Frugal but Foolish

Ken Cutler

JEFF WAS A NEW engineer who began his nuclear power career a couple of decades ago as part of my group. He’d graduated from a middling engineering school with a stellar grade point average. Quiet, though not shy, he had a serious demeanor.

Jeff had a goal of purchasing a house as soon as possible. Needless to say, this was a tall order for someone just starting his career. He lived a spartan lifestyle, trying to quickly amass as much money as possible for a down payment.

Two examples of his extreme frugality stand out in my memory. First, he favored buying expired food at a deep discount to keep his grocery bills low. One time, I noticed him eating yogurt that was a couple of weeks past its due date.

Second, he parked in the outer lot, far away from our office. As an in-house employee, he was permitted to park in the inner lot, close to our building. But he chose not to. I knew a few people who, on occasion, would purposely park in the outer lot to get some exercise with the longer walk to the office. That wasn’t Jeff’s motivation. Rather, he wanted to save money on gas by not driving the extra several hundred yards to the inner lot. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggested this ritual saved him at most three cents on gas each day.

I think Jeff might have been used to being a big fish in a small pond at school. Despite being a star at his college, his work performance in our group was nothing remarkable. I don’t think he was accustomed to getting critical feedback.

A brilliant and experienced engineer named Wes was assigned to be his mentor. Wes’s career with the company spanned more than three decades. He had a lot of important projects under his belt. Wes possessed a keen attention to detail and was an excellent writer. The first time Jeff gave something to Wes for review, it came back covered with red ink.

Jeff was not a happy camper. He unloaded to me, complaining about how unreasonable and annoying Wes was. I mostly just listened. But in the back of my mind, I recalled my own experience with Wes. As a fairly senior engineer, I often didn’t get many significant comments. Still, for one important document, Wes had been assigned as my reviewer. I got the draft back with red ink all over it.

My initial reaction was a bit of frustration mixed with denial—until I carefully read the comments. I realized that, in each case, his comments were valid. He pointed out things I hadn’t thought about and even corrected my writing in a couple of instances. I swallowed my pride, addressed his concerns and ended up with a better product. I gained a deeper respect for Wes’s abilities.

The dynamic between Jeff and Wes got worse as time went on. When updated versions of his document continued to have red ink on them, Jeff’s anger deepened. Although Wes was a consummate professional, Jeff seemed to take the feedback personally.

Jeff’s frustration with Wes as a mentor, and the nuclear power industry’s super-exacting way of doing business, got to a point where he realized the industry wasn’t for him. After two years, he found a job in a different field and put in his two weeks’ notice. He was a year shy of getting vested in his pension, which probably would have been worth in the neighborhood of $10,000. During his last week, I asked him what he planned to do with his 401(k) balance. His answer stunned me.

Jeff had not participated in the company’s 401(k) plan. For two years, he missed out on receiving a 100% company match on 5% of his salary—probably at least $6,000 in free money. I found it difficult to believe that my uber-frugal colleague had left this kind of money on the table. He shrugged off the loss.

The point here is not to pick on Jeff. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my day. The financial lesson illustrated here is that often we tend to focus on things that matter little, while neglecting considerations of far greater consequence.

As I wrote in a previous article, saving a bit of money on groceries is a fun pastime for me. Still, in the grand scheme of things, the money I’ve saved with those efforts is dwarfed by the opportunities I’ve missed by playing it safe and holding too much in cash investments.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Follow Ken on X @Nuke_Ken and check out his earlier articles.

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