Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A letter to my son, on thrift

Dear Zack,

Last night you said I was cheap.  Your exact comment was "Mom, sometimes you cheap out on Nate and me."  I laughed it off with a short explanation, but in truth it kind of hurt my feelings.  And it gave me pause.  I spent today, while cleaning your bathroom, pondering the meaning of "cheap."

If you will recall, the incident which caused you to call me cheap was at Walgreen's, where we had stopped after your orthodontist appointment, no questions asked, to get you a couple of boxes of the special pipe cleaner toothbrushes to clean around your braces.  At the checkout, after I had been asked to buy candy and toys throughout the store, your brother desperately grabbed for a box of Angry Birds bandaids and I said "no way, those are $2.99 a box!  We have plenty of bandaids at home."
I'd like to point out a couple of things to you.  First of all, we do have plenty of bandaids.  I got them for about 50 cents a box last time they went on sale and I had coupons.  And they had Lightning McQueen on them, so they weren't even the off brand.  Second of all,  who cares what you have on the bandaid?  It's just going to go on your bloody knee or your brother's bloody elbow or some other bloody body part.  The Angry Bird or Cars logo will be pretty much obfuscated with your seeping blood.  At the end of the day, your bloody Bandaid will be in the landfill with everything else, so I'm wondering why should I pay an extra $2.50 a box for the privilege of having a certain brand.  Just something to think about.

But the most important thing, Zack, is that I am desperately hoping to teach you boys about value.  What is valuable?  The cartoon character of your choice on a Bandaid?  A video game?  Toys?  An iPad?  In the end, only you can decide what things are valuable to you.  We could probably agree that the special little tooth cleaners are valuable; you only get one set of adult teeth in life, and it is important to take care of them.  And if you recall, I did not complain one bit about getting them.  We could probably also agree that spending the money for the braces was also worthwhile.  I only need to see your handsome smile to know that the braces are a good investment.  Other things you love are your drum kit, your legos and your books.  But how do we afford those things?  

Well Zack, we are able to afford all the things we need and some of the things we want by, frankly, cheaping out on all the other little stuff that has no meaning to us.  Take our television, small by most families' standards, but a dream compared to the old "tv set." (Daddy'll probably explain all about cathode ray tubes to you at some point.)  We like to do camping vacations because we like to be outdoors, and we can hopefully save for the occasional whiz-bang trip (you do remember Disney, right?)  We don't really want you playing video games, so we don't put a lot of money in that direction. And you already know we weren't kidding when we could afford a drum kit and lessons or a sweet game system, but not both.  Hearing you practice downstairs tells me you made the right choice.

And it is really all about choices, Zack.  Big ones and small.  You may think a $2.99 box of Bandaids never put anyone in the poorhouse, but as you grow you will see that financial responsibility involves hundreds of the same choices, day after day, week after week.  When  you go to the grocery store with me you see that I could pay anywhere from 99 cents for a loaf of bread, up to $4 or more!  I could roll the same load of groceries out the door for $50 or $350 depending on each one of those little choices.  Over time that adds up.  The savings enable Dad and I to do cool things, like buy you a bike, take you and your brother on a cool trip, send you to college, or even put braces on your teeth.  To put it in easy terms, if I save $2.50 a month on Bandaids, that's $30 in savings over the course of the year.  What would you rather have: character bandages or a new Lego set?  Maybe a dinner at Steak and Shake?  Or we could donate that some of money to a charity for the lost boys of the Sudan that you've been telling us about.  Bless someone else with our savings.  It's worth thinking about.
I know that it sometimes seems like all the kids around you have all this cool stuff.  Some of their families just have more money than we do, but frankly, some of them don't.  Some families go deeper and deeper into debt just to try to keep up with what everyone else has.  You know what?  My feeling is when you get on that path, you will never be satisfied. Once you start indulging every little whim, you'll just want more and more.

In sum Zack, I love you.  I want you to have the benefit of knowledge I never had.  I always thought my mom was cheap too.  She always just said "Put that back.  We can't afford it."  I got tired of hearing that and feeling poor.  I don't want to do that to you, which is why I'm taking the time to explain all this. Daddy makes a good living.  We can afford it.  We just choose not to.


PS. Daddy says if we have to move to Chicago he will buy us all iPads out of guilt. xo


  1. Love it, Shannon. In fact, I'm going to send a link to Warren. Sometimes I know he thinks I nag him about how he spends his money...but really, I just want him to realize the power of his choices. Great letter!

  2. I just found this post and LOVE it. This is exactly what I tried to say to my child when she complained that I was cheap ("Why are you so cheap all the time?!"). I pointed out that little spends add up to big spends and then tried to translate that into something she really wants to do. "If we spend five dollars twice a week on going out for ice cream, that's forty dollars a month, or $480 a year" -- that's when her eyes got big -- "and that would buy two plane tickets to go and see [friends who live across the country]." I'm hoping it sinks in, but your post is a great reminder to keep having that kind of conversation and not just resorting to "we can't afford it". I love your last remark about how we can afford it, but choose not to -- because it is about values and, as Susan comments above, the power of our choices. Thank you!