My friends and family both applaud and make fun of me for my ability to stretch a dollar. The pinnacle of my frugality was visible while I was in college and learned to live off less than 3,000 dollars for six to nine months at a time. In those four years, I learned many of the skills that have served me well in late adolescence and emerging adulthood — much of my wardrobe came from thrift stores, I don’t stray for “off-brand” goods, and second-hand became a way of life.
At first, I saw these skills as virtues as well as an additional symbol of my life as a counterculturalist. But with time, I’ve noticed that my extreme frugality actually developed out of pain.
Few know the anxiety that used to run through my body when forced to spend a dollar. My bargain shopping was motivated by trying to reduce that pain. I’d rather spend hours at the library waiting for public copies of a textbook than spend money on my own. When relatives would send me money for food, I would put it away and save it. As long as I had something to fall back on, I felt safe. It didn’t matter if that meant a couple of nights of hunger as long as a small safety net was there. It seemed easier to go without or attempt to borrow things I needed than buy them.
For a while, I thought this was how I’d always been. Surprisingly, adulthood and the experience of a consistent income showed me I didn’t always function that way.
Growing up, my mom, brother, and I had to struggle a lot. Thankfully, much of that was buffered by having well-off relatives who we could call on when things got hard. But like many single moms, my mother was hard-working, determined, and hated asking for help. As the oldest child, I saw the compromises she made — things like buying food for my brother and me but opting out of dinner for herself. I wanted to help her, so I learned to save. I’d hold on to holiday money and random change I’d come across so when those hard times hit, I could be there. I hardly had much, but to me, it was the least I could do.
I saw myself as the cause of these issues, although my mother never even moderately hinted at this.
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When I visited my dad, I was confronted with a totally different experience. He was the “fun parent” who would offer to buy game consoles and whatever junk food and candy I could imagine. But I never wanted those things. And instead of excitement and joy, I began to resent him out of frustration. In my eyes, it wasn’t fair that he had the resources and the freedom to live comfortable while my mother struggled.
As I’ve watched him grow even further in his career, remarry, and expand the family, it's hard not to wonder why some divine force chose him to be the successful one and why my mom's hard work never seemed to be rewarded.
I wanted to be that reward for her.
I wanted to be the investment that my mom nurtured and multiplied to bring a ten-fold increase. And I did that at the expense of my mental health.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned that my money as an adult isn’t the same as my money as a child or even a college student. I have more control over how frequent my money comes and goes, which has been liberating for me. It’s ok if I want to buy french fries from McDonald's once a month. The world won’t end if I spend 30 dollars on the pair of maternity jeans I so desperately need right now.
Most importantly, my mother would be indescribably hurt to know I still sometimes focus on her needs more than my own family and mental health.
Each dollar I spend is a reminder that I deserve to use what I work for what I like — and that shouldn’t cause shame. I still have a long way to go and spend way too much time at the local Goodwill, but my relationship with money is improving.
There’s nothing wrong with frugality. However, if spending money causes physical or emotional discomfort, it might be a sign that something more serious is taking place. Money isn’t good or bad. But it’s a powerful tool that can destroy us as quickly as it can build us up. When spending money led to fear, I realized I was being controlled. I deserve more freedom than that.