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Monday, April 27, 2009

All frugal families are alike

The title is a play on the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. .

So: All frugal families are alike; each un-frugal family is un-frugal in its own way. Un-frugal! Help me find a better word, readers.

I was thinking about this because of the recent visit of Mr. FS's brother and his wife. The visit precipitated massive decluttering, which is still not finished. But they were lovely guests, very easy going and low stress.

I had never thought of them as particularly frugal owing to their different life histories: while BIL went to graduate school, he was in biology and so didn't go through the lengthy period of poverty and uncertainty that we--in humanities--went through. I always felt they were frugal, but not pathologically frugal as I am, for better or worse.

Like many, the two are facing economic uncertainty: BIL's lab at a university is funded by the NIH. For the first time in almost thirty years, his grant was rejected (the NIH is experiencing budget cuts too). If his grant is not successful in his re-application, his university, which has hosted his lab all this time, will pay him 25% of his salary. Only with 50% of salary will he continue to receive benefits--like health insurance. SIL is self-employed part-time.

But I was impressed by their planning for various scenarios, from reprieve to disaster. Mr. FS and I engaged in such planning early in our careers.

And I was impressed too by random comments. Like us, they listen to books on tape during commutes. Like us, they borrow those tapes from the library. Like us, they are making sure their kids get out of college debt-free, having seen the consequences of massive education debt on the children of friends.

Like us, they plan for big purchases. Like us, they enjoy the waiting period of saving up. Like us, they never feel deprived.

Like us, they spend their big money on travel.

It seems to me that the key to frugality is intentionality and setting boundaries. BIL said that he wanted his kids to learn the true cost of small every day purchases, like lattes. I told him that that was the premise of David Bach's books, and that Bach had even copyrighted the phrase l____ factor. BIL had never heard of David Bach. Right before they left, SIL asked me if I had a novel she could keep so that she wouldn't have to buy a book at the airport. I was able to oblige, not with a novel, but a book by Bill Bryson.

It was a wonderful visit. In addition to a day at Jazz Fest, we had a frugal feast of Shrimp Creole and I taught SIL how to make a roux, a skill she will be able to bring to Seattle.

Do you agree that all frugal families are alike?


Over the Cubicle Wall said...

I think I am the most extreme in my family, but come to think of it, we are all pretty frugal.

Also, I love Bill Bryson's books. Which one was it?

Duchesse said...

The antonym for frugal is profligate.

Is your clutter related to your frugality?

Not all children qualify for scholarships, or they are partial. We know several young adults who must alternate work and college to earn a degree. I've often wondered whether it would be better to take out a student loan and pursue studies uninterrupted, or to do the stop-start and graduate mostly debt-free.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Cubicle--Hmmmm...maybe "Neither Here Nor There"? "Notes from a Small Island"? The only one I've finished is "A Walk in the Woods," which I loved. Maybe I shouldn't have given the un-read one away? I know I'll find another though.

@Duchesse--I thought of profligate, but was too lazy to double check. (Laziness seems to be a theme here). Thanks. My two nieces were not super-students; they did not receive any scholarships. The parents saved for years and paid their tuition and living expenses (at public institutions) out of savings. They lived more simply than most in their economic bracket. I realize that not everyone can make that choice.

Duchesse said...

I forgot to say, about those kids to whom I referred, the parents did not have the means to ever save, the families were the working poor. Unlike someone in my family who did have the means, but required the children to pay their way to 'take it seriously'. It takes all kinds.

Over the Cubicle Wall said...

Both of those are okay, but not as good as A Walk in the Woods IMO. Try The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid if you want to read more about Katz.

Funny about Money said...

Profligate? good... How about "spendthrift"?

Hmmm... Are all frugal families alike? Mebbe not. It depends on whether everyone in the family signs on to frugal habits.

SDXB is as frugal as they come (one might even use the term "tightwad"...). One of his two daughters (both now in their 40s) is a good money manager who budgets intelligently, spends intelligently, and with her career Army husband has engineered a good life for their family of four. The other...oh, my goodness! Every choice, financial or otherwise, likely to bring disaster upon her head seems to be her FIRST choice. Interestingly, the first daughter (the frugal one) is close to her mother, who herself is hopelessly profligate; while the profligate child will have nothing to do with the mother but is close to the baroquely frugal father.

Exactly how the family dynamics of this dysfunctional bunch evolved, I don't know & don't want to know. But it makes me suspect that frugality doesn't happen the same way in every family grouping.