The first thing I learnt about money was that it doesn’t grow on trees. And that became a lesson for life. Okay, I admit I’m a miser. How much of a miser? Not enough to starve or deprive myself of necessities, for sure. But enough that the rational side of my brain trumps the part which wants something almost every time, especially when I look at the price tag.
Frugality is part of my genetic inheritance. My parents are both cautious about monetary spending, and their attitude shaped my understanding of the difference between wants and needs. They have their reasons. They grew up with nothing. Both my parents were raised in rented two-room houses with a kitchen for cooking and a living room for everything else. My father shared these quarters with my grandparents and three other siblings. As the eldest, he started helping at my grandfather’s store at the age of ten, balancing school and supporting the “family business” which yielded barely enough to make ends meet. He wanted to pursue a degree in science but switched to arts because the time spent in the lab reduced what he could give to the shop. Jobs were scarce, and he continued working there, leaving when he found a decent job – a couple of years after graduation.
My mother had it even worse if that was possible. Eight other people called where she lived home. Her father didn’t have a steady job. My grandmother took up things she could do from home like tailoring and repairing umbrellas to ensure that there was enough food on the table. The children assisted in whatever capacity they could. The house didn’t have a water connection. Water had to be filled in pots and carried up a flight of stairs to the house from a nearby community tap. This tap was functional for a few hours each day, and you had to queue up for your turn. “New clothes” were, often, donations by my grandfather’s employers. At times, there wasn’t enough money to pay for school.
In comparison, my childhood was very comfortable. Growing up, my brother and I never lacked for anything. We never worked during our time as students. My parents, like others, were determined to give their children a better life. They scrimped and saved for our education so we would never have to compromise on our career choices. We had everything we needed, but my mother ensured we didn’t get everything we wanted. My father, on the contrary, indulged our indulgences. But he had to travel for work, and our stay-at-home mother managed all our expenses.
We were not living hand-to-mouth by any means but avoided extravagance at all costs. Cars were a luxury and my mother dragged us everywhere by public transport. We never went to the movies and, rarely, if ever, dined at restaurants. We were reprimanded for our carelessness if we misplaced stationery provided for school. The need to build a safety net fueled part of this, and a strong desire to not return to the circumstances that plagued her childhood accounted for the rest. We saw that any expenditure on us came at the cost of our parents’ needs. When we got brand-new clothes, they wore the same ones until they faded and were beyond repair.
Even when things got better, she made us believe that we only had enough to survive. The primary reason was to teach us the value of money and the hard work that goes into earning it. My father missed a lot of birthdays and holidays because of his job. The constant travel took a toll on his health. She made sure we realised this so wouldn’t take his sacrifices for granted. The second was to ensure that spending never exceeded earnings. Credit wasn’t as forthcoming as today, and living with debt was not an option. Finally, she hoped that if things ever went south, we would find our way out of it. It was her way of preparing us for the worst-case scenario.
My mother was instrumental in moulding my monetary policy. We didn’t get allowances while in school. She expected us to ask for something when we needed it. Inquisitions followed requests for money and expenses sanctioned after much consideration. Initially, I found this difficult to understand because all my friends got pocket money and spent it on things they liked. When I entered college, I got a small allowance for travel and other expenses. But I had to provide a full account of the money spent to assure her that it was not “wasted”. Over time, I became so used to it that the minute I returned home, I would start reciting what I had started with, what I had spent on and how much was left. My mother was left red-faced one day when I, unthinkingly, did it in the presence of a relative who had come over to visit. Once the guest had left, she told me I didn’t need to give her an account anymore because she was confident in my ability to spend it “the right way”.
But this hasn’t affected their generosity. No one who comes to our home leaves empty-handed. They never hold back when sharing what they have with others. Their past has, also, made them empathetic towards those who are not as fortunate. Their miserly attitude affects them, and no one else. It’s another quality we seem to have inherited from them. I wouldn’t think twice about splurging on a gift for someone else.
My father once told us it is easy to upgrade one’s lifestyle, but difficult to go back. I beg to differ. After years of pinching pennies, despite being financially independent, I find it difficult to let go. My parents don’t want us to struggle the way they did and encourage us to make our lives comfortable. But I’m always looking for ways to save as much money as possible. Sometimes, this comes at the cost of time, health and, even, happiness. I’m hard on myself if I’ve overpaid for something, and I feel like a fool for obsessing over something I can not change. I’m still inclined to count every penny rather than splurge, even if I can afford to. I don’t own a credit card and the thought of a loan, even for something essential like a home, feels like an axe hanging over my head.
Have you bought something without looking at the price tag? I wouldn’t be able to. I have not learned to spend freely and don’t know where to start. What would I do if I won the lottery tomorrow and had enough money to last me a lifetime? Probably put the winnings in a bank account or invest it for better returns than spend.