It seems as though lately, everyone is talking about money and how to make it, save it, stretch it, invest it, or just not spend it in the first place. It has even gained popularity in the Jewish community–check out Kosher on a Budget, which daily posts a long list of coupons, sales, and even tips on how to get the most for your money. Being frugal isn’t just for the poor anymore, either. It’s hip now to wear hand-me-downs (so long as you call them “vintage wear”, of course) and recycling isn’t just for post-depression grandparents–it’s the only politically correct thing to do! In fact in my county it’s mandatory and you can be fined for not separating the trash from the recyclables, which actually leaves personal conviction for being “green” totally out of the equation.
Frugal is the new black, and I like to think that Amy Dacyczyn, author of the much beloved Tightwad Gazzette and America’s most famous penny pincher of the early 90s, is sitting around with a big smile on her face.
Food, housing, and travel costs have all gone up and jobs are becoming harder and harder to find and keep. Regardless of the statistics they keep showing us to try and convince us that the unemployment rate is going down, many of us find ourselves having to adjust our previous notions of luxury and necessity. On some level, when the economy changes, it effects us all, so it’s really no wonder the couponing and thrifty tip blogs, articles, and even TV shows have seemed to double recently! Everyone wants to feel they are a part of the solution. Not spending money and learning to live with less certainly seems to be the logical approach. How could saving money possibly be a bad thing?
Okay, so it’s clear I am no economist here, and to be honest statistics and numbers–though fascinating as they may be to some–make my head hurt. I’m not a math girl. But I don’t think it takes a statistician to question if these approaches actually benefit us. National economy aside, what proof do we have that extreme couponing, shopping sales, and stock piling foods actually help our personal economy? Does it just keep us busy? Make us feel productive? I can’t help but get a vision of the hamster on the wheel–lots of effort with little pay off. Unless, I suppose, you happen to enjoy stationary running.
This is where I admit that I don’t coupon or spend hours driving from store to store trying to save $0.42 on a box of cereal or get a two-for-one deal on toothpaste. And you’d be hard-pressed to find me bidding on anything on eBay. To be honest, I’m too busy with working from home, homeschooling, and being 36 weeks pregnant to traipse around town all day looking for all the best deals. Heck, I couldn’t afford the gas even if I wanted to! (If anyone has any good tips on how to buy gas in bulk for a discount, let me know.)
But this wasn’t always my life! There was a time when I was a stay-at-home mom to one easy-going toddler with a lot of time on my hands to fill and a need to feel like I was doing something productive for our financial future. I would often drive to town browsing around the mall for great deals and then discount stores to search the clearance racks for next year’s clothing for my son. For hours every Sunday afternoon I went through grocery stores’ ads and fliers, cutting coupons and planning my week’s menu. To be honest, it was fun–a sort of scavenger hunt that served to keep us busy Monday through Friday. The rest of the time I kept plenty busy by baking and freezing meals for future use. (The internet wasn’t as interesting back then.)
I became some kind of super-mom who never threw away leftovers and always had a coupon ready for the rare outing we did take as a family. I actually felt really good about myself. I was also naively sure that this thrifty lifestyle I was leading would ensure we ended up with the life I always dreamed of. Here we come, financial security!
Of course that was over 12 years (and 3.5 kids) ago, and though my husband and I do make more money than we did in our early 20s, our ratio of work to bills hasn’t really gotten any better. I don’t think our savings account has ever had more than $5,000 in it at one time. I don’t own my own home, nor invest in a 401K. My college savings plan is to hope I have a rich relative out there I don’t know about that will decide to leave my kids with a lofty inheritance.
On the plus side, I have zero consumer debt!
My definition of “frugal” has certainly evolved, as have my ideas on the relationship between self-worth and a lower grocery bill. Though I can’t deny that I have a real appreciation for the value of a dollar, I can’t but help recognize my very negative association with money in general. Mainly–a constant fear of not having enough coupled with incessant guilt if I have more than someone else in need. Can this really be a healthy mind-set?
Does the allure of future financial security promised by the tightwad lifestyle give us a false sense of accomplishment? I strictly practiced all of those dollar-stretching, meal-planning methods for years and never once saved up enough to buy a car, much less an entire house. In all honesty, I feel a bit discouraged and a little misled. Which makes me wonder, are we only hearing about the success stories–you know, the people who scrimp and save for 10 years and then buy their own organic llama farm? Is this kind of hope for financial stability in the midst of such economic instability even realistic?
I can’t deny that my extreme tight-wad phase was very helpful in my long-term goal of becoming a more conscientious consumer. I still keep as few lights on as possible, I rarely buy new clothing for anyone in my family, and my kids don’t seem to mind too much that our van is held together by duct tape and prayers. And of course, I want my kids to know how to value what they have, how to make it last, and how to appreciate hard work. But I also don’t want them growing up thinking that having or spending money is inherently wrong.
I’m not saying I think we should give our children everything they can possibly dream of, I’m just no longer convinced that purposefully withholding things from our kids inherently makes them better people or promises them a future free of financial stress and obligation.