Tuesday, April 24, 2012


For some time now, I've been considering writing a post about being tight with money. Because the thing is, we as a family do quite a few ridiculous-sounding things in the name of saving a buck. And sometimes in the middle of, say, cutting my dryer sheets in half, I step back and think about how funny I must look, considering I bought that box of dryer sheets on sale with a coupon for a quarter in the first place.

And so it goes. CFL's in all those light fixtures! Thermal drapes on those windows! I hope you brought your sweater, because we're keeping the heat under 65 this winter! We make our own super-cheap laundry detergent, rinse and reuse plastic food-storage bags, and I've been known to cut the containers of our toiletries open in order to scrape the last little bit out of the bottom of the bottle. Our poor kids may not recognize the existence of professional barbers and beauticians, because everyone in our family but me gets home haircuts. The kids' clothes are purchased a year ahead, at the end of the season, on clearance, with a coupon, and probably a promotional code for free shipping. Which means that, fashion-wise, they're both SO last-year. And the instant they outgrow those outfits I'm gonna yard-sale them for as much as I can possibly squeeze out of them.

Why do we do this? That is definitely a question Kyle asked me after hanging a load of clothes out to line-dry one 100-degree day last summer (Seriously, people, do you know how much energy that dryer uses?!).

Sometimes, it's just kind of a fun game. I like to say that if shopping were an Olympic sport I would totally bring home the gold. It feels nice to get a good deal, and pasta that cost 8 cents a box really does taste better somehow. I enjoy the challenge of seeing exactly how long I can go without paying real money for toothpaste, or trying to beat last April's electricity usage. And it's a game that allowed us to live debt-free on just one teacher's salary in the first years after the kids were born.

Sometimes it makes for an interesting experience. This past year, on the evening of Thanksgiving I took my mother-in-law to a doorbuster sale at Walmart so I could get Eva a $4 Princess Belle doll. Just seeing that circus, and the totally incredulous look on Barb's face, was a story worth way more than the 11 bucks I saved. And she got into it as well, sweet-talking all the people with loaded carts into letting the crazy lady standing in line for one doll (that's right, Lady Behind Me, I heard you whispering) go ahead of them. The year before, I introduced our international student to Black Friday shopping, and got such a kick out of watching him exclaim in disbelief over the things Americans are willing to do to get a good deal.

Sometimes, though, I do it because it kind of hurts not to. My friend Madeline and I were talking last week about our dishwasher-loading philosophies, and she tends to take the side of my husband, claiming that if it's too full or not loaded in a systematic way the water cannot get to all the dishes. But me? I must fill that washer until there's not room for even another spoon, because I cannot stand the fact that we would spend the water and the soap pod on just a small amount of dishes. In the same way, I cannot bear to pay full price for clothing, knowing that in just a few weeks it will go on sale.

I think being tight with money has just been ingrained in me my whole life. I spent much of my childhood making fun of my dad for saying things like, “Do you think I own the electric company? Turn that light off when you leave the room!” The air conditioning was kept at 80 degrees (78 if we begged). He fixed things around the house himself, even if that meant he had to "fix" it several times to get it working again, and scoffed at our requests for fancy or frivolous toys and clothes. But he made converts out of my brother and I, who are now as adults fairly conscious spenders (we'll forgive Ian's recent sports car purchase). We are definitely members of the 79-degree air conditioning club, and when I see a light left on I have to admit that I catch myself muttering under my breath about the need to buy Ameren UE stock.

Last week, my father's mother passed away. In discussing her death with my brother, he said something like, “You have to admit, we probably owe our money management skills to Grandma in a way.” And as I thought about it, I realized that this was true. My grandmother lived during the Great Depression, and was one of those people who never threw anything away. As kids we would laugh at how she saved the wrappers from loaves of bread (“...that will make a good lunch bucket for somebody...”) and baby food jars (because what else would she put all the old screws and nails and washers she was saving in?). She gardened and cooked from scratch and cut around the bad spots in her fruit instead of tossing it. She didn't wear fancy clothes or drive fancy cars or probably ever say anything like “Oh, let's just splurge!”

Also last week, I happened to read something about the difference between being cheap and being frugal. The author argued that there is a difference, and that cheap people save their money not for enjoyment, but to feel superior or secure in having saved it, while frugal people save their money in order to funnel it toward better things, like having fun or being responsible and generous with others.

Growing up, I always thought of my father and grandmother as cheap, but now I must revise that and say they are frugal. Because as practical with money as they are and were, they've always been generous with their family in terms of both money and time. My grandmother sent me and every other member of her large Catholic family a birthday card with 20 dollars every year for most of her life. She set aside an inheritance for all her kids and grandkids. Growing up, my father always got me what I needed for school and for sports and extracurricular activities. He helped pay for my first car, my education, my wedding, and a thousand other things. I've never been made to feel guilty about taking money or asked to worry about where the money was going to come from.

One of my favorite childhood memories involves the end of practically every visit we had with my grandmother. She and my father would have the gas-money argument. She would offer him a few bills to offset the cost of the visit, and he'd wave her hand away. "Naw, you keep your money," Dad would say. "Ohh, now! You just take it. Buy some supper with it if you don't need it for gas." "Nope. No, thank you!" Back and forth they would go. On at least one occasion Dad saw Grandma coming out to the driveway with money in her hand and said, "Run, kids!!" As we dashed to the car she would stick the cash under the windshield wiper. Dad would roll down the window to pull the money out and throw it back at her, and she'd grab it and shove it through the window before he could get the window back up. And so it went; two people who wouldn't spend money on themselves trying to ensure that the other had what they needed.

Unfortunately, I think that many times “cheap” is the better word to describe my behavior. As I left my father's house after the funeral this weekend, I just accepted the gas money he tried to put in Eva's pocket. Maybe I've learned that my father is more stubborn then I on this issue, and am just resigned to the fact that he'll hide the money in my car if I turn it down. But part of me knows that it's difficult for me to adjust our budget to account for the unplanned trip, not because we can't afford the extra money, but because I'm too rigidly attached to our spending plan.

As recession-trendy as it is right now to use coupons and be resourceful, I find that it's not always the best for my state of mind. I sometimes catch myself plotting about how I can save money so I'll have all this security, as if money will save me from all ills. I can have a difficult time buying gifts for others, because my standard of how much is appropriate to spend on a friend or family member is influenced by my always-scrimping mindset. It's hard for me to allow myself something I want that is full-priced, even on my birthday with money I've received as a gift. Our oven actually started on fire last week, and our water heater is on its last leg, but taking the money for replacements out of our savings account (specifically designated for emergencies like these) is so stressful for me that I feel I must read every review and pour over ever price at every store in order to save even a few dollars and make the very best decision. I often pay a fortune in time and stress in order to save a little in cash.

And so I find myself, the queen of saving money, learning how to instead let it go a little.

1 comment:

  1. This was such a good post! I read it yesterday and have been thinking about it today. Good thoughts to tell the difference between frugal and cheap.