Reader Request Week 2009 #5: Having Been Poor

X writes:

Reading your ‘being poor’ topic and having been under-monetized at points in my past, I’m wondering how you think that affects/should affect a person’s current lifestyle. Could being a packrat be related to that? Habitually looking at the price of everything just another case of OCD? How about being traumatized by the thought of throwing away leftover food?

It’s an interesting question. I don’t think having been poor at a certain point in one’s life should have to affect one’s lifestyle on a day to day basis; having been poor doesn’t necessarily have to afflict one with something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder when it comes to money, or have caused lasting damage to one’s psyche. I’m aware the sometimes it does, of course. But I’m also aware of people who handle that aspect of their past just fine, and don’t let their previous poverty fill with with either shame or apprehension. I’m pretty much in that boat, as far as I can tell: Having been poor when I was younger was not fun, but it’s not something I dwell on day to day. I have other things to fill up my time.

That said, speaking on a personal level, I am aware of some behaviors that I suspect have at least something to do with having been poor when I was a kid:

  • I tend to save a lot more of my income than most people I know, so that if the bottom drops out of my life, I have a cushion. And when I say “I” here, you should understand it to mean “we,” as it’s actually my wife who handles the family finances. Without going into actual figures, I suspect we save about 20% of our income on a yearly basis; the current national savings rate is about 4% at the moment (and not too long ago was rather a bit under that). Now, one reason that we can do that is that we make a comparatively large amount of income relative to the national average, so doing a large amount of saving does not cut into our spending on essentials or even much on our frivolities. But even when we made substantially less we were saving quite a lot.
  • I’m notably debt-adverse. Having seen first-hand how debt screws with people, neither I nor Krissy has much in the way of consumer debt. I use my Amex for most purchases I make so that I can have a paper trail for my accountant, but the Amex is a charge card, not a credit card, and I have to pay it off every month (Amex keeps trying to enroll me in the program that lets me carry a balance; I keep telling them that’s not why I use them). We have Visa cards as well and also use them, but keep the balance on them low enough that we could pay them off at once without making a dent in our savings.
  • Likewise, we don’t get fancy with the debt we do have, namely our mortgages: We have stable, predictable, boring 30-year mortgages on our properties, thus avoiding the drama of ARMs and other dumb ways to finance the place one lives.
  • I buy for value over flash: I’m not particularly cheap when it comes to high ticket items, but I also have a tendency to buy solidily performing objects over the hottest and coolest thing, partly because I intend to use whatever I’m buying for a fairly long time. This is why, as an example, the average life expectancy for a car in the Scalzi household is 12 years and climbing and why I still use a television I bought in 1991, and also why, when I buy a new computer, I pass the old one down to Athena. It’s also why I mildly resent cell phones at this point, since I know the Blackberry Storm I bought last November will have a usable lifespan of about two years, which doesn’t fit with my lifestyle choices, those bastards.
  • Related to the above, while not notably cheap in a day-to-day sense, you’re also not going to be seeing me spend conspicuously; my tastes and most of my enthusiasms are notably middle class at best. Part of this is the financial section of my brain asking “why are you spending money on that?” and if I can’t come up with a good answer for it, I tend not to buy it. Part of it is also a practical aspect of my personality (“what are you going to do with that?”) that keeps me from collecting things if I don’t have a use for them in more than a “gee, that’s pretty” aspect.

(This isn’t always true, of course: I bought the original artwork for the Old Man’s War hardcover for about half the advance for the book, primarily because you only have a first novel once, and I wanted a physical commemoration of that. On the other hand, that’s also probably the single most expensive thing I have in the house. The thing I spend the most on is books, which drives Krissy a little nuts, because I already have enough of those.)

(Related to this: I’m a bit of a packrat, but I don’t think it’s because I was once poor, it’s because a) I’m lazy and getting rid of stuff takes time and thought, and b) I tend to associate things with events around the time I got them, so it’s like getting rid of memories, and I’m sentimental bastard. I sort of need to get over that; at this point I have more crap than clear memories.)

All of the above can be summed up, I think, as: Don’t buy what you can’t afford, don’t buy what you don’t have use for and have enough on hand for when life whacks you upside the head. Which I think in general is good advice for anyone, but in practice tends to be an attitude of people who have experience with poverty one way or another.

(But not the attitude of everyone with experience with poverty, to be sure: there’s the flip side of this attitude, in which people who were formerly poor feel the need to show off their new perceived wealth through ostentatious display. I’ve been fortunate that my showing off gene did not feel the need to express itself that way.)

Note I don’t think these attitudes of mine are particularly virtuous one way or another; they’re simply attitudes that I’m comfortable with and which work for me. But I don’t doubt that the reason they are there has something to do with where I have been before in my life, in terms of poverty. There are worse ways for poverty to mark someone, to be sure. In this as well as in other ways, I’ve been pretty lucky.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else.)

76 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2009 #5: Having Been Poor”

  1. I’m a packrat by heredity, on both sides of the family. This has manifested in both me and my brother despite growing up in a prosperous middle class family.

    However, I was pseudo-poor during and right after college, which has left me with a compulsion to pay bill well before the due date, and the habit of putting my daily coin change in a jar as a reserve for when you run out of money before payday.

  2. I’m not saying you’re wrong about why you’re a packrat, but I’ve noticed that people who’ve experienced poverty have a higher tendency to be packrats that people who have not.

    On the other hand, maybe people who haven’t experienced poverty are just more willing to pay for storage space, or have bigger basements that we never get to see.

  3. I have to agree with you. Coming from a background of growing up very poor I agree that it’s not something that consumes my conscious waking moments. But in my case, and I am but one case study, the experiences I had when I was poor have stayed with me. I don’t have any shame about my past but I think it’s what’s help me develop into a person who closely monitors the price of everything and worries about getting by. My husband comes from a different background and where we don’t fight over money and he’s quite frugal I don’t think he’ll ever truly understand where my worries come from. I’ve had my own debt problems as an adult and the threat of the bottom dropping out now keeps me on the straight and narrow path when it comes to spending money and buying products.

    My husband and I are doing okay right now. We’re both students, with loans, and we exist paycheck to paycheck with nothing left for savings, but we don’t spend more than we make and will aggressively attack our loans when we graduate. But even at the okay level that I’m at now I still remember how bad it can get and this still makes me very nervous.

    So, yeah, I don’t think being poor is something that should or automatically continue to affect a person but I’d say that it might or might not depending on the person and situation.

    P.S. I’m a recovering packrat, too, but I also don’t keep things because I was poor. I keep things because they all have a story attached to them and I can’t get rid of my stories! I’m trying to get over this but it is hard, so hard, to remove the emotions from a toy or tshirt I wore when I was 7 that brings memories flooding back to me. Thinking on it, though, maybe there is something there, for me, in the fact that I didn’t have a lot growing up so what I do have takes on huge importance. I don’t know; this kind of psychology is hard to pin down.

  4. *whew* Thank god. I thought I was just a premature old fart (less than a year older than you, John) for having those same attitudes. My wife thinks I’m a cheapskate… while paying down those large credit card bills she ran up pre-me. :D

    But I keep books because, well, they’re /books/. Goes without saying. *waves geek flag proudly*

  5. What about the money dream? One thing I’ve found with people who didn’t just grow up poor, but grew up *knowing* they were poor (which is not always the same thing) is that they tend to have the same recurring dream well into adulthood and well after they have means.

    You are walking down the street, and you start finding money on the ground, first coins, then larger and larger amounts until at some point you realize, “Aw, this is just a dream!” and you wake up disappointed.

  6. My spending and saving habits have a lot to do with the financial situation I lived in as a kid, when I was forced to answer the phone when the creditors called to talk to my mom, who *still* spends money she doesn’t have. What’s odd, tho, is my husband’s parents: his mom, having grown up in a family with money, is frugal as hell; his dad, who had sharecropper parents, loved to spend money (I use the past tense because, unfortunately, my FIL is no longer in the present tense). The husband and I were poorish for a long time (we threw the cheapest possible wedding), and now we still don’t go wild & crazy even though we know we could. Like Scalzi, we drive cars til they die, have a boring mortgage, pay our bills off each month, and do scads of research when making a big purchase to be sure of getting worth for price.

    I still have moments when I *WANT*. To get over it, I’ll put that thing in the shopping cart and walk all over Target with it. And more often than not, I’ll end up putting it back because, well, I’ve just “owned” it for 10 minutes and it didn’t change my life.

    As far as the pack-rat thing: I understand why we hang onto things because they’re attached to memories, but Peter Walsh (the Clean Sweep guy) schooled me out of it by saying that getting rid of the thing doesn’t erase the memory. I purge my house a couple of times a year, and each time I feel so much lighter and more clear-headed. However, I do find myself buying more food than two people can eat and *that* is definitely connected to the poverty I experienced when I was a kid.

  7. I follow most of your financial rules and I’ve never experienced true poverty. I personally became debt-averse the hard way. My first job was as a contractor for a guy who would happily tell me (and the credit card company) that I was making $40k/year (in 1988) but not particularly good at writing the actual checks. As such, I spent like I made that expecting to get it “any day now”. That, plus some “but I want it now!” experiences put me deep in credit card debt. It was the realization a couple years later, after acquiring a real job that actually paid, that I could be living quite well if I wasn’t paying half my cash to Mastercard that lead me to be massively debt averse.

    After I paid it all off, which required five years of pretty spartan living, I resolved never to run a balance again.

    Though I do use credit cards for everything. Rewards cards are a gold-mine for people who pay their balance at the end of the month.

    Both my wife and I went through patches where we lived very spartanly and I think it was a good experience as it makes you realize that you don’t actually *need* all that crap. We’re doing very well now and spend a lot on things we certainly don’t need, but are very rigid about having inflow exceed outgo by a significant amount and are very comfortable with the idea that in an emergency we could massively cut our spending. We enjoy cable but we don’t *need* cable.

    My wife and I have purchased exactly three cars since 1988. I watch relatives getting a new family car every 2-3 years and think they are nuts.

    Sometimes I think our society should have a month long holiday like Lent, only instead of giving up food, we give up buying anything other than food.

  8. John, Why do you carry a balance on your credit cards at all? Is your savings making more interest than your charge cards are charging? Obviously, your financial decisions are none of my business. Just curious is all.

  9. I grew up poor, with one parent having lived through the Great Depression, and the other parent having lived in Nazi-occupied Holland as a teenager. Being frugal was just how we did things.

    After college (graduated 1983) the economy was so bad that I couldn’t find a decent job for years. And, finally, to top it off, I married a woman whose motto was “money is for SPENDING”. Which led, ultimately, to bankruptcy.

    I haven’t carried a balance on a credit card in 10 years. I save approximately 40% of my actually now quite sizable income. I rarely buy anything aside from food, clothing, and books. But I’ve now got nearly everything I need. A house. A big screen tv. A nice BMW (although it’s 11 years old). Computers, musical instruments, and so on. I’m not a cheapskate – I just have learned that I don’t need a lot of stuff.

    I am positive that my early experiences of being poor contributed greatly to how I am.

    Spendthrift wife is now long gone, btw.

  10. I think that the way you handle your spending/saving/debt/etc. is, in fact, virtuous. Fewer people would find themselves in poverty, and perhaps the economy of the world wouldn’t be in such straits as it is if more people applied your line of thinking to fiscal issues.

  11. I’m not sure your behaviors are so much due to you growing up poor: of the people I’ve known who grew up in relative poverty, they divide pretty evenly between “I now have money and will spend spend spend!” and “I must squirrel money away like mad”, with all the gradations in between.

    That’s anecdotal, obviously, and now I’m curious about whether there’s any data on the subject.

  12. I have actually found that frugality can be passed along generations. I personally have never been anything but upper-middle class, but my father grew up in a large family with a small-ish income. The stories I heard, about the “stretched” milk, the one slice of meat sandwiches, the applying for every scholarship ever made, have clearly had an impact on me.

    Whenever my father does something cheap, buying RC cola, nasty store-brand margarine, etc, we call it “Child of Lars.” And if I exhibit similar cheapness, usually directed at clothing, I am “Grandchild of Lars.” And my whole family does it.

    I think I was very lucky to have this gene for thriftiness. When I got to college and had my first debit/credit card, the kind of debit card that lets you order things online, I did go a bit hog wild (Buying cookies from across the country!) but since I couldn’t spend more than I had, it really limited the amount of trouble I could get into.

    Being debt-advers (except for those student loans, because nothing is too important to get in the way of your education) did make economics class very challenging, as the correct answer always seemed to be the exact opposite of what common sense told me.

    But I guess it makes sense for me to try and hoard money, since I like to hoard everything else!

  13. Although I didn’t know this about you, I think I may have sensed it in a way. Thus when you opted to buy the netbook last year, I felt a sort of validity in my reasoning that if it was good enough for Scalzi, it’s good enough for me.

    Natch on the books. I always loved reading (as a kid, in the summer, mom used to load us all into the big Dodge van to go to the library where I’d max out the allowed, every single week) and my first job was in a bookstore. I may feel guilty about buying trendy clothes, or spending a bit too much out with friends, but I seem to never have any regrets at all about buying books. I’ve even spent the last few years hunting down my faves as a child, just for the sport!

  14. I suspect there is a certain heredity to packratting, since my grandmother held on to things like plastic bags for so long that they ended up fused together in a plasticky mass. I am getting better about getting rid of things, though–yes, I still hang on to objects out of sentiment, but only if that object evokes a singularly powerful memory. If there’s just a vague sense of ‘huh’ about it, it goes to Goodwill.

    My parents were children of the Depression and had to raise four kids on academic salaries, so I learned a lot about thrift from them. A few periods of unemployment have managed to devour much of my savings but it could have been worse–I could have NOT had those savings to fall back on during those periods.

    The notion of carrying enormous balances on credit cards with no intention to pay them down as quickly as possible is so alien to me as to be nearly incomprehensible. It’s not to say I’ve never gone into debt, just that when I do, I throw every bit of spare cash to make the debt go away as soon as I’m able.

    This apparently makes me some kind of weirdo by the consumer economy’s standards. But, considering that my current unemployed state is something of an ‘oh, bum’ rather than a massive crisis, maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.

  15. I plead guilty to both packrat tendencies and a need to acquire stuff.

    Both of my parents grew up in severe poverty (as in dirt floors and eating fried possum for dinner), and were thus proud of their ability to merely keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, even though there was little else. Both of them saved everything that could possibly be used by someone, somewhere. Empty condiment jars, broken radios, etc. If it might possibly have a useful life in the future, it was at least packed away.

    As I’ve become a self-sufficient and comfortably middle-class adult, I’ve managed to get away from the extremes of that (recycling programs and a Goodwill drop location down the street have helped), but I still do have some elements of it. I save candy and mint tins, for instance, even though I already have dozens that are currently housing many kinds of small items.

    I’ve also, though, kind of swung the other direction. While I’m still averse to throwing things away, I also like to spend money on new things. I’m not into egotistical displays of wealth, but I do like buying nice, tricked-out things I enjoy. I love my 21-inch monitor, for instance, I adore getting high-end hotel rooms when I travel and I’m currently shopping for a house that’s around 3,000 square feet and has all sorts of spiffy kitchen and bath upgrades. Not into schmancy cars (I drive a 7-year-old Toyota), but I do like some of the features one can get on higher end models, like heated seats and exterior temperature monitors.

    In a way, I’m sort of like the sheltered Catholic who then grows up to become a porn star or something. I never had any luxuries of any kind when I was growing up, and now that I have the money, I want to enjoy them. We’ve both worked very, very hard to get where we are, and I think we’ve earned these creature comforts. I’m not into spending money for the sake of spending money, and I have no desire to have status symbols, but if something has a feature I find useful or fun, and I can afford it, I’ll buy it.

    We probably don’t save quite as much as we should, we carry a bit of credit card debt, and there is the occasional pointless impulse purchase, but we do give quite a bit to charity, and I have absolutely no problem paying my fair share in taxes and voting for every education funding and public works measure out there. I realize some people may judge me a heartless yuppie or something because I like my toys, but I’d say we’re far less ridiculous about it than some.

  16. I’ve never been poor — my parents had some financial troubles during and after I was in school, but it didn’t affect me directly much, but I have much the same attitudes toward and experience with debt, mortgages and savings… except that having children in college tends to reverse the savings process that I’d managed so well over the previous two decades.

    And I finally have a good reason to keep buying all those books: When civilization and the Intarweb collapse, at least I’ll have three things: entertainment, insulation around my basement walls, and in an emergency, kindling (see – even those Gor paperbacks are good for something).

  17. There’s poor and then there’s poor. Having visited the Third World on a few occasions and seeing the poverty that many people experience, I have a sense that most of us in Western countries have never experienced the real depths of poverty. Worrying about meeting the rent is one thing, dealing with pellagra, scurvy, and all the other consequences of malnutrition is another. If you happen to have a few bucks to spare at the end of the month, a donation to the Red Cross or your local food bank would be nice.

  18. How being poor early in life affected me:

    Spend all my disposable income on beer, cigarettes, and lottery tickets

    Closet full of skin tight denim miniskirts

    Learned useful skills like knife fighting and hotwiring cars

    Still shoplift occasionally

    All my children have different babydaddies

    Never learned lawn care skills, and thus I destroy home values in any neighborhood I move into

  19. Sacrilege! This is not possible: “The thing I spend the most on is books, which drives Krissy a little nuts, because I already have enough of those.”

    Nobody can ever have enough books.

  20. Here’s a plea to all who having been poor, save stuff:

    please keep the family photo albums, genealogy notes, letters from people important to you, and the like in one spot, and let everyone know where it is. If you have a book you love, or a rare one, or a manuscript in a box, please keep it separate from the place where you stack the bills, or the newspaper clippings.

    Please don’t mix it in with the things you’ve saved because they might be useful someday, or might be fixed. I’m pretty sure I threw away some things that I would have really treasured, if I only understood what I was looking at. I had to go through two generations of things, with no one to guide me. There were a lot of things.

  21. In a way, I’m sort of like the sheltered Catholic who then grows up to become a porn star or something. I never had any luxuries of any kind when I was growing up, and now that I have the money, I want to enjoy them.

    I can empathize with that; while my (single-parent) mother wasn’t poor, she wasn’t exactly middle class, either … and I have a tendency to enjoy spending money on things I want, even though I’m careful about not overdoing it. :)

  22. I’ve had my 19 inch RCA TV since 1989 & still works fine.
    I buy my books from thrift shops, been getting my furniture from apt sales even though I have credit cards & store cards they get paid off quickly. I also go clothes shopping when they have sales & buy online with free shipping.

  23. I’d pay good money for a phone that had all the features I want, none of the crap I don’t, and would be capable of lasting 10 years under my hard, cruel mastery.

  24. One of the things that has always influenced my buying decisions (having come from poor, although not remained so) is deferring buying gratification. This means, always put it on the next Visa month instead of this one, or getting the food treat on the next grocery shop instead of the current one.

    Although this drives my wife and kids nuts, I find it will often remove the need for the flash side of the purchases and make you think twice (or three times) before buying something. It also has a tendency to make the purchases a little more expensive, since you often are buying higher quality items.

    Since we are in the process of moving, we’ve also discovered that we have a huge packrat mentality. Gah! The moving company has decided to set up a special plaque in our honor of “most accumulation of cruft.” :-)


  25. Oh yeah,

    In terms of books, because we’re moving we did an informal count, and it turns out that we have somewhere around 2 – 3 thousand of those little buggers — it turns out books are heavy.

    Also drives my wife nuts, but she still reads ’em when I buy ’em :-)

    I totally agree with Jaws on this one. I spend as much of my disposable income as possible on books. (John, keep writing please…)


  26. Interesting. I used to be a packrat before I went through a period of life where we were genuinely poor, and I came out of it a rabid anti-packrat. Probably this is because you can’t stay too attached to things you need to sell to pay the bills, and probably I developed a sense of being able to cut and run, if I had to, if I didn’t have all that crap to drag around.

  27. One of the terrors of my life was when I became a casualty of a hostile takeover. Boom – there went forty-five grand a year and just when my wife had quit her job to go back to school.

    I managed to find a new job in my wife’s home town, but at half the salary. I moved up, she stayed behind to sell the old house. Found a buyer who was about to close when her ex-husband decided to ‘renegotiate’ the divorce agreement. So we carried two houses for almost nine months. Lost almost everything – car, 401k, savings, etc. I spent three months apart from her too during that time, seeing her only on weekends.

    Learned an awful lot from that experience. We don’t spend money unnecessarily, but I have to say the best lessons came outside of money. The house we live in now? My wife didn’t even see until after we’d signed the papers for it. Now there’s trust for you!

    It was a very humbling experience. Now, we both have good jobs (that we enjoy!) and after five years have rebuilt our savings. Just added an addition to the house and are even considering a new car (the old one is a 2002 with over 105K miles).

    I would not wish it on anyone, but that year of hell had a very strong impact on who I am today.

  28. My ex was a spender, not a saver, and I developed a horror of living on the edge with massive credit card debt. Once I was single again, a lot of my work was as an independent contractor — I had to get in the habit of taking out from my own pay own paycheck for employment taxes, income tax withholding and retirement. That combination of circumstances made a saver out of me!

  29. Hmmm. I’m still using my first cell phone, which I got in 2001. It still works fine for what I use it for, which is to make phone calls. And now I can leave it out in the open and nobody will steal it. ;)

  30. Both my parents grew up pretty poor— my father one of nine, my mother fatherless post-WWII. They are both savers, for sure, and have some reasonable packrat tendencies (not nearly so bad as my Nana who saved old TV Guides!) I’ve had to work pretty hard to overcome my own packrat tendencies and have mostly succeeded— I still have a lot of mostly unnecessary things but it’s only mostly; I usually find a use for them once or twice a year.

    Haven’t used feathers for a good long time though. Ought to check to see if they’re still intact.

    Anyway, the only really distressing tendency from my POV of their growing up poor is that sometimes they push the limits of “still usable.” As in they just replaced their heater this year— the one that was original to their 1957 house. And we won’t mention the horror that is the carpet.

    But I think the scavenging is kind of fun, especially as my father somehow manages something like 500 gently used softballs a year. That complex is really wasteful sometimes…

    (FWIW, I thought we were upper middle class when we were growing up, even though I was always very conscious of money and took care of my clothes. Turns out we were solidly in the middle of middle class, but my parents knew how to stretch the money to make us think we were just shy of rich.)

  31. My mother grew up literally dirt poor: a poor farmgirl from a large farm family in a hardscrabble little town in the middle of nowhere.

    She absolutely has packrat syndrome. My father has been politely forcing her to slowly jettison stuff during their retirement.

    She also refused — when she still did most of the grocery shopping — to buy generic or store brand goods. Everything had to be name brand, even if the grocery expenses were stiff as a result. She simply would not buy ‘cheap’ even if the only difference was a label and a price tag.

    Now that my Dad is doing a lot of the grocery shopping, they’re buying generic and store brand stuff, and Mom doesn’t seem to mind too much.

    Dad didn’t have a lot of money growing up either, but his family was smaller and he was a ‘city guy’ (insert sound of my mother’s father spitting) so I don’t think he got the Poor Person PTSD the way my Mom clearly has (had?) Poor Person PTSD.

  32. A few other notes — during which I promise not to stray too far off topic, OK mythago?

    1) My wife and I made less than $10K the first year we were married. One thing about not having much money when you’re young, it sure as hell makes you appreciate having more money when you’re older!

    2) My wife spent several years in virtual poverty following her divorce from her first husband. She is now the ultimate anti-packrat, which suggests — to me anyway — that people who are very poor as adults might have a different brand of Poor Person PTSD compared to those who are very poor as children.

    3) Grocery Outlet — and other stores like it — are the bomb. Dollar stores too. No, this is not the highest grade stuff in the world. But when your weekly grocery budget is just $25 — as ours was in 1995 and 1996 — you make those dollars buy as much volume and quantity as can be managed.

    4) We had two beaters in the beginning, both of which died from neglect and poor maintenance. Now that we’re better off, we have just the one car — a Chevy 1500 LS full-size — and we maintain it thoroughly. We also made sure to pay off the car loan well ahead of schedule. Not having to deal with a car payment does wonders for a monthly budget.

    5) Now that we also own our first home, I cringe to think of the thousands we threw away on renting and leasing. If we could somehow have all that money back, we’d be able to pay off two-thirds of the current home loan! Ah well, I am glad we’re off the rent crazy train, but jeez, thinking about that lost cash just hurts.

    6) It’s astounding to see how many people have become this new breed of poor person called, “House Poor.” Basically, they bought more home than they could realistically afford, and now they’re slammed — especially in this economy — and can’t buy food or other basics unless it’s on charge cards. This problem seems almost pandemic. What were people thinking? If your yearly gross is only $75K why on Earth did you think you could afford a house that was ticket-priced at $385K? With an ARM no less?? Madness. Better to have a small home you can afford and which can be fixed and prettied up, than a big home that is so expensive you can’t even furnish it, and have to hang old bedsheets in the front windows because you can’t afford drapes.

    7) One thing my wife and I learned when we didn’t have money: make sure you overpay in taxes on every paycheck. You will miss the money monthly, but it’s terrific seeing those big returns come back in the spring, and you never have to sweat out cutting money back to Uncle Sam; money you know you can’t afford to lose in the first place.

    8) If there is one thing I hope comes out of the current financialocalypse, it’s Americans turning their backs on the Debt Lifestyle. Debt is poison. There are very, very few forms of healthy debt. Namely, a mortgage and a car payment. Beyond that, you’re playing with fire. My wife and I know. We burned ourselves up pretty good a few years back. The heartache and the headache of debt are just not worth it. Credit cards are like financial meth or heroine. They will destroy you eventually. JS noted he uses AMEX. I’ve got a Diner’s Club, and between it and my bank card, I can do all the on-line transactions and travel I need to do, without ever carrying an elephant on my back in the form of a credit card.

    9) If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it. That’s the bottom line. Americans forgot this wisdom over the last 20 years. Now we’re being given a remedial refresher; the hard way.

  33. I was interested in the ‘thrift-gene’ comments – I think a lot of that is to do with what you learn from observation and experience as a child. We weren’t poor when I was growning up, but we weren’t well off, either – my parents got married and started a family young, and my mum gave up work to look after us (myself and 3 siblings) and didn’t return to work until my youngest brother was in school, and then to part time and poorly paid work.

    What I learned was that you have to to save up first before you can have the what-ever-it-is you want, and that smtimes you can’t have what you want, when you want it, because the money simply isn’t there. Also, when I desperately wanted something time-critical (a holiday with some friends) my paretns stuck a deal that they would give me half as a combined christmas/birthday gift and would lend the other half, on the basis I got a weekend job to pay them off. I was paying for that holiday for 6 months after I got back, and it wasn’t worth it.

    I think it has stood me in very good stead, since. Becasue of the way my parents are and were, I never had an expectation or a belief that I could expect to have everything shiny and new as soon as I wanted it, and also because I find the idea of being in debt scary I have always lived within my means. In the current financial climate my income has fallen, but thankfully I am not stuggling because I wasn’t spending all my income and I don’t have any debt except for my mortgage.

    Of course part of this is luck – I have a erasonably well-paid job and haven’t had any major disasters, but I think is is also down to the mindset which says see what you want, then saev up for it. Half the time, by the time I have saved up, either I’ve decided I don’t want it afer all, or else the price has gone down and it costs me less (and because I do have some saveings, if I absolutely must have it and it won’t be there any more if I wait, I can mostly afford to splurge)

    And yes, I hoard stuff. Although I am getting better at weeding it out and throwing things away – limited starage space and frequent house moves will do that to you.

  34. The true value of money is not the ability to accumulate possessions but to provide security. In my experience, people that do not understand this are unhappy. I see many people trade their financial security for debt and possessions. It is sad really.

  35. About the packrat theory, I believe it’s just the opposite. Being poor doesn’t make packrats; I think people have a higher tendency to clean house.

    My parents, for example. Both grew up poor in Philadelphia row homes, sharing a room with 3-4 siblings. Now later in life, if it’s not nailed down, they’ll sell it. They sold their furniture when they moved, some of it was in the family for generations. They sold everything in the basement or garage, what didn’t sell they gave away for free or just threw out. Because those items held no retail value.

    Once, my dad I and traded cars for the weekend. I returned Sunday to find out he sold mine because someone made him an offer. It didn’t matter I had to get to work on Monday.

    Anyway, I think they see objects as items with potential value, a way to make more money.

  36. On packrattism: Mea culpa, guilty as charged. Sometimes it’s just a combination of laziness and the Hairpin Hypothesis[1]. I take a small amount of pride when I’m able to repair an older artifact to good-as-it-ever-was-or-maybe-better condition, in part because the “it costs too much to fix X — chuck it and get the new one” business model/philosophy has always rankled. [2] What with current disposal fees to get rid of a single TV running upwards of $30, repairing one is often cheaper than binning it, especially if someone who can’t afford a set will gladly accept a repaired/refurbished unit and pay me to boot.

    On book collections: Short of a personal Book Event Horizon, there is no such thing as too many books … only, sometimes, too few shelves or inadequate load-bearing surface (=flooring) in one’s domicile.
    Personal motto: Always. Lease. DOWNSTAIRS.

    1. “Nothing is so useless that it can’t be used to fix somethng else.”
    — Firmly believed by (or attributed to) Scotty in ST:TAS, “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” (?), adapted by Alan Dean Foster.

    2. I chucked that business model and got a new one.

  37. Sub-Odeon@34: If your yearly gross is only $75K why on Earth did you think you could afford a house that was ticket-priced at $385K? With an ARM no less??

    In the SF Bay area, you couldn’t get a house for less than $480k, so for many people, it was the choice between renting, and buying a house they had trouble affording.

    I’m not saying that was smart…but in this area, there was a situation where the average person with an average job couldn’t truly afford a house.

    Johnny@36: I completely agree. The true value of a fixed rate mortgage to me is that your payment will never change. That, plus a secure job, is about the best financial security you can expect to get in this world.

  38. I picked up a lot of debt-averse habits and so forth from my parents. They were poor when I was very young – bought a house in 1980 when I was a toddler, at the height of the British Columbia housing bubble. It went bust, they both lost their jobs, and B.C. slipped into a recession. (I’ve heard that if you just looked at the province, it was functionally a Depression.) I didn’t know we were poor – I had a nice big yard to play in, and enough to eat, and my parents could read library books to me. But the habits they learned when they were broke and borrowing money from relatives stuck with my parents. By the time I was six they were both working again, and we were okay financially. But we drove to stores that sold weird, cheap clothes for back to school shopping, and I never got toys or other junk just by begging, it was birthdays and Christmas only.

    I suspect my dad didn’t like being poor, but it wasn’t too weird to him, either. He was born in 1937 in rural Saskatchewan. The family farmhouse didn’t get electricity until the 1960s, and he and his two siblings were born at home. (That was way before even Saskatchewan got socialized medicine.) One of the things we gave away after he died was his old .22 rifle. He’d used it as a kid to shoot gophers for the five cents a tail bounty. He was a real packrat, he’d also brought a horse collar from Saskatchewan with him almost 30 years previously, and it was still in the garage.

    I’ve found myself appalled over the past few years as I tried to save money and pay off my student loans and then car loans early, while credit card companies keep sending me application after application.

  39. I grew up poor…but am not particularly a pack rat.

    If you have to buy a bigger space to store all the stuff you own your stuff owns you.

    Also, being horribly, horribly frugal, I see the tax deduction in unworn clothes, books I’ll never read again and presents I will never do anything with…and I can’t bear to see “money” laying around.


  40. Steve @39 – and lest we forget, many very intelligent people believed – because they were being told by Persons With Credentials – that the housing market in California would never go down, and that the rise in prices would slow but not reverse. Lots of people were terrified that if they didn’t buy RIGHT NOW that they would never, ever be able to afford a house – and anyway, because of course the market would always go up at some rate, you could always re-finance that mortgage or sell the house.

  41. My father grew up poor, became middle class and then upper middle class. Though he had money, I was ‘raised poor’. If I wanted something that all the other kids had, he would say “start saving your money”. He would also pressure me to work after school.

    Oddly enough none of this stuck with me right after college – before that I was kept on a short financial leash and just lusted after all the things I could have. After getting my first job I went on a wild spending binge buying up whatever I wanted after years of living on nothing. I racked up plenty of debt that grew out of control with owning three cars, a mortgage and whatnot. After I got married and had our first kid, things grew even worse as my wife stopped working to become a full time mother.

    After that we made a decision to pay down our debt and live within our means. After a few years of suffering, we are finally debt free. I’m driving an 11 year old car now and the wife is driving a 12 year old one. We live modestly now – buying most of our clothing at Goodwill and our food at places like Aldi’s. We live in a nice middle class neighborhood but have some of the oldest cars on the block.

    Now if I want to buy a high ticket item I “start saving my money” before making the purchase. My dad’s lessons have finally gotten into my thick skull.

  42. I am deeply in debt, having four credit cards maxed out and owning money to several bank. My solution is simple–I shall continue to spend at an accelerated pace until the problem is resolved. If works for the government, then it should work for me!

  43. I was as poor as anyone in college. Now I put away about half what I make. I demand 5 years from cellphones, which horrifies the salespeople.

    OTOH, once you reach a certain income level you have to be aware that you can often trade other people’s time for your own and come out ahead. Paying someone else $10/hr to clean, landscape, paint etc while I do some contract work at $70/hr is a no-brainer.

    And some things are worth buying because they’re such an improved value. You can get a 67″ DLP HDTV for under $2K now; they were over $5K several years ago.

  44. My wife and I are boomers. Our parents were influenced by the Great Depression and WWII. We both went through periods of having very little money. However that affected each of us slightly differently. We both agree it is wiser to buy used cars and boats and things like that. Now that I am retired and she is still working, I do most of the shopping. She is upset when I buy generics and store brands. She feels that now that we can afford it, we should have real Coke, real Cheerios, real Tide, and so forth, because she had to make do with substitutes earlier. From my point of view, it makes me feel better knowing that I am not subsidizing the advertising budget of Coca-Cola, General Mills and Procter and Gamble. I don’t see any real difference between brand names and store brands. I shop at Aldis and Wal-Mart, and sometimes Trader Joes if convenient. I think brand names are a rip-off.

  45. I didn’t grow up poor, but my father likely did. (I never asked, but he was a Nebraska farm child during the Great Depression, and his mother had a number of behaviors that look rooted in the experience of poverty — reusing teabags a dozen times, complaining about barbecues because the meat stuck to the grill was wasted, etc.) John’s comment “Don’t buy what you can’t afford, don’t buy what you don’t have use for and have enough on hand for when life whacks you upside the head” pretty much sums up my approach to personal financial management. I can only assume I picked up the attitude from my parents, rather than from direct personal experience.

    The first time I used a credit card, it scared the hell out of me. Decades later, I still remember my reaction. ‘I gave this guy a plastic card, and he gave it back along with the merchandise, and let me walk out of the store with it! This is *dangerous*.’

  46. I once had a gentleman in his late 60s working for me as an engineer. He didn’t work for the fun of it, he did it for the money. This despite the fact that his net worth was several million, and he could have easily bought the entire company, had he wished to do so.

    He was a depression child and never felt secure in his entire life, despite his millions. If the stock market went down a few points, he came to work depressed. If it went up, there was no indication.

    In my experience, a great many people who suffered through the Great Depression were (or are) like that. They were marked, and didn’t ever get over it.

    As for myself, my family was very poor when I was young; we were sharecroppers. But I never lacked for enough food or shelter, and our situation was not that exceptional for our area. So I didn’t feel poor. I did learn what the bottom of the socioeconomic scale felt like, so I’ve worked very hard to move up the food chain. And my habits are similar to John’s.

  47. Among my own friends and acquaintances, I’m starting to see a new trend – regret for overpriced education.

    Many, myself included, worked their tails off at night jobs making 10-15 bucks an hour part time to make ends meet while going to school to get that all-important degree. To pay for those degrees, we took out large student loans.

    Now here we are with few or no prospects for employment in our chosen fields, nowhere near enough of an increase in take-home pay to justify the years and tens of thousands of dollars in education (even if we do get that job), and a pile of debt. A number of us have graduate degrees. Not much to say about that other than “pointless.”

    And all of us, individually, came to the same conclusion – we’d be MUCH better off today if we had simply kept the jobs we found in school and never gone in the first place. We would have dependable jobs, easy work schedules, and, between us, about half a million dollars less debt.

    Looking back, 90% of the undergraduate education was completely, utterly worthless. It’s lowest-common-denominator BS, shoveled out to let idiots graduate so “everyone can go to college”. Higher education is only what you make of it, and you only get out of it what you put into it. The most I ever got out of my money was the $700 per semester I paid for community college when I was just starting out.

  48. “) One thing my wife and I learned when we didn’t have money: make sure you overpay in taxes on every paycheck. You will miss the money monthly, but it’s terrific seeing those big returns come back in the spring,

    If you’re reading please do not take this advice as it is awful.

    It is not that difficult to figure out your appropriate level of tax deductions. Giving the government more of your money interest free is terrible advice.

  49. There’s no “if” the bottom falls out. It’s always “when.”

    post-college, I’ve been unemployed 25% of the time. Degree, you might ask? Biochemistry. So, it’s not quite French Literature, and one of those famous “American scientists/engineers” the USA always supposedly has a shortage of.

    I don’t know anyone under 35 (my age group) who has been at a job more than 2 years. If it takes about 2-6 months to find a new job, again, you’re talking 10-25% of your time unemployed. Everyone, except gubmint workers or tenured teachers need to have that kind of savings at all times.

  50. Boo Hoo…

    Sorry, but I was in the same spot back between 86-91 after I graduated college.

    Student loans out the wazoo, credit card bills piling up, still living with my parents, barely making ends meet, making beans in my profession, and working a part time job to help make ends meet. There was an oversupply of programmers in the area, so it was an employers market.

    That’s just the way it was. Eventually, I pulled myself up, gained experience, my pay got better, I matured, started making better decisions about my finances, moved someplace with a lower cost of living, and poof, I’m not in trouble anymore.

    Now, there are plenty of people who went and got pretty useless degrees for a lot of expense, without looking at their job prospects after graduation. And I know from interviewing, and dealing with younger co-workers, there’s a sense of entitlement out there.

    Just because you got a degree doesn’t mean anything is OWED to you.

    All it does is provide an extra boost to your employability.

    One has to learn to be frugal. It took me years to get to the point where we are now paying cash for nearly everything. I could have saved a lot of time and worry by learning that lesson earlier, but that’s life. I (and my wife) have had to make sacrifices to get where we are.

    You want financial advice, try Dave Ramsey. He’s harsh, but his advice works. Basically it’s live on less then your means, pay off your debts, build an emergency fund, then start saving.

    You want to “get rich” by taking shortcuts, you’re going to be disappointed because fad schemes generally do not work.

  51. If you’re reading please do not take this advice as it is awful.

    It is not that difficult to figure out your appropriate level of tax deductions. Giving the government more of your money interest free is terrible advice.

    Owing money to the government and having to pay a penalty when it comes due because you already spent it, is terrible advice also.

    If a person is that strapped, they will likely misjudge, and end up owing.

  52. The student loan trap is a bad one. Back in the 80s when I went to college there was a reasonable maximum limit of $4K-$5K per year. now you hear about graduates who owe $120K for a 4 year degree. It’s not worth it.

  53. On further reflection, I suspect that people who were once poor and worked their way out of it over time are likely to exhibit the character traits that allowed them to do so. People who got out of poverty in some other way — marrying up, inheritance, lottery, ‘making it big’ as a professional athlete, etc. — are less likely to exhibit those character traits because they didn’t use them to make their money.

  54. A number of us have graduate degrees. Not much to say about that other than “pointless.” And all of us, individually, came to the same conclusion – we’d be MUCH better off today if we had simply kept the jobs we found in school and never gone in the first place.

    Depends on the degree. I doubt those were business, law, or engineering degrees.

    College is a system that rewards rational decision-making. Some majors are going to pay better than others, and you have to do your homework before choosing classes.

  55. I love reading the above stories. Much wisdom shared through experience.

    I agree most with one of the posters: We really don’t know what real poverty is in the US. In fact, I beleive that even in some quite bitter poverty in parts of the US, we’re in fact rich. We are rich beyond our wildest dreams. And if we learned to be grateful for what we have–small things like the sun, oxygen, our health, language, etc., we’d realize though we are “poor”, maybe that might even be another reason to be thankful.

    I have been poor without hardly any envy, because life was just always good. And now that I’m financially OK, I’m actually more happier eating a bean and rice dinner, and also have a clearer conscience than eating a meal with meat, knowing how that animal was raised and most likely treated.

    Not to get off the subject, but to get off the subject, if one looks around, it would do good for 3/4ths of the population to do a “Jesus Fast”–go 40 days with no food and only water. It won’t happen, but we’ll keep on spending money about how to lose weight.

  56. Kyle: Exactly! If you’ve gotten yourself out of a hole as an adult, and as a choice, you’re much more likely to keep those habits. If it was as a child, sometimes what’s “useful” and “pathological” aren’t as likely be separate.
    I’m a packrat simply because I’ve gone through things to toss them out, only to need them the same week for some reason or other. I still leave them in boxes, though, since I ‘probably’ won’t need them again.
    Oh the subject of ‘generic’ and ‘name’ brands… sometimes there *is* a difference. The picture on the box is beside the point: I’ve seen a lot of the cheaper packaging have small areas of weakness, allowing for breakage/ spillage/ oh, what, you didn’t want worms in that type problems. But you can more than make up for those cost differences by purchasing fewer ‘convienece’ foods and sticking to the basics.

  57. I’m another frugal guy. I grew up not poverty poor, just lower working class blue collar poor. My father had known deeper poverty (his father, a police officer, had been killed in the line of duty when my father was only 12). My wife is also frugal. Her father had a decent managerial position, but she was one of ten children so there was no money for luxuries.

    We bought our first house (1980) with a twelve and three-quarter percent mortgage (plus PMI) and considered ourselves lucky to have locked that rate in because they hit 14 percent by the time we actually closed. Penny-pinching was mandatory for us to survive those years, especially when we had two kids plus my son from a first marriage.

    Today we are comfortably middle class — both with graduate degrees in systems science, although about ten years ago my wife took advantage of her other master’s degree and became a middle school math teacher. I’m four weeks away from my 66th birthday and am hoping to work for another four years before retirement (and hoping not to fall victim to a layoff before then because I am at the point where age discrimination is pretty bad).

    I drive the newest car in the family — a 1999 Toyota Corolla. My wife is still driving her 1996 Toyota Camry. Yes, we bought both cars new — we just don’t believe in buying a new one when the old one is still running.

    [We’ve lost vast amounts of our 401(k) investments. I think tar and feathers might be appropriate treatment for various investment bankers and mortgage bankers and for certain members of the House and Senate (thinking of Frank and Dodd in particular) and for all of those greedy morons who bought houses they couldn’t afford in expectation of flipping them for a quick profit. Our real life answer to that, however, is to cut back and save even more.]

    My theory is that for absolutely any consumer purchase (clothing, furniture, toys, gadgets, electronics, vacations, etc.), if you can’t pay cash, you can’t afford to buy it. (Actually, I think the same thing — if possible — should apply to automobiles as well — and I did pay cash for my Corolla. It was a “new” car but it was a leftover from the previous model year.)

    (The trouble is, I am **sigh** a bit of a packrat as well, but I am working on that.)

  58. Oh, yes, and just to confound the common wisdom here, I did get an ARM. And still think it was a sensible thing to do, just like the car loan I didn’t really need.
    See, I got out of college as broke (but not in lots of debt) as you could probably wish and then went into a decently good paying job. And then it came time to get a new (well, newER) car. I didn’t have a credit history other than a credit card that got paid off regularly, and so when the dealer’s in-house financing said “umm… we can’t sell you that car… it’s too expensive…” I told them ‘don’t worry about it’ which cleared their furrowed brow: ‘oh, then, you don’t mind getting a different car?!?’ ‘No. You’ll hold the car. And then I’ll talk to the people who know I don’t need to borrow the money, who will be happy to lend it to me.” I actually had the purchase price completely saved, but I got the loan anyway (and calculated the exact amout to pay off so that I paid off the balance in one year, with a tiny final payment). Which helped my credit score when I bought my first house.
    In a crazy market, and when I was likely to sell the house in five years, the ARM had a lower interest rate and wouldn’t adjust until after the decision point. So I took the ARM, but paid the same as I would have if it had been a fixed mortgage so I actually had a decent amount invested in it faster. And I sold the house when I moved out of state before the time came for the adjustment, so I certainly came out ahead on that end. I also didn’t take a second mortgage to remove PMI. The PMI came off in the second year due to appreciation and the amount that I’d paid on the house, and wouldn’t have approached the amount of interest on a second loan.

  59. And the “expensive” car? ’twas because it was low-milage, not in need of repair. It now has over 100,000 miles on it. Buying a car for which you will pay less now but not be able to afford the repair work on later is a false economy.

  60. RE: College loans.

    I just did a little research about how much students in Europe pay in tuition:

    France – Annual tuition in a public university is between 126 and 692 Euros, depending on the program. A meal in a university restaurant costs less than 3 Euros.

    Germany – Studying at most public universities in Germany is tuition free.

    UK – University Fee: At Oxford (and at most other universities in the UK) the tuition fee for publicly funded students will be £3,145 (roughly US $4700) in 2008/09. There is no college tuition fee for UK or EU students who have established their eligibility for public support.

    I cite these because, to little old geezer geek me, it is truly nuts for any nation to strap its young people with huge debt in order to be educated in public universities. Private universities are a different matter.

    To all of you here who think your college education was worthless, I have a suggestion: Try and talk to someone who has only a high school diploma. Like it or not, for people in your generation, a BA/BS is the equivalent of a high school diploma when I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. Without a Bachelor’s degree it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a decent paying job.

    I’m not commenting on whether the requirement for a bachelor’s degree is right. I’m just stating a fact.

    Public university education should be priced the way public primary and secondary eduction is.

    I know I may sound like an old socialist, but I’m not. People are the primary capital of any nation. And, I still believe that the more educated those people are, the more valuable, to themselves and their society, they are.

  61. Owing money to the government and having to pay a penalty when it comes due because you already spent it, is terrible advice also.

    If a person is that strapped, they will likely misjudge, and end up owing.

    I’m sorry, but I do not follow.

    For example, if you have a job making $80,000 and have a Fed withholding of “2” and you’re single and would unfortunately lose your job for say 3 months during that year, there is no way you will owe anything significant in taxes.

    Further, if you itemize you can use an easy formula to figure out your approximate withholding – your prior year deductions / $3,500.

    Finally, it would make much more sense to put the extra money you are paying to the government in order to get an interest free refund, mind you, into a high yield savings account and pay any tax bill in part with interest the bank is giving you.

  62. My wife and I recently retired. We both had contributed to 401k accounts from the first time they were offered.
    Neither of us have ever owned a new car. We bought our home in 1986 and payed off our mortgage in nine years and are fortunate enough to live in an area with low property taxes. We each have one credit card and one debit card, no balances carried on the credit cards.
    We now find ourselves in the position of being able to save five to eight hundred dollars a month from just the So-So Security. Of course we were initially alarmed when we watched 40% of our “wealth” disappear from our 401ks, we now just chuckle since we are not making withdrawals. Our gains were on the same paper our losses are now. I suppose we measure our wealth by what we don’t need.
    Or perhaps by the things we have but don’t need.
    Cable TV
    2 cell phones
    A car AND a truck
    11 rifles and 4 handguns (only really need one of each)

  63. 1200 vinyl record albums
    1200 books
    Well, you get the idea.
    I just recently sold a 1963 Fender Stratocaster for $7,000 dollars on eBay but kept a 1969 Gibson ES330.
    I manage to pick up a few extra bucks and drink for free some weekends with it.
    Life can be good if one postpones that instant gratification that rears it’s ugly head from time to time.

  64. Life can be good if one postpones that instant gratification that rears it’s ugly head from time to time.

    Exactly, growing up with less means, teaches you that you need to concentrate your effort on what you truly need. Now, like most, when I got out on my own, I did some stupid things, like running up a credit card balance, because I just had to HAVE something. I didn’t really need it, but I wanted it.

    Jay – that’s great advice for people who are conscientious with their money. Not so great for people who aren’t. I’ve known both sorts in my life, and there’s not a one size fits all solution.

  65. When I was young and deep in debt I often ran out of money midweek and couldn’t eat until payday. Once driving past a bakery I almost passed out from the aroma because I was so hungry. The only lasting effect is that now when I say Grace I really really mean it. Every time.

  66. Since you’re a financially sane Democrat, can we nominate you to be the replacement for Mr. Tim Geitner?

    Ideally, I’d like Dave Ramsey (can you imagine a ‘National Yard Sale’?), but you’ll do.

    I have a lot of books, but less than I had. I figure if I’m not going to reread the book, or its not specially treasured then I need the space in my kinda small house. So I’d like to be a book packrat, but its easier to clean house if there’s less stuff in it. And so my innate laziness forces me to fight packrattism.

  67. Tennwriter:

    “Since you’re a financially sane Democrat, can we nominate you to be the replacement for Mr. Tim Geitner?”

    I’m not a Democrat, actually, and have never been. I’ve been registered independent since I’ve been able to vote.

  68. Ken @46 – as kind of a tangent, some store brands/generics AREN’T exactly the same as name brands. I agree with you that it’s wise not to be sucked in by advertising, but may I suggest that you and your wife sit down and talk how much of it is your various feelings on frugality (you want all store brands, she doesn’t want to feel poor/desperate), vs how much of it is a real difference (SafewayCola and Coke really don’t taste the same).

  69. This is why, as an example, the average life expectancy for a car in the Scalzi household is 12 years and climbing and why I still use a television I bought in 1991

    Wow–I’m not the only one! My RCA ColorTrak2000 was also bought in ’91 (from Montgomery Ward, no less; I also have their “house brand” VCR) and is still going strong. I’ll admit that the lure of the flat-screen is strong sometimes, but I’ve relented so far. I’ll probably wait until this one conks out before giving in to the siren song, and hopefully, I’ll actually have the funds for one when that happens.

  70. One more thing, re the 12-year life expectancy of cars in our host’s household: I took a ’91 Acura Integra up to 338,000 miles over 11 years before tougher emissions standards in my state knocked it off the road. After that, I managed to make a used ’96 Civic last for over five years, despite having 74,000 miles and three previous owners when I bought it. (I’m hoping to break the Integra’s record with my current ’08 Fit.)

  71. Sorry that I am late to this party, but I really do have to comment.

    The behaviours that you suspect coming from poverty were exactly the behaviours of my late father. He was born in 1927, in Italy and lived through the war in Italy. His father died in 1942, leaving my grandmother a widow with three children; my dad was the oldest. They were poor and at times hungry.

    For each of the five behaviours that you listed, I can almost hear the paternal lecture (and if you give enough I could possibly recite it, in Italian.).


  72. Amusing typo.

    If you give me enough time, I could possibly recite the lectures in Italian; the lectures would come for free.


  73. And then there are those who are the opposite. Having grown up poor, once these folks get a job that pays fairly well they buy the most expensive house, the most expensive, clothing, top of the line electronics and live way, way above their means. I speak from looking at how my wife’s brother is living his life these days compared to how he was raised…

  74. (Reading this because it’s listed in your 2014 list of past Reader Requests.)

    I have the same spending patterns you list, and I’ve never been poor in my life. I’m a bit of a packrat but at least it’s organized.

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