My Mother, the Clearance Queen
I don’t believe my mother has ever purchased anything for full price.
You’ll often hear her say things like, “I got this sweater dress for $15. Isn’t it cute? It was half off, and then I used some of my Kohl’s cash. Can you believe it was $70 retail? Who in their right mind would pay that much?”
Instead of browsing around through a store and checking out the newest inventory, my mom will make a beeline for the few clearance racks in the back to see if she can fish out something that has been overlooked, ignoring the shiny salespeople and the beckoning window displays.
Her philosophy on buying things (and life, really) is that you should never accept a first offer and you should always have a few coupons ready in your purse. As one of the most devoted disciples in her Church of Savings, I have followed in her footsteps, shopping in the clearance racks and grimacing while watching my friends pay full price. Sometimes I slip them coupon codes off my phone when they’re in the checkout line.
But my mom wasn’t always the Clearance Queen she is today. Although she’s always been pretty thrifty, money used to be tight for my parents after a few financial decisions that didn’t pan out—like buying a piece of property they probably shouldn’t have, and getting into too much credit card debt. They were often living paycheck to paycheck, and probably just a couple of unlucky incidents away from real financial crisis. My mom, as she explained it to me recently, was born into the “charging generation” and it affected the way she thought about money in her early adulthood.
“If you wanted something that you didn’t have enough in your bank account for, you just charged it. We just didn’t really think about it in this negative way,” she said to me.
After hitting financial rock bottom, my parents clawed their way back to stability in large part thanks to my mother’s determination to stretch a dollar as far as it could go. In those uncertain times, my mom would spend hours scouring the newspaper for sales on groceries, using as many coupons as she could to make ends meet. She’s told me more than once how nervous she would get at the grocery store while waiting for them to tally everything up, worrying she wouldn’t have enough cash to cover the total. She would obsessively add everything up in her basket to make sure she could avoid the embarrassment of putting things back at the checkout.
As time went on and my parents started to earn more money, my mom never let go of her scrimping and saving tendencies. Even though she’s not one of those extreme couponers that you might see on a reality show, she is steadfast in her financial beliefs of only shopping discounts (unless it’s something you know you’ll want and love for a long time), using cash in most circumstances, and not buying into the idea of having the latest and greatest of everything.
Admittedly, it took me a while to get on board with not having the latest and greatest of everything. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a Razor scooter, a Tamagotchi, or a Furby (although I think that Furbies just generally freaked out my mom), and unfortunately spent a lot of time being envious of friends who had the newest toys and gadgets.
My childhood room was instead filled with books that were borrowed from the library or bought at garage sales, and lots of hand-me-down dolls from my sister. Of course, I was incredibly fortunate to have everything I needed and then some (like my American Girl doll and my ceramic tea set), but toys and presents were not especially extravagant or over-the-top like in many other families. This inevitably caused a lot of tension in my teenage years when I thought not having a Razr cell phone or UGG boots was going to make me spontaneously combust. It was impossible for me to get on board with boots that were similar to UGGs that my mom bought at JCPenney (on sale, obviously) and I couldn’t cope with the fact that I was one of the only girls at school who didn’t have a pair of True Religion jeans.
But eventually my envy and embarrassment of not having this year’s “it” thing disappeared, and my mother’s “why would anyone pay full price” mantra stuck. She would be proud to know that I’m perfectly fine with my iPhone 5, much to the disappointment of the T-Mobile salesman who repeatedly asked “are you sure?” She might also love to know that I scour Craigslist and yard sales to find furniture that somewhat resembles Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel, and that I usually buy all of my makeup from CVS and have never set foot in a Sephora. Following my mother’s sage advice, I ordered my wedding flowers from a grocery store florist, not a boutique shop (“It’ll save you a fortune!” she said). In reverence to her financial teachings, I always give a firm “no” when the clerk asks if I want to apply for a store credit card to save 10 percent.
I do have my own somewhat superfluous spending habits—I have a weakness for books, coffee, and really good beer—but for the most part I try to stray away from purchasing anything I don’t need. In fact, my husband often has to push me to purchase things we need, like the table we need to buy for our still-empty dining room.
I’ve never really sat down and had an in-depth conversation with my mom about finances, but I learned through observation that being fairly immune to the pressures of financial status is liberating. I don’t feel the pressure to buy a luxury vehicle or live in specific neighborhoods in sought-after cities. Escaping the proverbial hamster wheel of frivolous spending and learning how to shop for bargains is, in my opinion, one of the greatest lessons my mom has taught me about money and life.
Jamie Birdwell-Branson is a lifestyle freelance writer based in Ohio. Her work can be seen in Zillow.com’s blog, Porchlight, BobVila.com, WeddingBee.com, and many others. You can connect with Jamie on Twitter at @jbirdwell or her website.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Parents Month series.
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