I am cheap.
There. I said it.
I am not going to dress it up and call it frugal. I am not going to politicize it and call it fiscally responsible. Have been, always may be, as cheap as a futon on layaway.
The trouble is, no one likes being associated with this characteristic. “Cheap” doesn’t align itself with rosy ideals like “conservative,” “responsible,” and “restrained.” Instead, it RSVPs to parties hosted by the unattractive ogres of greed, selfishness, and shamelessness.
And I hate those parties. They’re always BYOB.
So why am I cheap? That’s akin to asking why I’m left-handed. I feel I had nothing to do with it, and it’s been with me as long as I can remember.
Both sets of my grandparents were/are incredibly tough on themselves about money virtually their entire lives. Coming out of the Depression, that is not a huge surprise. But when I see my grandmother fold her used foil to prepare for its next use, it sticks with me. When I hear my grandfather went to Starbucks every week, not for coffee, but to pick up their grounds for his garden, I reassess the soy latte I am about to purchase.
But that’s not really my type of cheap. Both sit too high on the labor-scale. My type of cheap is bringing lunch to work to save five bucks. My type of cheap is splitting the tab when there’s more than two of us. I never buy myself clothes. I only buy cards for people in the $0.99 aisle. I tell the waiter I’ll stick with water. I’ll walk a mile to avoid paying for parking.
I used to defend my inability to spend money by backing it up with some sort of righteousness…you know, like “I work, I save money, I don’t need to borrow from anyone, etc..” But that comes to a rapid halt when someone points out that my parents paid for my college education.
So they weren’t cheap with you, were they, Abby?
My defensive logic also fails when I get a check in the mail from that very grandparent who folds foil.
How’s that stinginess working for you, now, Abbs? Still can’t buy a friend dinner?
I have come to understand that the opposite of stinginess is generosity. Those I tease for being cheapest in my family always turn out to be the ones who are most generous. Look at my parents. My dad won’t buy himself anything nicer than a Ford pickup (manual shift and windows, mind you), but then he spares no expense for my wedding week in Hawaii. My mom won’t see movies in the theater (“It’s twelve dollars! They’re insane!”) but then she takes all six of us on a two week vacation to Europe.
At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. But when I look closer, when I push aside the coupon clippings and less-than-designer clothes, I realize the center of this is sacrifice. They are not cheap, they are sacrificial. They love their children or their grandchildren so intensely that they are willing to go without so they can give lavishly. And that is righteous.
I was reminded this week of the alternative. David Brooks wrote in his column in the New York Times that for the first time since its inception, the United States has lost the blessed virtue of restraint. Americans are in worse debt than they ever have been, they make more money than ever before, and they seem completely unaware that either of those positions is disgraceful.
The key part of the journey is finding middle ground. How can I be generous with others, show restraint for myself, and still not go into massive debt? I am 25 and just realizing that this is entirely possible.
Mostly I am finding my footing by following Mike’s example. He always tips far more than required. He almost always covers the check when he’s out with a friend. He spoils me with presents I don’t deserve. And whenever we go to the movies, he always beelines for the popcorn and orders me a large. Which to me is like Christmas, it’s so extravagant.
For now, parting with my money requires the effort of The Jaws of Life. But I’m aware of it. I’m moving to change it. Four quotes are getting me there.
My father: “Money is just a tool. Use it to get what you need. You control it; don’t let it control you.”
My mother: “Don’t be cheap.”
My paternal grandfather: “Never try to repay me for what I’ve given you. Instead, do the same for your grandchildren.”
My maternal grandfather: “Save. Provide for your family. Then, buy yourself a Cadillac. What are you waiting for?”
They provide me with a goal.
For now, please remember not to text me because it’s ten cents a shot.