The Many Virtues of Frugality

While other children grew up collecting baseball cards and stickers, I grew up collecting coupons. At the library we would sort through a virtual box of money, extracting coveted name brands and the promise of free food if we timed our purchases right. Long before I studied rhetoric as a graduate student, I was a practitioner of the ancient rhetorical concept Kairos. To employ kairos in a speech, you must be aware of the mood of your audience, the context of the situation, and any atmospheric influences. Timing is more than simply showing up and reading from an index card at an appropriate place. The same goes for shopping. In this way, frugality is a difficult concept to apply for those who like to make a grocery list and enter and exit the store as quickly as possible.

Yesterday, I spent nearly two hours scouring their aisles of Meijer and contemplating my choices. It was a moment when the discount stars were aligned in my Meijer world, total purchase mPerks and credit card discounts that could be combined, plus Mother’s Day specials. On a different day, I would not have splurged on the higher end hanging baskets. However, when all the discounts and sales combined, I felt justified in my purchase.

This lengthy foray into the world of bargain shopping would not have been possible before my winter semester of teaching ended. In work intensive times, the variable of convenience reins, which is part of the problem with American life. When we are wrapped up in the hectic life of work, children, and activities, we become less mindful at the stores. We grab our grocery carts and rush around the stores, our minds engaged on what else we have on our agenda. A few weeks later we are presented with a credit card bill for $2,000 and wonder how it is possible that we spent so much money over the course of a month.

Being raised pinching pennies, I am mindful of every dollar I spent. I can recall every item that I spent too much money on by rushing my purchase, as I have constantly rehashed it (which isn’t really healthy either, but that is a reflection for another time). Because of this, I have never had issues with my credit card, paid off my student loans six months after graduation for both of my degrees, and have a healthy savings.

This success has bled into other areas of my life as well, a phenomenon that is well explained by the Marshmallow Test. In the Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel led a study where children were given a marshmallow. They were told if they did not eat the marshmallow before the researchers returned that they would get an additional marshmallow. One third did not eat the initial marshmallow, practicing the willpower skill of delaying gratification. This ability to delay gratification was a predictor of future success. Frugality is essentially going through the marshmallow test every time you go to the grocery store. You have a choice, you can either get an item that is not on sale and end up with less groceries for your budget, or you can wait until an item is on sale, so that you can buy more food for the same amount of money.

I write this to remember these lessons and how they shaped me, as since I have had children, I have begun to prioritize convenience over saving money. This is not always wrong, as some weeks, you need what you need when you need it. It is being mindful of when you are making a necessary purchase and when you are making one just because you are in a hurry and your willpower is depleted. It is also about creating financial literacy for my children and teaching them the value of waiting.

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Mr. Sketch and the Morning of Doom

The final fifteen minutes before it is time to leave the house I feel like Indiana Jones, navigating a booby-trapped cave. Every moment is fraught with peril: the serving of breakfast, the selecting of clothes, the powering down of electronics. Today, the rolling boulder coming towards me goes by the name of Mr. Sketch. The scented Mr. Sketch markers are the Air Jordans of first grade, an aromatic status symbol that comes in an array of twelve colors. For weeks, my son begged for these markers, going as far as putting them into my Amazon shopping cart.

When they arrived in the mail, it was a celebration of rainbows. For the next week, my son and daughter both sported Mr. Sketch mustaches from all the aggressive sniffing. However, there was one blemish in my son’s happiness. The markers were for home use only, to be shared with his little sister. Every morning he would try to sneak them into his backpack, and every morning I would remove them. Today he caught on to me catching on to him and checked his bag that I dutifully packed with his lunch and homework and found no Mr. Sketch. It was 8:25 a.m., time to leave the house. Let loose the boulder.

In the face of a tantrum, rationalizing only does so much. However, I still tried, calling to mind every parenting book and calmly explaining we had already told him “no.” He countered with, “I only want to take them today.” We countered with, “This is a privilege that you need to earn. We can discuss how you can earn this privilege after school so that you can take them tomorrow.” Delayed gratification is not in his wheelhouse. I try not to think of the Marshmallow Test and what this means for his future. The tantrum escalates. It is now 8:30 a.m.

If I had a time machine, I probably would have hopped in and took away my “no.” Because, honestly, I did not care that much about the ink levels or potential disappearance of a marker. However, once a negative answer has been issued, I believe it cannot be taken back. A no cannot be made into a yes by whining or crying. I am a stressed, heartsick woman of my word.

In a situation such as this, where reasoning is not an option, I believe the experts would recommend I remove the child from the situation. So I carried my son into the vehicle, squirming and crying and shoeless. To my credit, I did not raise my voice. I simply grabbed our coats, our bags, and his shoes and threw them in the vehicle and let him kick the back of my seat all the way to the elementary school. Tonight on Amazon, I believe I am going to order an Indiana Jones style whip.