Every year on July 11, 7-11 offers free Slurpees. And every year, I take my kids to get some. This year, since we were staying in Brighton Beach, the annual acquisition required marching my 13, 8, and 5-year-olds half an hour each way in the midday heat, over a highway underpass, through a vaguely sketchy neighborhood–and back, all for a gratis cup of crushed ice, sugar, and water.
It was at this point it occurred to me that my lifelong, complicated relationship with money might stand some… reevaluating.
Because it’s not just free Slurpees that make me do crazy things. I also have marked on my calendar National Free Doughnut Day, Ben & Jerry’s Free Scoop Day, and Haagen-Dazs’s, too. I know every free movie screening in New York City, the best public library theater, art and science programs for kids, which museums are truly pay what you wish (MET) and which ones will pretend they don’t know what you’re talking about (MoMA).
But, that’s not all. At one point a few years ago, I looked at my youngest child and realized the only item she was currently wearing that could honestly be said to belong to her was her diaper. Everything else, from coat to shirt to pants to shoes to socks, was a hand-me-down. (And, keep in mind, she’s the little sister of two brothers.) I hunt thrift shops and Salvation Army stores for bargains–for the kids, that is. For myself, I have literally not bought a new item of clothing or shoes since 2007. (In fact, my oldest son and I share a pair of winter boots–which I got free when I worked the 1998 Olympics–since we are currently the same size.)
In lieu of a hair stylist, I have my mother take a pair of kitchen shears to my bangs every few months. Dinner is contingent on whatever happens to be on sale that week, and I pack the leftovers for my kids’ lunches. If the lunch goes to school with them, I wash out the plastic bags and use them again. And the bags themselves are already re-used bread wrappers. We also have been known to drink from repurposed yogurt containers.
We dilute one bottle of dishwashing liquid into several. I rip paper napkins in half to make them last longer. We use toilet paper instead of tissues for runny noses. My youngest kids take baths together and then the rest of us just add more hot water for our turns.
We don’t own a car (and if it’s less than 40 blocks away, we walk to save subway fare) or have cable or a video-gaming system. All the buttons have fallen off our one TV, and it now can only be turned on by remote control–which is bound together with masking tape and the numbers have been rubbed off to the point where I had to redraw them with White-Out. I have been led to believe that I am the last person in America without a cell phone.
It has also been suggested that this might be a problem.
I have taken the suggestion under consideration. (Especially post the 7-11 incident.)
I am cheap. I know this. I embrace it. I’m comfortable with it.
Maybe it’s because I spent the first seven years of my life packed into a Soviet communal apartment room smaller than what Mayor Bloomberg recently decreed is the minimal acceptable space for one person (and I lived in it with both my parents). So I know that a lot of the things many believe are mandatory to survival simply… aren’t. Both my husband and I currently have so much more than we were born with, that we simply consider ourselves incredibly lucky and grateful, and we stress that to our kids at every turn. (My oldest’s trip to Russia really helped on that score.)
Or maybe it’s because, when my family first came to the United States, we didn’t have a small amount of money, or a minimal amount of money, we had no money. And I am terrified of ever going back to that place again.
Maybe it’s because I’m a control freak who perversely enjoys depriving myself like Hetty Green, the famous miser who was worth millions but lived in an unheated room, subsisting only on oatmeal. (For the record, I am neither worth millions, nor fond of oatmeal. I do, however, enjoy a pleasantly cool room.)
Maybe it’s because I have no clue who the Joneses are and why in the world I should care about keeping up with them.
Or maybe it’s because I’m a mean mommy who doesn’t want her kids to have any fun.
We live in New York City. That means that, between school and temple and other extra-curricular activities, my sons and daughter have friends who have their own rooms (mine share), who live in pent-houses and private mansions, who have chauffeurs–and jets.
When my kids want to know why so-and-so lives one way while we live another, I respond, “Because their families made one set of choices about careers and priorities. There is nothing wrong with that. Daddy and I chose to do jobs we love that don’t pay as much. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. If, when you grow up, you want to make different decisions from us, that will be up to you.”
I do worry if I’ve gone too far on occasions like earlier this summer, when, after receiving a Disney gift card for covering an event, I took my kids to their store in Times Square and told them they could pick anything they wanted.
“Anything?” My daughter kept glancing timidly over her shoulder whenever she spotted a new item. “Don’t you want to see how much it costs, first?”
(The funny part is, even when given free reign, my kids couldn’t think of enough things they wanted to max out the card!)
I know the score. Too much of anything, even frugality, can be a bad thing. It can lead to neurosis and obsession, and next thing you realize, you’re being dug out from beneath old newspapers for a Very Special Episode of Hoarders. (I don’t save newspapers. Because I don’t buy them. I do get the free ones. After reading, they can be used for a variety of art projects, including make-shift paint brushes!)
There’s also the cliché: Jews are miserly. Jews are cheap.
“Some are,” I tell my kids. “Some aren’t.” And then we talk about why, historically, those libels were started in the first place.
Am I passing on my twisted relationship with money to them? I have absolutely no doubt that I am.
Will this hurt or help them in the long run? I don’t know.
All I can cling to is the hope that everything will work out, based on what my 8-year-old told me after he finished reading Robinson Crusoe.
“You know, Mommy, I was thinking: Robinson Crusoe didn’t have everything he wanted on his island. But, he had everything he needed. So it was okay.”