“My friend said I should get a laptop. He does a lot of work on his computer.”
“Well, you told me you didn’t like to use the computer in that room because it’s cold. If you had a laptop, you could use it anywhere in the house.”
“Well, yeah, it’s cold. I turn the heater on in that room, but by the time it heats up, it’s time for bed. I could put the heat on up there, but who wants to heat all those rooms when I just need to use one?”
That’s my dad. He’s not poor anymore. Not since he was a kid. Just cheap. His whole life is about money. In the same phone call, he told me he was not going to travel to Argentina because he couldn’t find a hotel room for under $200 a night. He could easily afford that price, but he doesn’t want to spend the money. He’s 81 and he could spend money enjoying his last years, but he’d rather spend his last years trying to hold onto his money.
I have paid dearly for his frugality. His computer sits in my old bedroom and he’s not kidding: it’s cold. The room is on the outside corner of the house, above the garage, so cold air envelops it. When I got home from school in the winter, I’d have to crawl under the covers to stay warm until dinner. When I was younger, I’d go into my parents’ bedroom and turn up the heat, but when my father got home, he’d yell at me for wasting his money. I got tired of the daily tirade, so I just spent my afternoons in bed.
When I was in grade school, we had “the blue car.” It was a Chevy Malibu my father bought when he married my mother, or shortly before that. After many icy, salty New York winters, the driver’s side floorboards rotted through, so there was a hole under the pedals. The car still ran, so my father patched the floorboards with an old snow shovel. He drove it that way for years. On cold days, we could feel a draft coming up from the driver’s feet. In the summer, it was kind of a reverse convertible.
My mother was the total fiscal opposite of my father. She lived to spend money. I think it was her revenge for my father’s despised frugality. She taught piano to local kids after school, so her days were free and she spent them shopping. When I was young, we spent days and days in furniture stores, for years, it felt like, looking for the right end table. As I got older, I’d get home from school and find an A&S bag on my bed with four sweaters in it, in a couple of different sizes, different styles, to try. My mother would return the ones I didn’t want. There was no limit to her spending. Passion for fashion was the only thing we really had in common, so that was our mother-daughter bonding time. In junior high I authored an outfit chart, organizing my wardrobe so that I could avoid repeating outfits during the school year.
And now I worry that Matt and I have stepped into my parents’ fiscal roles. We’re different – Matt’s not cheap and I don’t do any vengeful spending, but Matt does make the bulk of the money and I do most of the shopping. For the past three years, we’ve focused on paying off debt. For the first 2 ½ years, we focused solely on the credit card. Just days after we got it to zero, I found a vacation deal we couldn’t resist. A week in Hawaii, a few days at sea, drops us off two hours from home and the deal clincher – free babysitting! All it took was a few grand on the credit card. So now we’re back on the hamster wheel of debt. And when we focus on curing debt, we don’t spend money on the things we want until the debt is paid.
It’s not the debt or even the refusal to spend money that worries me. It’s the obsessive focus on funds that carries me back to frugal hell. Ninety percent of my father’s conversation revolves around money. Always has. If he’s not specifically discussing money, some part of the dialogue will take a fiscal turn. For example, he might say something like, “Mrs. Brown died last week. I saw it in the paper. The service was today at the funeral home in Mahopac. She was a nice lady. She had a Maltese she used to walk around the neighborhood. I was going to go but why would I? I don’t know her family. I didn’t send any flowers because why should I spend $50 for three carnations to sit on top of a grave?”
Matt and I don’t talk like that but I have caught myself throwing financial statements into non-financial conversations and it scares me. I also tend toward deprivation if I feel money’s tight. I won’t buy that bottle of water no matter how dire the thirst. I have free water at home. I’ll go without eggs and coffee until I feel flush again. I’ll make myself crazy crossing off un-bought groceries from my list because I’m afraid I’ll spend too much and be left with nothing. I get obsessed and I can’t stop until I have money again.
Matt doesn’t freak out on spending. He freaks out on budgeting. He’s a mathematician by nature and an accountant by profession, so he can boil everything down to dollars and cents. Once or twice a month, he sends me a spreadsheet detailing our finances. If we’re considering a purchase or a fiscal change, spreadsheet frequency increases to once or twice a week, sometimes once a day. Matt can discuss money and fall asleep within minutes. We had to have a talk about that because he’d get me all riled up about finances before bed and then I’d be up for hours, all those new numbers swirling in my head.
I hate spending so much of our lives focused on money. I swore I’d never be like my father. His obsession with money permeated every conversation, every lifestyle decision, and every minute of my young life. I don’t ever want to live like that again.
Because I’m so afraid of living like that, I tend toward paranoia when I assess my own behavior. I just posted about half price Easter candy on Facebook – am I becoming my father? But the truth is, we don’t live like my father. The truth is that we could have foregone the Hawaiian vacation, as my father chose to forego his trip to Argentina. We could have chosen a zero balance over a new adventure and a lifetime of memories, but we chose the trip. In other words, we chose a life well-lived over our bank account.
My father expends all of his energy trying to hold onto his money. Even now, he’s depriving himself of the pleasures of life just to maintain his bottom line. I may never be able to shake the habit of injecting money into conversation, and Matt will never stop analyzing figures, but our priorities are in the right place. I’m sure that at the end of our lives, if we face a choice of a trip around the world or a healthy inheritance for the kids, we’ll choose to pack our bags. And we’ll have taught the kids a lesson far more valuable than any inheritance. Our kids will still learn that money is important – we need it to survive – but it’s far more important to spend money on life than it is to spend life on money.