It seems I rarely got what I wanted growing up. I loved things, especially beautiful things. There was no shopping mall in my hometown but I pored hungrily over Sears and other catalogs when they came in the mail, browsing the housewares and dresses and other sections. We lived about a half-mile from a K-Mart, where we often shopped for household necessities. I would inevitably end up in the jewelry or kids’ clothing or stationery section, finding an item or two I just had to have. The answer was almost always no. No, you don’t need that pendant or those jeans or the pen set.
My parents grew up poor. It’s still obvious with my mother. She spends copious amounts of time and energy ensuring that every little scrap is eaten or saved, and arranging and rearranging dishes during the meal so they sit in front of the person who likes them best. She meticulously stores remnants in just-the-right-size Tupperware. She would never dump leftover food directly into the garbage the way Americans do, unless it’s gone bad – and she is hyper vigilant to make sure it’s eaten before that happens.
The thing is, both of my parents worked. They were federal government employees who made their way up the GS scale. We were comfortably middle-class and had one of the nicest houses of all of my friends. But my mother never shed that mindset of scarcity. Waste not, want not. Save for a rainy day. A penny saved is a penny earned. Those were the values she lived by.
She was apoplectic when I went into nearly six-figure debt to go to law school. “That’s like having a mortgage! At your age? Oh god,” she said. I’d internalized a lot of her frugal ways, but oddly the school debt didn’t bother me. It felt like Monopoly money – not real. I even took out a supplemental loan toward the end of my first year to go to Jamaica on spring break with friends. I was counting on getting a job earning $80,000 a year when I graduated – the going rate then for a first-year associate in a law firm. One of the reasons I went to law school in the first place was to earn a lot of money, buy myself whatever I wanted, whenever, and bypass all the scrimping and saving I’d witnessed my mother doing.
As a young associate, my money was entirely mine to do with as I pleased. I paid off my loans in record time and indulged my whims. Shopping with my fellow lawyers was a favorite pastime. The Ann Taylor one block away benefitted richly from our many lunch hours spent indulging in shopping therapy when things got too stressful at work. If I wanted an expensive handbag or new suit, I would simply bring my lunch to work for several weeks instead of eating out – such “barter”, while not a complete offset, cushioned the blow to my bank account, taking the bite from my purchase, I thought. I was heady with my own power: I was the sole arbiter of what I bought and when and what sacrifice to make for such purchase.
Things got complicated when I married. My husband, a fellow lawyer, grew up in a lower-income household. Like me, he wanted to be free of financial constraints, wanted there to be plenty of excess. That was a core value we shared. I soon discovered, however, that we didn’t value the same things when it came to the purchases themselves. He thought nothing of buying a latte from Starbucks every morning. I drank the free coffee at my firm, which was Starbucks brand, albeit brewed in-house. His firm had free coffee, too. I couldn’t understand why someone would go out and buy coffee when they could get it for free.
I said to him one day, “You know, you should stop buying Starbucks every morning. That habit of yours is costing us $4 a day, over $1300 a year.”
He looked at me coldly. “You know what? I like lattes. I make a lot of money and I’ll buy a Starbucks every morning if I want. And, by the way, the amount I spend at Starbucks in a year doesn’t even come close to how much you spend on ONE purse. And no, I will not bring my lunch. I’ve had enough homemade lunches to last myself a lifetime.”
I quieted down about the Starbucks but found there were many other things that bothered me about his spending. I wanted a good value or deal on most things, except for things that were worth splurging on – special things, like concert tickets, travel or a cool shirt. He valued daily treats and convenience above all else. That meant the Starbucks latte, or going to the corner store to buy a small jug of Tide for an exorbitant price instead of waiting till the weekend to make a Target or Costco run. When it came to services, however, he was driven by loyalty, going out of his way to go to the same hairdresser year after year (at a walk-in salon) or using the same dry cleaning guy long after we’d moved from that neighborhood, even though his prices were higher than Zips.
We were and are the only couple I know of, to this day, who fought over who got to pay the bills once we merged our finances. He said, “I have a system.” Me: “Yeah, well I have a system, too. Why is your system better than mine?” His system drove me insane. He paid everything by handwritten check rather than setting up auto-pay or auto-deduct. According to him, doing so prevented errors that might otherwise go undetected.
My splurges come from the heart. I don’t feel the need to negotiate prices on a house or a car purchase because I want them so badly. During our house search, just after we married, we found a house I had to have. So much so that I wanted to increase our offer, not once, but several times, in a bidding war. My husband shook his head. “It isn’t worth that.” He looked at me quizzically. “I don’t understand you. You nickel-and-dime on the smallest things, try and make me bring my lunch, cut coupons – but won’t negotiate on big ticket items where a lot more money is at stake.” He continued, “You’re the worst kind of house buyer. They can smell how much you want it.”
What he said was so true.
I eventually gave in and “let” him pay the bills. He continues to rebuff my periodic offers to switch – “you’ve done it for several years, now let me do it for a while” – and I don’t insist. Because truthfully, by not having to be mired down in the details I’ve become blissfully removed from the nitty-gritty of our finances and had the luxury to indulge my dreamer mentality. For example, as the family vacation planner, I will ask, where do we want to go and what experiences do we want to have? At the same time, my priorities have changed. I’ve become a non-shopper, other than groceries and household necessities. The stuff isn’t as important to me any more.
Over the years, we have come to a détente on our philosophical differences about money. A lot of the arguments were theoretical because we generally have had the money to do what he wants and what I want, with a few compromises here and there. Every now and then we flare up again, but not for long. The answer: make enough money and don’t go into debt. That we agree on.
But I still do keep an internal tally of food going to waste. That I will never shed, like my mother. Last night while we were out at dinner he said, “I need to stop by the store to get some limes.” He wanted to make his favorite summer drink, dark and stormies, when we got home. I said, “I have some limes in the fridge.” He raised an eyebrow and said, “Those mummified things? No thanks!” We burst into laughter.