There once lived a little girl who lived in a small town in southeastern Wisconsin. Her dad was a mechanic and welder for a world-wide waste disposal company in northern Illinois. Her mom was a homemaker for about ten years until she went back to school around age 30 and earned her accounting degree.
The reason for this tale is to teach you what the little girl learned from her parents. It’s important because frugality, responsibility and discipline aren’t learned in a day or a week or even a college course. These are lifestyle attitudes — modeled daily by parents — the most significant influence in their children’s lives. We adopt these habits and attitudes through very little explicit instruction, instead internalizing learned behaviors and eventually making them our own.
Reflect for a moment about your own parents and memories of their interactions with money. How did they respond when you were out shopping with them at the store, and begged desperately to purchase something? What kinds of gifts did you get for your birthday? Christmas? What did they teach you about charitable giving? In short, how did they spend their hard earned money? What did they value?
I can tell you this. I am where I am today because my parents simply lacked the money to indulge their five children. Having no choice is sometimes a good thing. Back in the 1980’s there were credit cards, though I never saw my mom use one. My recollection of mom’s spending was her whipping out the check book for nearly all purchases. This meant she had no choice but to be careful with expenditures. If spending outpaced earnings mom would be left with a negative number on her register which was simply out of the question. So we’d do without, put stuff back on the shelf, and buy only the necessities with an occasional splurge.
Fast forward for a moment to the 21st century. Even with so-called “credit card reform” – plastic is still readily available and debt rampant. For most Americans, conspicuous consumption is difficult to get under control — especially for those who don’t understand basic math, or feel compelled to participate in “lifestyle inflation”.
As I mentioned above my dad had a “good” paying union job as a welder and mechanic. And by good, I mean he earned a livable wage that supported a family of seven’s basic needs with enough left over for a modest amount of savings and recreation. Mom stayed home for most of my childhood, though I do recall her peddling things like Avon or dabbling in real estate to supplement the family income. The best part about this once upon a time tale is that I had a fulfilling childhood. Sure, I wore second hand clothes and rode second hand bikes and we drove around town in big, clunky used cars; but we ate good, smelled good, and took many memory-making, camping trips in the old, black Ford Econoline.
I never rode on an airplane until age 17, but you know what? It didn’t affect me adversely at all. My parents gave us all happy childhoods on (for the most part) one middle class income.
Do you want to know what would have probably affected me adversely as a kid? If my parents had projected their constant stress and bickering over money onto me. If they’d gone deeply in-debt trying to “keep up with the Joneses” and give their kids the life they never had…blah blah blah. I saw many childhood friends experience divorce, mostly because of their parents’ misery, regret, and inability to keep spending under control, no matter how much they earned. Now that’s sad.
Mom and Dad bought their modest three bedroom 1.5 bath ranch in 1975 for $35,000. My dad was a competent self-taught carpenter on the side, adding two bedrooms, a playroom and a rec-room to our basement over the years. In 1984 they put on a $10,000 addition to add a little more square footage to the homestead. Sometime in the mid 80’s my dad had a little celebration. He called us all into the kitchen and announced the mortgage on our home was officially paid off. He made a point of educating me on the importance of this, but at the time, I honestly didn’t give a shit. I was pre-occupied with other things in my life, like Jordache jeans and pet rocks. I remember though how important this event was to him and that’s why I remember it today.
But, it’s not about a one time event. I had many happy birthdays, lots of great toys like Cabbage Patch Dolls and Atari. My parents could afford, with careful budgeting and saving, just about anything, they just couldn’t afford everything. And by practicing frugality day after day, Dad proved what small saving habits could compound into: an entire home – paid off – within ten years. Think it can’t be done in this day and age? Stay tuned.