When we first married, my husband and I were poor students who would eat out by sharing an entrée and appetizer. We learned quickly to penny-pinch, thinking long and hard about big-spending decisions, like the price of our first home computer, which, at $700, felt like a huge extravagance. We shared a Honda Civic in those days, a tiny red hatchback that I dreamed of upgrading to a sedan. But money didn’t permit such a luxury, so we stuck with the Civic.
Though we didn’t have much money, we never felt poor. We had each other, we could afford food and decent accommodation, and real luxuries like expensive vacations, jewelry and designer clothing weren’t part of our vocabulary, so we didn’t miss them. Living frugally wasn’t embarrassing – it was our reality, and it was a challenge we both embraced with gusto. We rummaged in “antique shops” for our home treasures, enthusiastically explored the aisles of dollar stores and bought food at Price Chopper, because it was cheaper than the competition.
There were times having little money felt a tad scary. When I needed dental work, for example, I went to a student-run dental clinic, for discounted rates. One unforgettable student poked an instrument into my tooth, which resulted in searing pain, and announced casually: “You’re going to need a root canal.” My first thought was the cost – how would this affect our budget? Pain and worry intermingled in the hours that followed, but I happened to attend a shivah that night, and wouldn’t you know it, my deceased relative had a dentist friend. He heard my sad, painful story, read the financial worry etched on my face and suggested I arrive at his clinic around 7 the next morning. “I’ll take care of it for you,” he said. And he did.
Ah, those were the days. We got through them, of course, and in the 20 years that followed, we earned enough money to order separate entrees, upgrade that old Civic many times over, and eventually leave the world of renting and own a home. Still, when you’ve lived frugally for a time, it’s a hard habit to break. You find yourself forgoing mangoes at the grocery store because they’re expensive, even though you can afford them. Denial and a habit of questioning your purchasing decisions become firmly engraved in your consumer psyche.
“Do I really need this, or am I buying it just because?” I often ask myself. The item in question could be anything from a new pair of shoes to a plant for my garden. Usually, the expense is minor, but I can’t help but interrogate myself. And most of the time, unable to come up with a really good reason for the purchase, I’ll leave it in the store.
That penny-pinching habit just won’t go away, but maybe that’s a good thing. Today, the advertisements we see everywhere suggest we can’t be happy unless we have something newer, faster and better. Whether it’s a cellphone, a siddur or a sundress, it’s only considered good if its price tag is still on or has been freshly removed. The subtext to this message is that old stuff needs to be replaced, but it needn’t even be that old. Replace is the motto of the 21st century, and the more ingrained that word becomes, the less we need to think even a little bit about what we’re buying.
We all know that stuff doesn’t bring happiness or foster deep connections – it just fills our houses and depletes our bank accounts. But we still fall for the message, as evidenced by the fact that shopping has become the great North American pastime.
So I often think fondly of those frugal days, when each coin was turned over twice before we spent it. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, even if you buy that hound a fancier collar.