What Happened When I Refused To Be Like My Frugal Parents

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Right before I graduated from Ohio University in the spring of 2005, I landed an interview for my dream job at a major magazine in New York City.
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Obviously, I needed to look really good to impress the editors at such a prestigious publication, so I drove home from college the weekend before the interview and asked my mom to take me to the mall. Not the normal, small-town one by our house — but the big, fancy mall in Cleveland.
So, we drove there together…and after dropping me off at Saks, she left to go to the T.J. Maxx in the strip mall down the road.
My mom never shopped retail, and if she ever was in such a store, she’d send salespeople away. “They’ll try to make me say yes,” she’d say. “And, my default is always no.”
I, on the other hand, didn’t mind when I was approached in Saks by a saleswoman, who immediately led me to the Theory section after I told her I needed a snazzy interview look. Feeling excited about the new blouse we picked out, I then said I wanted a new purse, so, naturally, we headed over to check out the Gucci tote bags.
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My damage for the day? $750.
But, I didn’t bat a lash. I thought if I showed up to my interview without these things, the editors would see right through to the Midwestern hick I really was. So, I opened up a store card to pay for it — and, you know, do the responsible thing and save 10%.
I now think of that moment as one of my first grown-up financial decisions. It was thrilling to know I didn’t have to say no anymore, like my mom always did. I could finally say yes.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
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My Embarrassingly Frugal Family Life
My parents — an engineer and a psychotherapist, respectively — always made practical, safe choices when it came to our family’s finances. They were careful with their money, making sure to live within their means no matter what — and taught my brother, Nat, and me to do the same.
Come to think of it, many of my memories as a kid involved a money lesson of some sort. I can remember my dad offering me a dollar if I ordered water at a restaurant instead of a soda — a financial incentive to be both healthy and mindful of our spending.
I was always torn: I loved money, but my 6-year-old self also loved soda! I often chose the dollar, but I usually wished I hadn’t.
And, my parents weren’t the only family members who were careful with their money. In fact, I come from a long line of frugal people. When I was 8, I went to the mall food court with my grandfather, who marched up to the Cinnabon counter and demanded, “What do you have for 50% off?”
Yes, I was mortified.
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But, aside from the occasional cringeworthy moment like that one — or when my parents refused to buy me a new instrument for the school band, opting for a used trumpet with peeling plating — I didn’t much notice the difference between how my family and others lived.
That is, until I got to high school. While my friends’ parents spent Saturday nights going to TGI Friday’s and the newest film at the multiplex, my parents would have dinner at home and see an older movie at the second-run theater, where tickets cost only $1 each.
And then, there was my parents’ refusal to buy anything new. They bought refurbished electronics and fixed items themselves that broke instead of replacing them.
My father particularly loves to talk about his convictions regarding new cars. In a nutshell: He doesn’t believe in them, and he even took night classes on auto repair to avoid paying a mechanic.
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You’d think watching my parents’ frugal habits would have instilled in me a sense of practicality and appreciation for how hard they worked to afford what they bought — but, in reality, it confused me.
We lived in a very nice house in a desirable neighborhood, and yet my parents hemmed and hawed over financial decisions, such as whether I really needed to take tap dancing classes. I didn’t understand why my parents didn’t spend money — and why they never let themselves live a little or took a break from the never-ending quest to save that last dollar.
By the time I left for college, I was tired of feeling embarrassed about money, and vowed that I’d finally live the life I thought I deserved as an adult.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
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The Lifestyle That Nearly Tanked My Finances
Despite a humble upbringing in Ohio, I’d always been fascinated by New York City. And like all of my friends, I religiously watched Sex and the City in college, which only reinforced my love for the Big Apple. Carrie and company made the fabulous lifestyle look so effortless — they had great apartments, beautiful shoes, and always had time for brunch.
Unfortunately — despite that fancy $750 outfit — I didn’t land that dream job. But, I did find another gig working in magazines, making about $30,000. Little did I know that to really afford the lifestyle I was about to embark on, I should have been making over $50,000.
After moving into my first apartment — a pre-war elevator building on the Upper East Side with exposed brick, new appliances, and the largest bedroom I’ve ever had before or since — I went to a bank to sign up for a checking account. While I was there, I also got approved for a credit card with a $5,000 limit.
Growing up, my parents had tried to teach me the tenets of personal finance, and why they lived the way they did, but it never really sank in. They’d even started a savings account in my name when I was very young, explaining the necessity of having a safety net.
And, I recalled these very lessons when I told the teller “no thanks” in response to her credit card offer, recalling how my parents hated the idea of owing money.
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But, the woman at the bank persisted, assuring me that it was a special deal, that someday I’d be really happy that I had that card. “We don’t offer this high a credit limit often,” she said.
So, I got the card, along with two others that I proceeded to swipe to the tune of $10,000 over the next two years. I loved the buzz I got from buying something brand-new and at full retail price — something my parents would have never done.
I took myself to nice dinners. I purchased clothes I shouldn’t have. When I needed furniture for my apartment, I walked over to a local store and purchased several things, barely looking at the prices and never asking about a delivery charge.
Of course, I knew I couldn’t keep up this pace forever on a $30,000 salary. But, I guess I thought that I’d eventually catch up financially to support the lifestyle I was leading — although I didn’t put a lot of thought into how that would happen.
Throughout this time, my parents didn’t have much of an idea about how I was doing moneywise. I’m sure they assumed I was being just as responsible as they’d always been. Plus, I hid it pretty well. I didn’t show them the new clothes I was buying or the receipts from my expensive haircuts.
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It finally took bouncing a rent check for me to realize all this “adult behavior” wasn’t doing me any favors. So, I reached out to my parents and came clean. Needless to say, they were shocked…and confirmed what I already knew.
At 25, it was time for a money makeover.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Mom And Dad Really Did Know Best
It’s been nine years since I moved to New York City, and although I’m now making $50,000 as a communications manager at a nonprofit, I’m still struggling to find a balance when it comes to saving versus splurging on something I really want.
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But, I am consciously trying to make a change.
My biggest priority is to cut down on that $10,000 of debt I racked up. I’ve taken a second, part-time job as a weekend receptionist at a real estate office, and I’m freelance writing to bring in more cash. And, I’ve since traded in that luxury apartment for a $730 bedroom in an apartment that I share with roommates in a residential (read: un-hip) part of Brooklyn.
I’ve managed to take my lifestyle down a few notches, too, and have stopped going over the top in every area of my budget. I don’t eat out all of the time, and rarely indulge my former shopping habit. Plus, I’ve vowed to take the subway home each night — even if I’m exhausted and tempted to hop in a cab.
In a recent conversation with my dad, he said, “Financial success is the true freedom to live as you want — and where you want — every day.”
I’m also attempting to approach my finances from a more long-term point of view. While I have insurance, I don’t have enough savings to cover, say, an unexpected surgery — or an expected one, for that matter. It’s a scary thought that’s encouraged me to make a plan to start saving for the first time in my life.
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After I finish paying off my debt — which I’m hoping to do within the next year — I’ll funnel the extra money I make from my second job into an emergency fund, a move I know will make my parents proud. The fact that I even have this plan in place puts me light years ahead of where I was — mentally and financially — before my money wake-up call.
I’d also love to eventually save up for a trip to Italy, but I’m consciously putting these other, more important financial goals ahead of that want.
All this just goes to show that I finally understand what my parents tried to teach me as a child — that the long-term goal is more important than the immediate need.
And, I’ve seen firsthand the rewards they’re reaped from delaying gratification: My parents can freely spend money now because they were so careful for years. They recently renovated their kitchen, and they travel frequently. My dad plays golf every day; they’re truly living the life they want as retirees.
As a part of my money transformation, I’ve started to regularly ask them questions about finances now. In a recent conversation with my dad, he said, “Financial success is the true freedom to live as you want — and where you want — every day.”
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That really stuck with me. And, I’ve decided that if it takes scouting 50% off deals and buying a refurbished gadget or two to accomplish what they have, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
I think I’ll start by ordering that water.