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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Frugality and Ambition: An Inverse Relation?

Sometimes I wonder. Mr. FS and I developed our frugal practices in graduate school, where we not only faced poverty but a very uncertain job market. Then, having gotten jobs, we still faced an uncertain future, so we continued frugal practices. Then, we were concerned about education costs and, not wanting our children to take on massive debt, we continued even more.

The best part of frugality is that it minimizes (though it does not eliminate) stress. I can't imagine facing unemployment without an emergency fund. I can't imagine facing an economic downturn with credit card debt. And I didn't want my children to go into adulthood bearing the burden of education debt.

However, since I can be a little--no, a lot--on the pathological side, I tell my kids to lighten up and have fun too. So far, they seem to be doing OK.

My daughter, of the untended blog Lucy Marmalade, just got back from a leadership conference for college students in DC, sponsored by a nice group of philanthropists in Alabama. After telling us of various sessions, she exclaimed "Everyone there was so rich!"

Rich as in iPhones, de rigueur designer bags, and so on. She said, "Everyone looked airbrushed." One participant displayed her "ghetto phone," explaining--with a laugh--that a more upscale replacement was imminent.

Lucy M, as often happens to ME, was a kind of impostor: she didn't LOOK that different from the other participants, but her clothing was thrifted and otherwise scrounged, her phone was not a prestige model, and so forth.

One thing Lucy noted was the sense of entitlement most of these people had. One participant said that her father had loaded up her debit card before her trip. Then she found out that he had only given her $150.00. Thanks Dad, she said, with sarcasm and heavy eye rolls, to a laughing crowd of girls during a side-trip to H&M.

While I'm glad that my children are more grateful than that person, I started to wonder...I presume that most of these people--mostly in private colleges, mostly in sororities and fraternities--will make sure, through career choice or marriage or both--that they can live the privileged lifestyle to which they are accustomed. That does breed a certain amount of ambition, doesn't it?

Sometimes I worry that the ambition may be bred out of people who know how to be frugal. Should I be worried? Do you think there is an inverse relation between frugality and ambition?


Shelley said...

So, what ambitions would you wish your children to have? I didn't read anything admirable about the people in DC. Ambition to make a lot of money? Ambition to spend a lot of money or spend someone else's money? I agree that it seems that a big pay check seems to accompany big spending. People have been conditioned to think that they 'deserve' things or that shopping relieves stress, but you made a clear case that it is frugality that relieves stress. I used frugality to reach my ambition: early retirement. I don't know many people who could afford to leave work at 50. I don't have a lot of money, true, and I've yet to achieve that 'air brushed' look, but my time is all my own, and for that reason I feel wealthy. So far, your kids sounds like nice, normal people with mostly sensible attitudes about money. I think you have done a good job and I personally wouldn't wish the usual kind of ambition on them.

Deja Pseu said...

I think there's ambition and Ambition. Someone who knows how to live frugally may be better equipped to follow their passion, say photographing butterflies in the rainforest, than someone who has never learned to live with less.

Even though my family was well off, I was taught that one *earns* what one has, so did chores for my allowance, cleaned stables twice daily for the priviledge of having horses, and took after-school jobs as soon as I was old enough to work legally. That sense of entitlement that many around me have has always baffled and annoyed me. I can't say that we live frugally, but I've always understood that I need to work for what I want. Even so, I can't say that I'm particularly ambitious.

Anonymous said...

I haven't noticed much of a relationship among my students between entitlement and ambition. Maybe it is the area in which I teach, but the ones with ambition are the ones with a purpose. Generally they plan to Save the World in one way or another... and one day some of them may be able to.

The entitled kids expect their degrees handed them on a plate with minimal to no effort. I also never get phonecalls from helicopter parents of the ambitious ones. (Bless FERPA.)

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Duchesse said...

(I can't resist reading even tho I am on vacation!) As a generalization, being given everything, without any requirement of effort or responsibility- kills ambition, but wealth of itself does not. I have not seen frugality decrease ambition, but

I have seen frugality devolve into stinginess. I think, also, that it can be a screen for envy. (I can't have it so I'll act like I wouldn't want it, anyway.) That's the dark side of a characteristic I admire very much.

Funny about Money said...

It's an interesting question. My son is very frugal, and it must be said he's not burning with ambition.

On the other hand, one thing I've observed about him is that he's become could say realistic about the place of work in one's personal life. He no longer feels making a lot of money is important, but instead sees quality of life and friendships as more significant that a high-powered career. It must be said that in the last recession this kid was out of work for a year (except for one freelance contract), and never succeeding in landing new work in the industry where he had begun in San Francisco, he was forced to return home and accept a dreary job in what he regards as a dreary city. It's a dead-end job; he's never been able to get out of it, and with a depression on, he's afraid to quit and pursue an MBA that probably will do no better at improving his employment prospects than the degree has done for his friends.

That would take the shine off your hopes for the future. Strikes me that many young people's apparent lack of ambition is just a realistic view of expectations in a collapsed economy that may never recover.

Frugal Scholar said...

@All--Thanks for your thoughtful comments, which show me that I need to give the issue more thought myself. Among other things, I need to define ambition, success, passion, etc....and differentiate between my life/issues and my children's lives/issues, which are, in fact, theirs.

I promise: more on this topic later. Thanks so much for all the food for thought.