The psychology of a miser: Poor potty training blamed

To the natural miser, the ideal situation is no money is spent. [iStock]

How is it that some people can spend money without a care in the world while others feel pained at buying themselves a pair of cheap socks? Others make concoctions or buy over the counter medicines for fear of expenses that would come with visiting hospitals.

Many Kenyans, according to the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), are forced to pay backdated Sh500 monthly premiums after detention over bills becomes imminent. Yet, some are brought to the hospital in their own vehicles for which they have no problem paying annual insurance.

Well, there is a whole psychology to it, would you believe it? Those reluctant to spend, sometimes to a point of forgoing even basic comforts and necessities to save money are labelled misers: the landlord who repairs sewers instead of hiring plumbers, the food kiosk owner who faints due to hunger.

We all have examples from friends and relatives who skip lunch, walk long distances to save Sh50 and only buy new shoes after the old pair takes the form of a 45-degree wedge.  Others stick to analogue cellphones which often have no airtime though they can afford the latest smartphones.   

To save for the future, some people are known to use candles instead of electric lights while many wives are married to men who monitor food rations.

“My husband would tell me that a 2-kilogramme packet of wheat flour should provide 20 chapatis and he would count them, saying that should last three meals. He counted meat in the sufuria,” recalls a Nairobi mitumba dealer who had two children but had employed a house help.

“My hubby was earning Sh180, 000 per month, but we lived like we had a combined salary of Sh20, 000. He refused to take the children to a good school, or even hospitals. We lived in a one-bedroom house.”

Such characters have been made famous by writers including Charles Dickens who created Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser in his novella, A Christmas Carol. There is also Manna Leitao, or Money Man in the Kenyan set book, Half a Day and Other Stories.

Leitao was a moneylender, charging 40 per cent interest in two weeks, but he hardly spent his money. When he broke his leg, seeking medical attention was out of the question.

Being a miser not only compromises health. Nutrition affects children's IQ, leading to low quality of life.

Counselling psychologist Loice Okello Noo says being a miser sometimes starts during potty training as a child. During potty training, she says, a child learns being free is a biological process, but with poor potty training, a child learns to hold on. Freedom is restricted and it ends up interfering with biological development and the child grows up retaining pretty much everything.

Loice Noo adds that childhood traumas also contribute a lot to adult behaviour and thus behaviour modification that deals with unprocessed trauma is necessary.

Clinical psychologist, Jacque Gathu says there are psychoanalytic and psychosocial theories that influence the development of children with one of the more famous theories being by Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud.

Gathu says the theory “states that when a child is between 18 months and three years, there’s a stage called anal stage. They get the pleasure when they realise they can control when and where to empty their bowels.”

Freud identified the personality traits known as “anal triad” in which the people who possessed them had excessive conscientiousness and concern for neatness and cleanliness. They were also obstinate- being stubborn, rigid with a high degree of parsimony-stinginess with money and time.

Freud discovered that these traits were found in people who were emotionally charged with defecation, taking pleasure in emptying their bowels and in holding back.

Freud concluded that these anal traits originating in childhood obsession with orderliness were a reaction against their fascination with filth while obstinacy and miserliness were sublimated, or rather, were socially acceptable expressions of faecal retention.

Gathu advises parents and caregivers to be patient with the child as harsh criticism messes them up selves leads to anal retention and “people who are anal-retentive become stubborn, rigid, stingy and neat. However, these are theories that are still debated.”

Gathu, however, reckons that how people’s characters play out as adults have been inbuilt since childhood.

“If someone grew up seeing their parent struggling, without a lot to offer, if you don’t conduct self-awareness classes and understand that you don’t have to relieve what your parents went through, you grow up having the scarcity mentality.”

Gathu argues that people with a scarce mentality tend to accumulate stuff because they are scared of lacking “but what they fail to understand is that if you keep looking at life with a scarce mentality then even the more you make is not benefiting you, because you’re not making use of what you have, as you’re just accumulating and accumulating.”

Besides upbringing, historical events have also been known to create misers. Like Kenyans who suffered during the Mau war of independence when scarcity of food and basic necessities were the order of the day, are known to use animal fat than buy manufactured cooking oil, especially in Central Kenya which bore the biggest brunt.

Being a miser is a factor of interesting causes. [iStock]

Kenyans who lived in the 1980s which the UN dubbed the ‘Lost Decade’ due to scarcity of opportunities for upward mobility owing to myriad factors are also known to be obsessively touchy with money.

Miserliness is also in the mind. Behavioural scientists at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon Universities released research findings in January 2007, revealing that the region of the brain called nucleus accumbens is activated when we experience or anticipate something pleasant.

In misers, the researchers found the accumbens to respond slowly, if at all. 

On the other hand, the insula region of the brain is activated when you encounter something unpleasant - like high prices and unnecessary expenses.

The insula, scientists believe, reacts very weakly in a spender and very strongly in a tightwad.

To the natural miser, the ideal situation is no money is spent. That being impossible, the miser concentrates ferociously only when there is some measurable return from expenditure.

And misers are in every society. Like American financier, Henrietta Howland Robinson, also called Hetty Green.

The shabbily dressed ‘Witch of Wall Street’ lived in cheap lodgings but had no qualms lending the city of New York over Sh100 million to save it from bankruptcy in exchange for short-term revenue bonds during the stock market panic of 1907.

But the ‘Richest Woman in America’ refused a $150 (Sh15,000) operation to remove her hernia and when her son Ned Green contracted gangrene, she played doctor instead of taking him to the hospital. The leg was later amputated!

To the natural miser, the ideal situation is no money is spent. [iStock]

Hetty mostly ate pies that cost 15 cents and managed her business from the vault of the Seaboard National Bank in New York, amidst suitcases full of her papers to avoid paying rent for an office, according to Charles Slack’s, Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon.

Hetty Green left Sh10 billion when the 81-year-old who loved charity clinics died in 1916.

Then there was American oil billionaire J Paul Getty who installed a payphone in his Sutton Place home for his visitors. Frugal or a miser?

British management guru Robert Heller, in his book, The Age of the Common Millionaire, notes that “minginess is an occupational disease of the millionaire… the man to whom “two fifty” means half a million is likely to be obsessional about 2.50 cents as if they were all that stood between him and the workhouse.”

Gathu advises that the past shouldn't determine the present or the future and people should know that money management is key as money or resources will never be enough for those devoid of planning, but personalities can be redirected and restructured.

With poor potty training, a child learns to hold on and grows up retaining everything- Loice Okello Noo, counselling psychologist.