My 2019 Resolution: Be Less Thrifty and More Thoughtful

I remember finding an article about my great-grandmother just as I was graduating from college and preparing to go out the world as a newly minted adult. “LOCAL WOMAN NAMED THRIFTIEST WOMAN IN THE COUNTY,” the headline read. Never mind that my great-grandmother lived in a sparsely populated, rural country in central Wisconsin, where there likely wasn’t much competition. The distinction made an impression on me. It was matched only by the financial feats of other women in my family, like my mother, who I once watched save more than $200 through the strategic, on-the-store-floor use of Kohl’s cash, or my sister, who has a real nose for spending pennies on the dollar at Target.

Thrift may run in my family, but I didn’t get the genes. I have a habit of wandering through a store with a shopping list clutched in one hand and a pile of coupons in the other, the list carefully created to complement the coupons. I am susceptible to savings ploys, those deals devised by Big Box stores to lure you in and spend far more than the $30 needed to save ten bucks. I save money by obsessively checking Mint and by looking for the yellow Loyalty Club Card savings stickers in the grocery store. I repeat my mother’s formula in my head whenever I try on clothes: How many times will I wear this thing? What’s the cost per wear? No matter what I do, I always suspect that I could have economized better, that somehow a thriftier, more frugal person would have walked out of a store with more money still in their pocket. I picture my mother and my sister and my great-grandmother, and I’m convinced they would have made my buck work like a ten-dollar bill.

I know, I know: there’s a difference between frugality and thrift. In my family, the women are good at both. My grandmother was born just as the Great Depression was in full swing, and she later raised five children on her husband’s factory income. Like her mother before her, my grandmother managed to magically make my grandfather’s meager paycheck stretch to meet their family’s needs.

The year I graduated from college in 2008 and discovered my great-grandmother’s financial feats in the local paper, I faced the Great Recession. I didn’t have a problem spending too much; I had a problem finding a paying job. If the Depression infused my family line with the utmost thriftiness, the Recession taught me that if I spent money on anything it had to last me long enough to get me to my next paycheck. I couldn’t afford to think long-term. I think my grandmother and great-grandmother would recognize my survival mode.

Now that I am safely employed, with an emergency fund, a retirement account, some writing side-gigs, and a plan for paying off my student loans, I don’t want to spend the free time I do have trying so hard to save a little cash. Instead, I want to know that the money I spend is going toward the things I really want. This might sound like a classic millennial whine, and I’ll agree. There’s a huge difference between needing to save money and wanting to save money. I don’t want to simply survive — I want to thrive, and where’s the thrift in thriving? I will always feel like there’s an elusive deal out there that I neglected to take advantage of; I will always feel like I’m failing to live up to my family’s famous thrift. But financial acumen isn’t about feelings; it’s about setting goals, then setting out to reach them.

This year my spouse and I made a big purchase: we bought our first car. In preparation, we consulted Consumer Reports, took a couple cars for test drives, made a list of must-haves, and talked with trusted friends who had lots of experience dealing with car dealers. We had a pretty good sense of what we wanted, and we knew what our bottom line was when it came to negotiating with the sales team. Was I convinced for weeks afterwards that my mother and my sister would have gotten a better deal? Absolutely. But after we brought our new car home, my spouse and I debriefed the experience. What would we do differently the next time we purchased a car?

Our answer, it turned out, was not much. We had a clear definition of what we needed in a new car and why the car we ultimately purchased was right for us. This long-term purchase helped clarify how I could tackle short-term financial purchases.

In 2019, I will ask myself:

  • What are my financial priorities for the short-term? Why?     
  • What do I want to invest in? (We’re talking tangible things — furniture, kitchen tools, a reliable car — not stocks and bonds.)
  • Where can I find good advice about what to purchase?
  • How much is my time really worth? Would my time be better spent trying to figure out how to save money on a new toaster, or should I buy the toaster recommended by Consumer Reports and enjoy the time saved?
  • What does thrift look like for me?
  • How will I know that I’m succeeding?

Buying a car is a big expense, and not one I plan on making on any kind of regular basis, but the purchase helped us establish our financial goals, our priorities, and our definition of success.

So, in the new year, I resolve to make financial decisions not based on whether or not I’m saving the most money, but rather whether I’m setting myself up to meet my goals. We made a plan to review these questions every month to keep them top of mind and to revisit them in detail whenever there’s a big purchase on the horizon. I may not be able to compare myself to the thriftiest woman in one Wisconsin county, but I do believe she would be proud.

Hillary Moses Mohaupt has lived in the Mid-Atlantic for over a decade but in her heart she’s still a Midwesterner. Follow her on Twitter at @_greyseasky_.

Photo by Guus Baggermans on Unsplash.

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