My own frugal ways were self-taught. Because of the mixed messages I had received about money growing up, I went through many trials and plenty of errors before I figured out how to manage money, and more importantly, how to budget and live within or under my/our means. Brett’s income while he was in the navy forced me to quickly learn how to live on a (very) small income. When our son was born, after our bills were paid (rent, utilities, a washer & dryer payment, and payment towards the debt Brett’s previous wife had accumulated in his name), we had just $18 a week for groceries, including baby formula and baby food. I’m still not quite sure how we did it, but we never went hungry. I made bread from scratch and we ate lots of beans and pancake suppers, and little to no meat, but our bills were always paid on time. Although it took real effort we were able to get out of debt in less than two years, before heading off to our first tour in Japan.
I don’t know how it is now, but back then the military did not pay for everything when you moved to a new duty station – that turned out to be a myth. Although Brett received a per diem allowance, it was very small and we still always had to come up with a majority of our moving expenses, things like first and last months rent for an apartment while we waited for government housing and all those other hidden costs of moving. Buying a house and settling in anywhere was also out of the question because Brett was transferred to a new duty station (rotating between sea and shore duty) every 2 1/2 to 3 years, and mortgage interest rates were hovering for a while at around 15%-18% back then. Thankfully the navy moved our household goods for us and bought the plane tickets for our flights to Japan and back. Brett always had to take two months advance pay every time we moved to cover all the extra out-of-pocket expenses (almost all of our moves were across country or overseas), causing us to spend the first 24 months at our new duty station paying that back rather than being able to save much of anything for the next move. It was hard to catch up and get ahead but we left the navy with no debt and a good amount of savings. I worked when I could, but with Brett deployed most of the time, we both felt it was more important for me to be home for our son rather than at a full-time job.
During our navy years I learned how to make do with less, how to budget, and the beginnings of how to evaluate the difference between a need and a want. We were always able to pay our bills on time. We ate well, and traveled when we could. However, I still frivolously spent on things – those old feelings that owning the “right” things would make life better continued. We accumulated debt from time to time, and then had to work and scrimp to pay it off, a pattern that continued even after Brett retired to civilian life. When we adopted the girls our financial situation changed dramatically and I finally began to understand some of what it must have been like for my parents. Eight years ago the change in Brett’s employment situation took us to a point where debt threatened to ruin us, and we got serious about paying it off for good and changing how we lived. All those frugal habits I had taught myself and practiced over the years came fully into play, and not only did we pay off our debt, but we were able retire and move to Hawai’i. We happily live a much simpler life now, we’re comfortable and confident about our finances, what we have, and where we’re heading next. The most surprising thing of all has been the realization that some of the frugal choices I make these days mirror some of my parents’ – I apparently did learn a few things from them.
I mentioned in Part I of this post that my family almost always took a vacation every summer. As a teacher, Mom always had the whole summer off from work, and she LOVED to travel so she made it a big part of our lives too. Mom always planned interesting and fun trips for us: one year we went camping up and down the California and Oregon coasts for three weeks, living in a Shasta trailer that my parents rented. Another summer we took a surprise trip by train to the Grand Canyon for a week (still the best vacation ever for me), and one year we did a summer-long driving trip back east to New England and then down the Atlantic coast, visiting cities, historic sites and natural wonders. Twice we moved to our grandparents’ beach house for the summer, where we grew a garden, walked to the beach every day and went beachcombing every evening, checked out books and jigsaw puzzles from the local library. We didn’t have a TV there, just a small transistor radio so Mom could listen to Dodger baseball, and we played lots of croquet on the vacant lot next door which my grandparents also owned. We sometimes took trips over to Tucson, Arizona during the winter so Mom and Dad could visit old friends there and often visited other sites around the state as well. We visited San Francisco, Yosemite and many other southwest national parks. Mom had to take continuing education courses every few years while she was teaching, but she would register for those at out-of-state colleges so she could “get away,” and my siblings and I would stay with friends and family during those weeks. I always chose to stay in Indiana with cousins, and have fond memories of lazy summers filled with all the fresh picked sweet corn and tomatoes I could eat, my grandmother’s yeast biscuits, and my aunts’ delicious fried chicken and gravy (I still dream about that gravy!). On the drive back to California Mom always made sure we did plenty of sightseeing, and we stopped at every historic marker we came across. Our family never traveled overseas or to places like Hawai’i or Alaska though – too expensive – and the only foreign country we ever visited was Canada. I wonder now if those kinds of trips might have been possible if we had lived somewhere other than San Marino.
Traveling was the only time my parents seemed relaxed about money. While we always stayed in cheap motels they made sure there was a pool for us to swim in each evening. There was often nothing but apple juice and pretzels for breakfast (the morning meal was never Mom’s strong suit) and we picnicked on cold cuts, cheese, crackers, and apples for our lunches. However, we stopped every afternoon for pie and coffee (or sundaes for us kids) and we always went to a restaurant for dinner each evening – no fast food. My parents paid for tours and for tickets to visit every historic or important site along the way with no grumbling about the cost. If we were going to go on a long trip, like our summer trip back east, they tried to come up with ways for us to earn a bit extra throughout the year so we had spending money for souvenirs and treats and wouldn’t be bothering them to buy stuff.
Of course, because there was no discussion or conversation about it, I always assumed our vacations and travel was something they just took out their checkbook and paid for. I was an adult before Mom told me that she had always kept a travel savings account and funneled every extra penny into it. She always kept a “penny jar” (sort of like our change/$1 bill jar) on her kitchen window sill and literally saved every penny to put toward those afternoon pie and coffee stops. Although I wasn’t initially aware of it, I was learning valuable lessons about the importance of saving for travel as well as how to travel well on a budget, and ultimately that experiences were more rewarding than things.
It seems to me now that I picked up lots of what I now know about financial matters and money management from the things my parents didn’t do versus what they did. And while it took me a long while to figure things out, the best lesson I learned by omission was that while you don’t have to reveal everything about your personal finances to your children, it’s important to give them an idea of what’s going on, what your priorities are, and why you make the choices you do. Children should be part of the family “team” when it comes to finances, even at a young age. They deserve and can learn from even a simple explanation when you say “no” to one thing but “yes” to another, or why you choose to spend for one thing versus another. Children can also be taught, with encouragement and support, how to save and make frugal choices with their money – it shouldn’t be assumed that frugality is an innate skill or something that can be learned through observation.
In spite of all the mistakes and stumbles Brett and I have made along the way, we’ve always tried to be open with our kids about our finances while still retaining our privacy, and to help guide them when we can. We’ve tried to model generosity too and work to provide some of their wants as well as meet their needs. When we haven’t been able to afford something, we’ve been honest about why and explained that we would try to provide it later. I’m not sure of how well we did, but all four seem to be good money managers, all have a generous spirit, and they all love to travel as much as we do. It’s exciting and rewarding these days to watch them work toward their dreams, budget for the things they want as well as save for their futures.
I haven’t written about the influence Brett’s family had on him when it comes to finances and money. He grew up in circumstances about as different from mine as possible, yet had a happy childhood. His story is his own to tell, but in spite of the differences we’ve made a good team over the years.