Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Proud to be Cheap

My kids spend a lot of time and energy teasing me and calling me cheap.  There's something they don't understand though... it doesn't bother me.  In fact, I wear that moniker kind of proudly.  It's a trait that I came by honestly.  Furthermore, "cheap" often translates into "Dad doesn't buy me everything I want."

When I say "I came by it honestly," I mean it.  Both sets of grandparents were alive during the Great Depression.  My mom's dad used to tell me stories about how his family couldn't afford peanut butter.  He had friends whose parents were on welfare, and got peanut butter for free, but my grandfather's father, who had a job, couldn't afford peanut butter.  As a result, my grandfather always had peanut butter in his house, and he ate it at least once per week.

My dad's parents were adults during the Depression.  They never talked about it, but it was obvious how much of an impact it made in their lives.  They never wasted anything.  My grandmother made her weekly grocery list on cardboard scraps.  They washed and saved the Styrofoam trays that ground beef comes on.  My grandmother made seat cushions by crocheting used bread wrappers.  They had a party line until the day my grandmother died.

When my parents were first married, there were times they had to choose between deodorant and food.  I remember my mother darning holes in my father's socks instead of throwing them away and buying new socks.  I remember my father putting cardboard in his own hole-ridden shoes so that we could have new shoes for school.  In a neighborhood of two-income families, my mother was a stay-at-home mom.  I grew up watching a black and white TV, with no cable, when my friends all had HBO and color TV.  When I was a teenager, I finally convinced my parents to subscribe to cable TV, on the condition that I paid for it.  And even then, my parents, who owned the one (black and white) TV in the house, had first say on what we watched.

When I joined the Marine Corps, I made decent money as a young, single guy with no bills, but I made the mistake of maxing out a couple of high interest credit cards.  I paid them off while I was serving in Desert Storm.  When I returned from Desert Storm, I actually had a few grand saved up.  Shortly after that though, I met and married my first wife, who had zero financial discipline, and I made the mistake of allowing her access to my credit cards.  In about a year, I went from having a few grand in savings to being over $10,000 in debt.  It took us about four years to break the debt cycle, and once the debts were paid off, she saw it as an opportunity to spend the extra money, instead of saving for a rainy day.

We were debt free for the next few years, but as I mentioned, I didn't have any money.  Despite this fact, my first wife insisted that we stop renting and purchase a home.  I agreed, and had a plan to start saving for a down payment, but in the end, we moved into a home we really couldn't afford, with zero down, and a loan that was exclusively in my name.  Three years later, she dropped a bombshell and said that she didn't want to be married to me anymore.

I sat down and figured out the bills, and cut my expenses to the bone.  I ditched cable TV.  I had to keep Internet access for work, but I turned the thermostat up to 78 degrees in the summer, and 64 degrees in the winter.  We went weeks on end without eating meat, and I went for months without touching a drop of alcohol.  I refinanced my house to lower my monthly mortgage payment.  Despite all of this, I was still $500 per month short of paying my mortgage.  Fortunately, my close friend Antoine moved in.  If he hadn't become my roommate, I would have lost the house.  (We also had a **LOT** of fun as roommates, but this story isn't about our fun; it's about how I became a cheapskate.)

Fast forward a bit more... I met another woman, she moved in, and we got married.  (Antoine moved out during this time.)  She made (makes) significantly more than I do.  The money crunch is gone, and I'm not living hand to mouth, but if you ask my kids, I'm still cheap, and I'm okay with that.  You see, I'm old school... I was brought up to believe that the man should be the primary bread winner, and I'm not.  This in and of itself doesn't bother me, but I'm cognizant of this fact.  I carry a proportional amount of financial weight based on our income, but I don't carry 50%.  I'm not crazy generous with money because in order to do so, I'd have to spend her money... and it's not my place to claim her money.  I'm not crazy generous with money because I save money for a rainy day.  I can't count the times I had to fix a car in the freezing cold in order to get to work.  I can't enumerate all of the instances where I had to eat rice to make rent.  Saving for emergencies has not brought me ahead financially, but it's absolutely cushioned the unexpected blows.

Let's take things a bit further.  We live in a modest, split-level home built in the late 1960's.  It's more than we need, but less than we could afford if we stretched ourselves.  But the point is that it's more than we need.  Why upgrade?  I drive a 13 year old truck that I've owned for 11 years.  It's got almost 200,000 miles, and it's starting to rust.  But it's reliable and it's paid for.  Why would I buy a new vehicle and have years of car payments?

My kids call me cheap, but like I said, I came by it honestly... three generations of hardship has made an impression on me.  If I've done my job, my grandchildren will be calling my kids cheap.