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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My Thoughts: The Thrifty Life

These days, it seems to be de rigueur to be thrifty (or at least pretend to be). Everyone is talking about the economy and how bad it is. News stories are filled with examples of how people are "cutting back" and lamenting on the luxuries they must forgo. Message boards and chat groups congregate with suggestions of how to survive these lean times, as many Americans, for the first time in many cases, are really worrying about how to budget their money. 

I admit to being frankly surprised that there are so many people who have no idea how to budget their money and are absolutely clueless that they can actually cook their own meals (what?? Food can be prepared in your own home?!? GASP!) or that it's possible to even grow some of your own food. Even more so, that many people now can only buy what they can afford!!

It may be somewhat mean, but I cannot help but laugh indulgently at some of these poor naive souls. As a person who has lived her entire life being frugal, I admit to feeling a little, teeny bit smug that for people like me (us thrifty souls!) are finding little difference in our way of living. We may be tooting our own horns a bit (I know I am!), but there is some satisfaction in knowing that unlike many Americans, we thrifty folks are faring much better in this downturn in the economy. Ipso facto: I was frugal before it was 'cool' to be frugal.

My upbringing was, of course, mostly responsible for this. My parents were very thrifty folks and I learned from them some of the most important lessons I use today. Take credit cards, for instance. I have one credit card, for emergencies only. My parents were always very outspoken about the use (and abuse) of credit cards. They figured that if you don't have the cash to actually purchase the item in question, then you can't afford to buy it. Simple. Taking out a loan was only acceptable for buying a very large, expensive item, like a house, or if necessary, to go to school for a higher education. Even purchasing a car was not really deemed an acceptable reason for taking out a loan, but if necessary, then you bought  a used car (oh-excuse me--a pre-owned car)  not a new car and certainly not without putting down a significant amount of cash that you had ardorously saved for such a purchase. The result of this teaching is obvious: I am 38 years old and have never owned a new car and certainly never a fancy, expensive car. Why would I need one anyway? So I can drive around looking cool in my fancy car? All I need is a car that runs and gets me to where I'm going (and doesn't look too awful, of course.)

Unlike many of my friends, who all started getting married and buying houses in their twenties, I did not purchase my first home until the age of 36. And I had been saving money for my down payment, little by little, over a period of twelve years. I have known many people who thought I was crazy. Some may have laughed at me secretly behind my back. I'm sure some of these people aren't laughing anymore, when they are saddled with huge mortgages they can no longer afford to pay, especially when they bought a house more pricey than they could actually afford, because they wanted a big, new, fancy house like 'everyone else' has. This unfortunate affliction of buying and living beyond your means seems to have been the way of life for many people for many years, I am now seeing.  

In my parent's day and my grandparent's day, they would not have batted an eyelash at my twelve years of saving money for my future house and the waiting and waiting that went with it. Many people from that era were well-schooled in the ways of making do with very little. You had to be. That, and saving everything. My grandparents were in their teens during the Great Depression; an age that is very impressionable. A decade or more of "making do", coupled with their humble circumstances, both in the homes where they grew up and later, as young marrieds, left them with a lifelong ability to find ways to live on very little. My grandfather's parents were not rich; they were poor Polish immigrants from Chicago, lured to central Wisconsin by the offer of cheap land at the turn of the century, where they grew potatoes and were never rich. My grandmother's family were also Polish immigrants who came to America with nothing. They were city folks; my great-grandfather was a house painter who earned a meager living that didn't much support his family of five children. In all the genealogical research I've done on my mother's family and my father's family, going back generations, I have found nobody who was affluent. Just a bunch of frugal folks who worked hard, saved what they could, and lived within their means, even if their "means" were very small.

My parents were married shortly after my mother graduated from college in 1968. She worked an after school job during high school at a bakery from the time she was 16 to save money for college. She was also lucky enough to get a scholarship to help pay for college, since my grandparents didn't have money to give her. My father was in the Marines. After he finished his service about a year after they married, he worked three jobs. They lived in a tiny, rented house with two bedrooms and a big vegetable garden in back. This was their home until 1973, when they were able to build a house, using money they had been saving for the last five years of their marriage. My mother was an excellent sewer; she had used to make all her own clothes in high school and when my brother was born in 1969 and me in 1970, she sewed clothes for us too. Everything else we wore was from rummage sales, or hand-me-downs from other people who had children of a similar age. She and my father would go out only once a year; to dinner for their wedding anniversary. 
After moving into the new house in 1973, my parents put in a HUGE garden. They also planted many fruit trees. Much of my childhood was spent working in the garden in summer and picking fruit from the orchard. They grew everything. What wasn't immediately consumed at dinner, was either canned as preserves or frozen. My mother also used to make her own pickles and jams and jellies. We never had to buy these things from the store. I'm sure it saved them a lot of money. Two younger sisters were born after me, one in 1973 and one in 1976. All my rummage-sale clothes were then handed down to my younger sisters when I outgrew them. It was very rare for us to get clothing that was new. My brother, being the only boy, was lucky that he didn't have to share his clothes (or his room), but he seldom got new clothes either.

Eventually, my parents' financial situation improved. My father started his own business in 1974 and after the first couple of shaky years, it took off and became very successful. But even with success, they never did change their base thriftiness and all their frugal ways passed down to me and my siblings; lessons that I am glad I learned. And when I say frugal, I don't mean cheap. There's a huge difference there.
My husband and I are not wealthy or even affluent; we don't have jobs that pay huge salaries. We're just average, hard-working, blue collar people who occasionally splurge on a small luxury or two (like a weekend trip to Vegas), but for the most part, we live the frugal life like many before us have, not always because we want to, but because we have to.

 Sometimes I admit I get tired of coupon-clipping my way through life, always looking for sales, wishing that I could take a real vacation somewhere ( I haven't had a real vacation in over 10 yrs), envying others who have more; but right about now I'm pretty happy because when most of America is struggling with these lean times and wondering how they are going to manage to handle the 'downsizing' of their lives, this "dealing with less" is really no different than how I've been living pretty much my whole adult life.  You certainly can't miss what you never had!

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