Monday, December 5, 2011

A Letter From Everyman

Millie writes:

I received this letter from a new reader:

Dear Millie,

      You have been a mother of several children during times of economic duress, a spouse of a man who had at times difficulty finding employment because of factors beyond anyone's control, and, prior to that, a military spouse living off of a military salary, bearing and raising your firstborn on the meager pay of an enlisted man. Despite the troubles you must have encountered, you have always come across as calm and collected, for richer or poorer. What are some things you would recommend to a young family struggling to manage the costs of daily life?

         -Private Joe Everyman

Dear GI Joe,

First of all, thank you for this:  “. . . you have always come across as calm and collected, for richer or poorer.”  That is one of those parenting things for which you strive without knowing whether you succeeded until your children are old enough to ask – and by then it’s too late to change!

One obvious answer is that the breadwinner(s) – in your case, the military member – must strive for advancement to the utmost of his ability.  When you are mired in the day-to-day grind of enlisted life, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that things can (and in fact will) get better.  Babies are cheap, children are costly and teens are hella expensive.  Work your butt off now so that in ten years you’ll be ready for that.

In order to “manage the costs of daily life” now, make sure that you and your partner have the same goals.  It won’t work if your wife is baking her own bread while you take your platoon to lunch; likewise, if you are brown-bagging it with leftovers every day while she’s out buying Chanel No. 5, it will be difficult to get a handle on your finances.

These things are self-evident, however; there are many “Balance Your Budget” books that can help you with that.  What you are asking is how I managed to come out on the other side of a financially-challenged couple of decades with apparent serenity.  Here are my top 10 personal recommendations to a young couple starting out with big hopes and dreams but slim pocketbooks.

-Love, Millie

Never let ‘em see you sweat. I may have come across as calm and collected, but I wasn’t.  I was terrified.  However, I didn’t think I had the right to burden the children with our financial woes.  It’s a full-time job just worrying about being a kid, without having to worry about your parents’ utility bills.  We kept money discussions for “adults only” time – kinda like sex and Vin Diesel movies.

Hold your head up.  You have a loving wife and a darling starter-family, you’re doing an important job, and you’re young, strong and intelligent.  You’re broke, not second-class.  You are not poor.  If your children ever hear you say that you are, that is how they will define themselves.  Show them at all times that you’re proud of yourself and of the life you’re building.  Remember: three years of tight budgeting can feel like a blip on the radar to you, but to your child it may comprise the entire span of his conscious memory.  You don’t need a lot of money to give your children the priceless feeling of security.

Focus on what’s important.  I realized when my first child was born that we didn’t have a lot of money, but that there was no limit to the time and energy I was willing to spend.  I was determined that all six of my children would have the same advantages and opportunities that they’d have had if they’d been born into a rich family, and I’d pay for it in hard work and self-sacrifice. We couldn’t afford private schools, so I worked the system to get them transferred into good public schools and then volunteered thousands of hours in those schools.  I gave them introductory music lessons, found classes cheap or free at community centers so they could learn fencing or martial arts or dance, and invented city-wide scavenger hunts when we couldn’t afford the over-the-top birthday extravaganzas favored by their peers.  Decide what you would do for your child if you did have a lot of money, and then make those things happen using your own stubborn wits.

Know where your money goes.  Even the most sensible budget can be completely undone by something small.  Five bucks at Starbucks on the way to work every morning doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up to $100 a month.  Buying small bags of treats for school lunches can break the bank over a year’s time.  Seeing first-run movies every week on Date Night – I don’t even want to think about that expense.  I’m not saying don’t drink coffee or pack raisins or go to the movies – but think about what part of the experience you value, and then figure out a way to make it happen wholesale.  If you love the Starbucks experience, limit yourself to Friday mornings and savor it; if it’s the coffee you crave, make it at home (you can buy the flavored syrups cheap at restaurant-supply stores) and tote it in a thermos.  Buy a big bag of raisins or chips and parcel them out into small bags or reusable containers.  Go to second-run theaters and utilize Redbox.  Don’t deprive yourselves – just re-think how to get what you most want.

Make it fun.  Nobody wants to be the Sad Sack Poor Kid, sitting alone on a bench wearing a flour sack dress and eating a lard sandwich.  Being frugal doesn't mean giving up fun.  In fact, you have to be so much more conscious of what is fun when you're being frugal that you very often end up having more fun than you would have if you'd been able to just say something like, "Ahh, I'm bored.  Let's go to the movies."  Use your imagination and make your own fun.  Put the kids in their PJ's, go sit in the car and watch movies on your laptop - bring popcorn to your "Drive In."  Watch the "Entertainment" section of your local news website to see when there are movies in the park, free museum days and concerts along the waterfront.  Bring a little "zing" into the everyday by having a surprise breakfast picnic or putting a riddle in a lunchbox.  One of those little truths that nobody ever tells you is that people usually will have a good time if you tell them they're having a good time.  Make a ceremony out of little things like watching meteor showers or reading a chapter a night.  You don't have to save all your Mary Poppins magic for Christmas - it works every day to help the medicine go down.

Never stop working on yourself.  You’re a parent and the responsibility is nearly overwhelming at times – and those are the times when it’s more important to remember that you are a person, too.  You may be a Daddy now and forevermore, but if that’s all you are you won’t be very good at your job.  Take classes and training at work, yes, but also do things just because they’ll make you a better person.  If you’re a stay-at-home parent, take one afternoon off a week (trade afternoons with another parent who’s in the same boat) to take a class, go to a museum, take in a movie or just sit and paint your fingernails.  If you’re the breadwinner, spend a little time doing something that’s not related to your job – read travel guides, go jogging, make model airplanes - whatever floats your own, personal, idiosyncratic boat.  If you don’t take this time for yourself, it becomes all too easy to resent spouse, kids, job, and everything else that keeps your nose to the grindstone 24/7.

Make your mate a priority.  Whether one of you is bringing home the bacon while the other one fries it up, or whether you’re both working both outside the home and in it – neither one of you really has the slightest conception of how hard the other one is working, and odds are good you’re both exhausted most of the time.  It is fatally easy to go from becoming best friends and lovers to co-parents and roommates with benefits.  No matter how much you love your children, you must remember that the bond with your spouse is your primary relationship and you must nurture that bond.  It’s easy to do this when things are going splendidly, but when you’re both working your heads off and worried about money all the time it requires a special, conscious effort.  Not only do your children need this foundation – your mate will still be with you when your children have grown.  Don’t neglect your sweetheart.  Have adults-only date night once a week, even if it’s just a movie from the library after the kids are in bed.  Leave love notes.  Send texts.  Pick flowers and knit socks.  Individually these things are small.  Collectively they add up to Big Love.

Scrounge.  “Living Cheap” can be kind of fun, once you get into the swing of it.  We have the advantage of living in the most prosperous country on the planet, even if the prosperity hasn’t quite trickled down to our level yet; people throw away the most astounding things.  Dumpster diving can be a fantastic way to supplement your stores of furniture and other household goods; I’ve found dressers, bedsteads, chairs and exercise equipment by the side of the road that I’ve taken home, refurbished and used with pride.  Haunt thrift stores, clothing closets, Craigslist and yard sales for deals in clothing, baby stuff, gift ideas and hobby items.  Learn what is available through your local charities and churches; you will find food boxes, warm coats, medical and dental care (through the county, city, state or school systems) and free introductory classes on every subject under the sun.  Talk to other young families in your area about what they’ve discovered, and set up a barter system within your group.  Trade washing-machine repair for babysitting, or buy a Costco-sized box of laundry detergent and swap half of it to your neighbor for half of their Costco toilet paper.  Set up a “lending library” of gently-worn maternity clothes so every pregnant woman in your group can get a break from the same three shirts and pairs of jeans.  Look around you with the mindset of, “How can I use/ reuse/ refurbish that?”  This approach also has the advantage of making your home’s décor uniquely “you!”

Take care of what you have.  Good stewardship is never more important than it is right now.  When you can’t afford to replace the little things – let alone the big-ticket items – your lives will be better if you keep what you do have clean and in good working order.  An added bonus is that you will be modeling behavior you want your child to emulate, and emulate it he will.  It may take a couple of decades, but how you run your household now is what will seem “right” when Junior has a household of his own.

Don’t do things that make you feel poor.  Sometimes there will be a great money-saving opportunity that will make you feel so penny-pinching and Poor Relation-y that you dread it.  In this case, consider not taking advantage of the opportunity, and I’ll tell you why – because it’s in direct violation of the Hold Your Head Up rule above.  In my case, it was WIC.  WIC (Women, Infants, Children) was a welfare program in my home state that provided free vouchers for milk, infant formula, and other healthy foods.  Great deal, right?  The only problem was, you had to bring your infants and small children with you to a monthly appointment, where minimum-wage case workers would weigh them, cross-examine you as to your family’s dietary habits, and draw blood from each of your children with clumsily-wielded finger sticks.  (They did this to test the child’s iron levels.)  I could only do that once before the humiliation of the whole thing – that my children, who a) didn’t know what was going on and b) were being taught not to let strangers touch them, had to be stabbed until they bled by uncaring clerks because I couldn’t afford to feed them.  I had no problem with using food stamps or going to free clinics when it was necessary, but this – I felt that this stripped me of my dignity at my children’s expense.  Nothing is completely free.  Don’t let lack of money push you into doing things that will cost you more than you are willing to pay. 

Sometimes, do the fiscally irresponsible thing.  Occasionally, the prom dress is more important than the cable bill.  Once in a while, the kid needs the “right” shoes more than meat for dinner.  There will be moments when a son will get such a thrill out of being accepted into the Select Choir that you will gladly forfeit the money for new tires to buy him the necessary tuxedo.  It doesn’t happen often, but in order to live well on a limited income there are times when you have to spend the money foolishly.  Sometimes you get the chance to fly a family of 8 to Washington, D.C. free, and it would be crazy not to skimp on groceries to pay for the hotel room.  There’s a lot more to life than making a living.

Living frugally yet fully is a lot like becoming a good cook.  You will develop your own shortcuts and workarounds, and you will discover great combinations that nobody else has tried before.  Just remember this:  It is your attitude that determines the attitude in your home.  Take good care of what you have, work hard for what you want and ignore the wolf at the door as much as you can.

Joe, if you were looking for concrete advice such as “cut your family’s hair yourself” or
“mix whole milk half-and-half with reconstituted powdered milk,” please write back, because God knows I have a million of ‘em.  However, as far as “calm and collected” goes, this is my best advice:

Be happy and loving.  Act happy and loving.  That is what your family needs more than anything, and it is precisely what money cannot buy.

Mollie writes:

First word of advice -

Love that baby!  The bonding you do in the early years is everything.  If you are wondering about how to talk to your 12-year old about something, you're already late.  Talk, Talk, Talk Talk Talk.  Listen Listen Listen Listen Listen.

If you already have their attention, the words will come easier.

With money, remember your kids need a safe sheltering home.  They need healthy food and adequate clothing.

The rest is a gift.  Remember that play-station you bought three years ago?  It's obsolete now.  But your kids' needs will  NEVER be obsolete.  

I'm wondering if my kids will come to me for advice about child rearing.  They didn't see us suffer financially, but they did see us cope with disease, etc.  There are so many variable when it comes to parenting.


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