no baked goods, no fruit, etc. etc. I knew I'd never stick with that so I ended up creating my own plan with moderate change and sure enough, the levels ended up where they were supposed to be.


Monday 18th of January 2016

This is so me! I can't make it through a challenge to save my life. Even with small things I end up feeling sorry for myself the whole time. It was a big issue when I was trying to lose weight and I couldn't do these intense things to get my weight down. I eventually figured out that I could do it if I just restrict myself by 150 calories a day and start moderately exercising. I lost almost 20 pounds doing it that way! Thanks so much for sharing!


Friday 8th of January 2016

I'm a moderator, but with some things, I've learned not to keep them in the house. For example, if I only want to occasionally drink a Diet Coke, I can have one when I'm out. If they are in the house, I can resist, but it's a lot of effort. So I guess I'm a moderator, but need to set myself up for success.

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