Some call it frugal. Some call it penny-pinching. Others call it cheap. My family calls it responsible. Whatever you call it, living by a budget is the new black, the trendy, recession-friendly lifestyle of spending less than the Joneses, rather than keeping up with them.
Finally, I fit in.
Throughout childhood I was taught to measure spending against the thrifty mantra, “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do or do without.”
That phrase, purportedly from the Great Depression, was a lesson in living within my means and working hard to earn what I wanted. After years of steeping in this budget-savvy sentiment, it permeated my perspective.
If I went shopping, I headed straight to the clearance racks, often in a clearance store. But that’s only if I went shopping. As a young adult, while my peers laughed and whipped out their brand-new credit cards, saving money became like a sport to me. How long could I go without cracking open my wallet? How much could I save when I did hit the mall?
I took this to the extreme during my junior year in college. I’d worn a hole in the bottom of my leather work shoes, one of the most comfortable pairs I’d ever owned. By the time I’d walked from school to my receptionist job, my socks were soaked. It rains a lot in Eugene. But ruled by nostalgic frugality, I didn’t buy new loafers the first time my feet got wet.
Instead, I waited more than a month and merely packed an extra pair of socks to change into when I arrived at the office. “No one,” I rationalized, “could see my feet under the desk and the shoes would be dry by the time I left work.”
By the time I did finally buy new shoes, however, I’d gotten sick of my own economical stance and vowed to never be that “cheap” again. While I loved the freedom budgeting gave me, walking around with wet feet wasn’t worth it.
Still, I didn’t become a spendthrift; the budgeting lifestyle was too ingrained. I became a moderate pendulum spender, modifying my budget and work load to match my financial mood swings - careful or carefree. As a freelance writer, usually these moods are in direct response to how much work I have and how well each job pays. Some months are forcibly frugal while other months feel more flush.
Last month felt flush but I was in a careful mood. I’d gotten a sizable check for a big project but wanted to put it away for a rainy day. After all, shoes get holes in them. Cars break down. The last wind storm littered our yard with pieces of the roof.
I wanted to save, not spend. My husband, who was also raised by financially prudent parents, agreed. Then our son sat on the recliner and put out the frayed footrest. It wouldn’t stop rocking. A few days later the middle support broke.
I remember when we got that recliner as newlyweds, a hand-me-down from a generous couple in our church. We said, “thank you,” while wondering how much it would cost to reupholster its ugly brown tweed. Then it grew on us and soon that chair, with just the right balance of soft and firm, characterized childhood comfort.
In its cozy confines I nursed three babies. It’s where I sat to rock them when they cried and where we cuddled while I read them stories. It’s where they flopped when they got home from school and where they went when they were sick or sad. Eventually, they took it over, teenage limbs sprawling over its now threadbare arms.
My grandma would be proud. We wore that chair out and now no one wants to sit in it. But we didn’t decide to live by the rest of the thrifty mantra. We weren’t in the mood to do without. We went shopping.