I remember a retail merchant sharing one of his learnings from a consumer focus group. A young mother shopper told them that paper towels were a luxury she simply couldn’t afford, as she struggled to put food on her family’s table. This was clearly a novel idea to the merchant. For me, it was a memory.
We married (very) young and poor. One of us worked and one of us went to school for the first 7 years of our marriage. Our grocery budget for the first couple of years was $35 for the week, and that also had to cover toiletries and paper goods. Not only were paper towels definitely not affordable, we didn’t buy paper plates, Kleenex, or any “frivolous” food. For our lunches, I cooked extra amounts at dinner and baked desserts. While my husband’s co-workers looked on with envy at his homemade goodies, he complained that I never bought Oreos. I couldn’t: if I spent $40 one week instead of the budgeted $35, we struggled to pay for gas. Money was tight, and it took real planning to make it work.
We’ve since been financially blessed and no longer have to live on the edge like that, but of course many Americans do. There has been such a widening of the gap between rich and poor in our country that too many today have no idea what it’s like to view paper towels as a luxury. I worry that my kids won’t understand how blessed they are…they’ve lived with paper towels and many other luxuries their whole lives. We talk to them about how fortunate we are compared to many Americans and the rest of the world. We tell them that we’re blessed largely as a result of luck, having been born through no action of our own in a time and place of extraordinary circumstances. But there is no way for them to truly understand unless they live it. I want them to understand, yet I guess I really don’t, if it means they have to experience it first hand. I wish my children a lifetime of paper towels.
“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” –Henry David Thoreau
Our youngest dog was the last of her litter, a leftover, and (we think) the runt. I somehow grossly misunderstood the price the breeder was charging; either she misadvertised or I simply erred, having looked at a lot of dogs online that day. It’s a good thing I did, or we’d have never gone to look at her in the first place.
I withdrew the exact amount of cash I thought she was asking, and we drove the half an hour out into the country. I assumed she was asking less than other breeders because she was a ways out of town. The dog wasn’t what we’d expected. We’ve had golden retrievers before, but this one was dark red with short hair. She was well past the standard six week weaning time with long adolescent legs–not the adorable, fluffy, golden puppy that graces so many dog food commercials. She looked odd, like a long-legged dachshund. She didn’t seem terribly bright or to have much personality. She was, in short, a disappointment.
But we’d made a tactical error: we’d brought the girls. They didn’t see what we saw, or they just had their hearts set on a new puppy. When I realized the gross difference between the asking price and the cash in my pocket, we started to walk away anyway. That is when fate intervened. It turns out the woman was desperate to get rid of this last puppy, realizing it was past its prime. I, too, was in the mood to negotiate, given the heartbroken girls I’d have had on the drive home. The owner accepted the cash I had on hand plus a modest check. It was done…the odd creature was ours.
As it turns out, our discount dog has proven invaluable. She is not beautiful, but she is very sweet. She is not smart, but she is the most loving creature I’ve ever met. She is not graceful, but she makes us laugh and brings much love into our house. We have decided that our discount dog has turned out to be one of the happiest accidents and best investments we’ve ever made. Thank heavens for misunderstandings.
“Money can buy you a fine dog, but only love can make him wag his tail.” –Kinky Friedman
My husband’s parents never lived in a home with more than three bedrooms and one bathroom in their 50 years of marriage. That may not sound unusual until you know that they were the parents of 14 children, including 12 sons. Mom and Dad got one bedroom and the two girls got another. That left one last bedroom for up to nine brothers, the peak number at home before they grew up and began moving away.
My husband is number ten in the pecking order. To this day, he loves getting new socks and underwear, even before the old ones have worn out, because they were only a dream when he was growing up. He never started the school year with new clothes or even new crayons. Leftovers after meals were a novelty when we got married. He is emphatic about purchases being “even” in our family: if one kid gets something, the others get something, even if they don’t need whatever it is.
When I think about how my husband’s family grew up, I’m reminded how spoiled many of us, including my own kids, are today. We practice frugality in many things, but I know the lesson isn’t fully taking hold. My kids know to order water at restaurants, because what costs $2 there is only 20 cents at home. We only buy clothing when it’s on sale. But they know these are only token acts simply by looking at our home, our cars, our vacations. We tell them stories of our childhood, in vain. Yet maybe they are listening more than we think, or maybe they are wiser sooner than us. Our oldest is not pursuing money and things, only peace. He wants even less than 3 BR, 1 BA. I find myself, for the first time, wishing for less for my children…only peace.
“You may get an emotional thrill when you buy something, but emotions are fickle. You buy that one thing you think will complete your happiness, but after awhile the feeling goes away and you have to go to the next thing. You just keep going from purchase to purchase looking for the one thing that will finally satisfy. But stuff can’t satisfy.” –Joyce Meyer