When I was small, we didn’t have much money. Back then, people didn’t live off credit cards. If you couldn’t afford something you saved until you could have it. We didn’t buy impulse things. We made lists for Santa, and for parents at birthday time. We got new school clothes once a year and those were put on layaway for several weeks. When early September came and we went to K-Mart or Bradless to pick up the pick box of layaway treasures it was always one of the most exciting days of the year.
I could probably name every time we ever went out to a fancy dinner. It was rare and special. When we went grocery shopping, we had a list. We didn’t buy everything on the shelf that looked yummy; we got what we needed and made it last, usually long enough until the next payday.
For entertainment we played games or went out to play or watched television. I spent a lot of time with my beagle, and my notebook in which I wrote stories. We went to the flea market and browsed. We visited family. When I was in high school I hung out at the used record shop and thrift stores and would go home with great bargains, feeling very proud of myself.
We never went on a sleep over vacation but had a few day trips to the beach, and sometimes went to the drive-in. Six dollars a car load for two movies. Not bad for a whole family.
And clothes? I remember whining because I wanted a pair of Jordache jeans when I was in the middle school. Everyone had them but they were ridiculously expensive. When somehow my parents got them I felt like the richest kid in the world. One year we saw Izod alligator patches at the flea market. I was so excited. If my mom bought those and sewed them to my cheap sweaters no one would know. She sewed one on a little high. I recall going to school and not realizing until someone told me, that my alligator was almost up on my shoulder. I fought with whomever it was that it wasn’t a fake Izod. But it was.
There were downsides to this idyllic existence. Worrying the rent wouldn’t be paid. Not having a house like all my friends. Being hungry sometimes. We didn’t starve but there wasn’t the glut of food around. We had old cars that sometimes didn’t run. For a while we didn’t have a car at all, but there was a bus and I could walk anywhere I needed to go.
The shame and longing I sometimes felt instilled in me a drive to not end up like that. I wanted to do whatever possible so my future children would have everything. So I did what a lot of people do. I got a house I couldn’t afford and took trips and bought my daughter all the name brand shoes and clothes and toys she wanted. I got myself in debt. A lot of it. I’m still working out of that. Would I do it again to save her the embarassment of being “a poor kid?” Probably, but to a lesser extent.
But there were also times in my adult life when I wasn’t living beyond my means.
When I got out of high school and got my own place, I went to college nights and worked two jobs. My apartment was tiny and I lived on Ramen Noodles. When I met Ivy’s dad, on Fridays we’d get a large pizza for six dollars. That was our big night out. When we bought a house later, he and Ivy-a toddler then- built a stone wall outside made from slate he picked up over time in the woods or the side of the road. I made crafts for people to give as Christmas gifts because we didn’t have any money. I once bought a VW Bug for $100. It never passed inspection but it was a memory. All our cars were from auctions and that was okay. It was hard time but it was real. When we split up, Ivy and I were pretty broke and when they gave food away after office lunches, those often became our dinner. We ate out sometimes but it was the dollar menu or we’d split meals or drinks. I held it together for us and it was…memorable. Me and Ivy against the world , holding our little family together and taking pleasure in the small things.
When I married the second husband, it was different. We turned my cute fixer upper into a show place. He owned nice cars. We took extravagant trips all over the world. Yes the culture was good for Ivy and me but there was never that sweetness, that special connection and excitement over bargains or stretching a chicken to last a week that came before. When we split up, I became stuck in material-things mode, bought what we wanted, took trips. Hence the debt.
Now Ryan and I are living in a cute rental house that we toy with buying. This year, 2016, I decided to become insanely frugal to save a down payment. With this process I was suddenly reminded how refreshing it feels to not spend money. To work with coupons and store hop and visit thrift stores on the 4th Saturday of the month to get fifty percent off. Getting a vintage painting for $3 is exciting. Buying a week’s groceries and vowing that that is what we are eating, reminds me of those old times. I regret forgetting where I came from because it was a place where working for what you had, and appreciating it all was the norm. It was better.
I realize now that you can make pretty good money and still be frugal, still revel in the feeling of remembering what you really need and forgoing the impulse stuff. When you strip away the thousands of dollars of wasted spending, or clicking on every Amazon ad that looks appealing, when Buy-it-now become a taboo not a habit…it’s pretty cool. It’s freeing.
There seems to be a stigma in being frugal when you don’t have to be, that is similar to being poor. People question you, look down at you when you don’t want to go out to expensive dinners or on trips. When you decide to buy most of what you need at thrift stores. When you buy cheaper bulk meat in the smaller ethnic grocery stores and refuse, again and again, to buy the luxuries. Yes, there is a marked difference between needing to do this and wanting to, but it’s brought back a long-lost feeling of peace, or earning and working for everything I buy. That victory is lost when you just buy everything you want with no patience, no waiting, charging it all and losing track of what matters.
Family matters. Working hard and following dreams matters. Saving for your future and building financial security matters. Spirituality, religious or otherwise, matters. Thousands of dollars in Amazon purchases and resturarant tabs? Not so much.