Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Unfrugal Origin Story

“I haven’t always been a straight edge.” My recent response to a friend asking if I’ve always handled money the way I do now.

I grew up in a family environment that is way too familiar in America: we did not talk about money. I did not grow up learning about retirement vehicles, insurance plans, saving for a rainy day or saving for college. I learned nothing on these topics from home nor school.

I firmly believe though that the frugal nature that I later found as an adult, imbedded within me, came from watching my father. He worked in a blue collar job from high school all the way until he retired and became a stay at home dad. I have never once seen him use a credit card, in fact I’m pretty sure he’s never owned one J. Cash and checks still are his payment methods of choice and the only debt he owed in his life has been his home, which has been paid off now for over twenty years. I can count on half a hand the number of cars he has owned since I’ve been alive. The first was an old broken in Datsun, the other a Dodge Caravan. But we never talked about personal finance.

My mother is a career driven woman from a generation that didn’t consider it fashionable. She provided for me in a much different way than the traditional American family. Her income paid for me to go to private school, go on vacations, participate in extra-curricular activities, and sadly, eventually as a teenager and college student, have a social life. I still remember clear as day the weekly “meal plan” as it occurred in my parents’ house that kind of summarizes everything. During the week my father would make breakfast for my brother and I, prepare our brown-bagged lunches for school and in the evening have a home-made dinner prepared for us. Weekends were my mother’s responsibility. And weekends consisted of McDonald’s, TGI Friday’s, Burger King, Chili’s, pizza places, all the household brands.

I lived in a house divided and didn’t even know it. They kept finances separate from each other. His checking account. Her checking account. His bill. Her bill. My parents have had a very successful joint venture for almost thirty years.

My mother gave my brother and I “age appropriate” weekly allowances. My dad wanted us to ride the yellow-bus to public school. When I became a teenager and started developing a social life, my weekly allowance was “never enough.” Thinking back on it even now, I’m disgusted with teenage self. I treated my mother like an ATM. Instead of bagging groceries, delivering pizzas or wiping restaurant tables, I “expected” my mother to fork over gas and entertainment money whenever I wanted to go out… and she gave it to me. Today I interpret my father’s silence as acceptance of the situation.

So how did I evolve into the frugal warrior writing before you today? My drive for self-dependence was something that developed over time. It started with little things like wanting to cook for myself and do my own laundry (imagine that, a 17 year-old being told he is not allowed to cook because he’ll burn the house down). And as I got closer to high school graduation I wanted to live on my own and see where life could take me beyond Southern California, I knew there was more out there beyond my parents’ protective bubble.

Still not thoroughly independent I chose an inexpensive college that was a good five hour plane ride from California. I continued to “live on my own” which translated to taking on student loans, living off mommy’s credit card and working a few jobs that did nothing to advance my career. When college was finished I had no desire whatsoever to start looking for a career in California. Although having taken very small steps that included accumulating stupid tax, I knew I was closer to true independence than when I was in high school and did not want to go backwards.

My first full year of employment was an exemplary display of wasted resources. “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go,” was my mantra. I paid minimum payments on my student loans, charged my way through life and reconciled on payday and didn’t save for retirement or live on a budget.

What woke me up? The first bit was finally, after just about a quarter of a century of life, wanting to grow up. I looked at consumer reports on the estimated costs of weddings and homes, and was “nowhere close” to being able to afford any of it. That alone opened me up to be receptive to developing, honing and following smart personal finance practices. And when my future in-laws gave me a copy of Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover,” I took a figurative “keg-sized swig of Kool-Aid” and have never looked back.

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