This month I turn 37 years old. It’s been nearly 2 decades living the frugal life. I don’t count the years I lived with my parents, as frugality was not by choice (we were simply poor and had to skimp & scrimp). But once I was on my own and working, making more in my first full-time job than either of my parents made after a lifetime of achievement in their respective careers, my level of consumption really didn’t increase much. On the other hand, my peers, even the ones who grew up poor like I did, chose a different path. I was recently asked why I remained frugal while those around me didn’t. And after much reflection, here’s what I realised (these are also some things that have “converted” some profligate spenders into more value-conscious frugaltarians):
- Delayed gratification was my greatest strength. Growing up in a poor, immigrant, and broken family, with a single mother who was trying to seek her own happiness through relationships and other recreational activities, an MIA father, and a grandmother who was slipping into dementia, I was almost entirely responsible for my own life and future. This burden of responsibility forced me to exercise the skill of delaying gratification, since I realised early on that if you give into the temptation of immediate rewards today, no one will be there to bail you out tomorrow. For example, my grandmother would give me $10 for every “A” that I received in my quarterly report cards. This would result in a maximum of $90 every 11 weeks. This, along with one-time windfalls of hong bao or birthday money, would have to last me throughout the entire school year as it was my only source to pay for my meals. If I spent that money on a video game instead, I would need to find other means for food. Fortunately, I only needed a handful of crises early in my life to teach me this lesson (a big thank you to all my friends who let me freeload food off them!). Over time, delaying gratification was no longer a painful struggle but became almost effortless. To teach delayed gratification to children, you would need to set up situations in which they are fully responsible for their decisions and will bear the consequences without you stepping in to bail them out.
- As a child, I’ve heard many more “No’s” than “Yes’s”. Even when my mother had the resources, I had to justified everything I wanted to buy. I had to make a very convincing argument to her because not only was money scarce in my household, my mother also didn’t have much herself when she was growing up so she felt if she didn’t have it, certainly I didn’t need it either (she grew up during the Chinese Revolution). Yes, this included things that I felt were “essentials” like well-fitting shoes and school supplies. Instead of being happy that I was accepted into a university-level Calculus class when I was in secondary school, I had to spend an hour justifying the expensive $100+ graphing calculator it required. Hearing more “No’s” than “Yes’s” made it so that before even asking my mother, I would be forced to think about the value of a purchase and its tradeoffs (what would my mother be giving up in order for me to have that item). It also made me more resilient to disappointment, as I’ve learnt proper coping mechanisms. Children, especially, should hear more “No’s” than “Yes’s”. I’ve seen countless children (and adults) throw tantrums if they don’t get what they ask for, since they are not used to feeling disappointed. However, life is full of disappointment, and I’ve known people who shop and spend to deal with disappointment, even when that disappointment ironically involves the loss of a job.
- Constantly thinking about death changes the way you live. When I was 3, my grandmother told me that I drowned and was saved by my grandfather, who resuscitated me. Later that year, my grandfather died while I was sitting on his lap, which was one of my first memories as a child. A few months before I left for university, a guy whom I had dated (we were school mates and the same age) died in a tragic traffic accident. His death and my grandfather’s death left a huge impression on me, and ever since that day, I’ve had a written will. Of course, growing up in a not-so-safe area of the US, I’ve personally seen death happen before my eyes. And when you have a rare medical condition such as I do, the thought is always in the back of your mind. When you think about death being unpredictable and possibly imminent, you tend to live differently. You may seek more value and meaning in what you do day-to-day. You might be more grateful for each day you have. Pleasant moments and memories tend to be more significant, and the “little things” that we fret about tend to be less significant. Death also gets you thinking about your legacy and what others would say at your funeral. Would you want them to say, “He had a nice car!” or “She made so much money” or “He was always dressed nicely”, or would you rather have people commenting about your virtues, personality, hobbies, interests, and how you made a difference in their lives?
- Going to the library instills one very important life-lesson: you don’t actually own anything in life; everything is rented. People get immense pleasure in buying and owning things – properties, cars, branded items, gadgets, etc – but none of these things can be taken with us when we die. And from an early age (long before the words “sharing economy” became a buzz word), I’ve viewed myself as a mere “user” of items and my purchases as “rentals”. Once I learnt that over 90% of what we buy gets disposed of within 6 months(!), when
purchasingrenting an item, my aim was to not be the absolute “end user”. Like a library book, my goal was to use an item in my own story, then pass it on so that it will be part of other people’s stories. In life, we really don’t own anything, so it’s a bit pointless to try to one up each other by showing off our “possessions”.
- Growing up poor or interacting with the poor makes you realise that it doesn’t take much to be happy. I grew up poor, but I remember many happy moments in my childhood. Some of the best moments were just being with family and friends, going to parks, swinging on a playground, playing with sand on a beach. Last year when I visited Lombok, I was impressed by two scenes – the children of fishermen who were laughing, playing, and running along the beach before having to set sail at dusk and a particular street by a durian vendor where couples sitting on the floor ate durian together in utter bliss and contentment. These moments require very little monetary resources. Life is filled with simple pleasures, and I think it’s easy to take these for granted because being surrounded by excess and indulgences, our baselines have been shifted. We compare upward (i.e., try to keep up with the Joneses) instead of comparing downward. We also seem to compare the wrong things, as material things are more visible than things like happiness, quality of life, health, and sleep, which tend to be more elusive.
- Doing community service helps to keep you grounded. Whenever parents ask me how to get their child to become more frugal, this is usually at the top of my list. In a recent Mediacorp article entitled Impart Social Responsibility to Students Through Community Service, the author recalled her own experiences in her school in India and said that the “early exposure to community service instilled in us a sense of humility, compassion and a giving attitude towards others.” Doing work to serve the community, such as volunteering at a hospital, homeless shelter, or soup kitchen, can teach children one other important lesson that I believe many adults also need to learn: We are privileged mostly because we were born lucky (simply put, we won the demographic lottery), and not because of anything we did or achieved. Never look down on the maid or the migrant worker, because most of what differentiates you versus them is simply where and to whom you were born.
- Health, time, relationships are more important that money. Just about everyone who has a “health crisis” in life, including myself, comes to this realisation and it changes your relationship with money. When my crisis hit, I started to see that time was the true limiting resource, and when I choose to use time to make more money that was beyond what I needed and to the detriment of my other life values, it was not time well spent. I’d rather use that time to make more health, happiness, and good relationships and memories. And of course, I realised that I had the luxury of being able to have this choice.
Today, nearly 2 decades after leaving my parent’s home, while I can’t brag about the many holidays I take, the many properties I own, or the many cars I drive, I can say this – I’m at peace with myself and I am truly happy. I have a wonderful life, marriage, and family, and I have many great memories and experiences. I am financially free, and for most days, I can choose what I spend my time on. And despite my unfortunate health conditions, I consider myself extremely blessed.
If you or your children are currently trying to pave a path to frugality, know that there will be times of discomfort, disappointment, and distress, as personal growth requires a fair amount of hardships and struggles. If you are training your child to be frugal, know that there may be times your child will hate you. But remember that your role is to be their parent and give them guidance and correction, not merely to be their friend and give them unconditional approval. In the end, your child will love and respect you, and live a happier and more fulfilling life as a result of his/her frugality.
Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.”
– Richard Evelyn Byrd