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Frugal Lessons from My Father

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

My happiest childhood memories have very little to do with "stuff." I grew up in a small rural town in Ohio, free of pretentiousness, and I was blessed to live a block away from the park with around 20 kids my age within walking distance.

At that time, phones were connected to cords, and you knew where to meet up if nobody was at the park by finding a group of bicycles lying on their sides in someone's yard. Select sports weren't important. We developed by playing sports nonstop with one another and refereeing ourselves, toughening each other up by letting fouls go so you didn't look soft.

Does this strike true for you? Do you long for those days?

Only a few possessions come to mind from childhood that gave me joy. I mowed lawns to buy and collect baseball cards I often traded with my friends. I had little green plastic soldiers I would use to simulate wars. And, of course, the KangaRoo zipper shoes that came with a zipper pocket for our lunch money.

It's not that way anymore. What typically pulls kids together is the "stuff" they own: phones, video games, hoverboards, and gaming computers. If they can't afford it, they're excluded. Social media amplifies the false images of happy consumers wearing prized possessions, manifesting the problem of keeping up with the Joneses, to now, keeping up with the Kardashians.

Compulsive consumerism and striving to buy more stuff make us worse off than we would've been at baseline. Furthermore, studies show that people from decades ago are just as happy as people when they didn't have half of the things we have now. Said in another way, tangible items do not bring us happiness.

It was fascinating that older generations were just as happy, if not happier, with less stuff. I decided to interview my 76-year-old father, whose passion for frugality is fueled by being a social norm contrarian. He relishes in the moments when others are in awe of the obnoxious ways he saves money. Take, for instance, what he wears.

As I shared in a previous post, he purchased these pants when he cycled across the country 16 years ago at 60. The legs zip on and off, making it ideal for weather changes. Notice the color difference between the legs and the pants. He has no interest in purchasing new pants.

He sees these pants as perfectly fine and proudly wears them in public, and they are nicer than the clothes he wears that require duct tape. Seriously. Take 45 seconds and listen for yourself.

My dad spent a lifetime mooning the Joneses instead of trying to keep up with them, and now he's the "millionaire next door." He would never suggest that his life was a journey of suffering, all for the retirement of ease. He refuses to allow materialistic social norms to influence his happiness.

My father defies science. Studies have found that subconsciously we care a lot about where we stand relative to other people, even more than our absolute level. A salient but often irrelevant standard against which all subsequent information is compared. My father never allowed his happiness to be dictated by how he compared with others.

As you may guess, I don't have a problem trying to keep up with the Joneses. How we grow up shapes our relationship with money. Various instruments allow you to understand better how your childhood has shaped your relationship with money. Understanding the origin of your partner's relationship with money can help reduce arguments and tensions about personal finances.

Understanding where we come from is necessary for our marriage. A practical example is a conversation I was forced to have tonight about new living room furniture. Reasonable people who sit on our couches agree with the rest of my family that what we have is falling apart, and I would be fine holding out to buy something at a garage sale. You may feel this is unreasonable without understanding how I was raised.

Earlier today, I shared with Emily , the co-author of this series, an interview with my father sharing our living room furniture from my childhood. Below is a link to the short discussion and the home we were in where we pulled the furniture from.

I showed Hope the video, and her first reaction was that I had missed an opportunity. The dresser that my dad brought up nail holes all over the front of it from the debris whipping around. Hope noticed this immediately. For me, it was par for the course.

Hope and I have an understanding of purchases such as these. I realize that I am incapable of "normal" purchases driving my happiness, so I try not to participate in buying big-ticket items beyond agreeing upon the budget for the item. She enjoys comparison shopping with my son, which they will do over the weekend after meeting with a designer. Meanwhile, I'll be smoking meat, drinking whisky, and watching college football's opening weekend outside with friends.

It may appear as if I'm sending mixed messages. On the one hand, I am glorifying the happiness that comes with frugality. On the other hand, I agree to purchase nice new living room furniture.

Managing money well with a partner can only happen when we compromise and have understandings such as these. When you are married, personal finance is not just personal; it's a part of your relationship.

Hope has spent our marriage enduring my hard line of saving and investing a significant percentage of our income. She grinds her teeth and holds back in moments such as when I showed up at my son's banquet where hundreds of parents were attending, most wearing suits, and I was wearing a Callahan t-shirt from Tommy Boy and shorts. The best part was when people started taking pictures after he won an award.

In return, I will not fight for what most would consider a reasonable choice to purchase new living room furniture. And to be clear, by usual standards, my wife is frugal and is undoubtedly not an overspender.

We both enjoy experiences more than possessions, and we both value generosity and the importance of giving time, talents, and treasures to those we love most. And we always prioritize providing what our children need to be successful and happy.

We can make all of this work because we talk through our relationship with money. After reading this article and listening to my father, I imagine you understand my relationship with money.

When was the last time you had a conversation like this with your partner? Do they understand the origins of your relationship with money and what you value the most? If you want to make happy money decisions together, start with a conversation on a Money Date about what money decisions make you happy and the decisions that don't.

If you're unfamiliar with what a Money Date is, there is no better place to understand it than the first article of our ten-part budgeting series, How to Budget When Your Spouse Won't: Go on a Money Date. As I shared in the article, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created a free interactive tool to assess financial well-being (financial health).

On your first Money Date, you should consider using the tool to assess your financial well-being. Living check to check creates stress and, if left unattended, can create serious marital problems.

Being frugal makes you happy if it leads to financial health for you and your partner.

After positioning yourself to be financially healthy, your Money Date conversations can be more focused on your greatest memories of happiness together. I think what you'll find is that most of those memories originated from spending quality time with one another, where you felt encouraged and loved, and was immersed in an experience together.


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Santos, L. (n.d.). The science of well-being. Coursera. Retrieved August 31, 2022, from


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