Here’s one thing that my friends all know about me: I don’t take cabs. After doing the quick mental math, springing $20 to drive a couple of miles instead of walking or riding the subway for $2.75 never seems worth it.
Here’s another: I love happy hour.
The meals I cook change every week depending on what meat and produce are on sale at the grocery store.
When I was still in the habit of shopping with other people (I no longer do because I find being able to comparison shop at my leisure profoundly liberating), there were times I’d try on shoes that I knew cost more than I was willing to spend. Despite all the encouragement — Those look great! They’re so you! — inevitably, I’d say, meh, pack them back up in the box, and walk out, empty handed. Then I’d return to the store three weeks later, alone, when they were on sale.
Consider this an introduction to the frugal mind.
Yet I am deeply self-conscious about my frugality, which I can only explain as a side effect of being a child of thrifty immigrants who slowly made their way from poverty into the middle class. I harbor insecurities nurtured by years spent in the company of people whose values reflected an ease with money that was unfamiliar, but that I never questioned outwardly. Eventually, my friends noticed that I only joined activities when they didn’t cost much, that I unfailingly ordered the second cheapest glass of wine, that I was always waiting for a sale. Nothing ages a young person like prudence. I somehow felt deep in me that theirs was the correct way to live and mine somehow was shameful. I was just trying to fit into their class, trying to bury the embarrassing mindset of scarcity that shaped so many of my decisions.
Matters of class are subtle, and I sensed small differences between how my friends and I interacted with money.
When I was maybe 14, I packed a sandwich one day before meeting a friend at the mall, who, for reasons I’ll never understand, was upset by my brown bagging. “Don’t be so cheap!” she said, urging me to join her in ordering something at the food court. I still ate the sandwich, though it no longer tasted as good as I had hoped. It was a tiny moment that hasn’t managed to fade away with time. That afternoon, I took the subway back home to middle-class Brooklyn, and she walked home to her apartment in a Manhattan high-rise with a view.
There were other differences too. I paid a reduced fare for lunch at the cafeteria. On the rare occasion I went to the movies, it was to catch a matinee. During weekends and summers, my siblings and I weren’t signed up for lessons in music or sports or dance, which cost money; I’m still a dismal swimmer today. I knew that my family operated on a tighter budget than some others, but for the most part, I was content.
By early adulthood, I felt no less estranged when it came to money. When I was in my twenties, a friend (who called me “frugal”) once told me about someone she knew who was living far beyond their means. When I asked why they didn’t just cut back on their spending, she was suddenly indignant. “Venessa, to some people, the lifestyle is just worth it.” Her defensiveness made me question the quality of my own lifestyle. But I would realize she and I simply didn’t see eye to eye on such matters.
More than one friend has called me “frugal” — I wish they hadn’t. It never feels good to realize people observe how you spend your money. But how would they know that I was terribly sensitive about exactly this? I’ve tried to gloss over their comments and have kept a lonely silence about it all, in the interest of blending in with the new economic strata that took my family at least one generation to break into in America. For me, figuring out how to behave and what to say in this new context is a constant judgment call.
The one place I never feel judged for being frugal is with my family — home. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants who worked their way out of poverty, being frugal was a giant step forward. Being careful with your money was a relative privilege to having barely any money at all.
My mother emigrated to the US from Hong Kong when she was 12, after the Communist Revolution in China stripped my family of everything. Her mother came from a wealthy family, she said, and had to learn to survive with nothing.
After living with my great-grandfather — who had arrived in New York earlier — her family eventually found shelter in a dark, unfinished basement in Queens, buried beneath the hand laundry where her father found work pressing shirts and underwear. She and her sisters were tasked with cleaning up the basement, which she recalled had no lighting when they arrived. Once while she was sweeping the filth coating the floor, she uncovered a dead mouse, oozing with maggots. No water flowed from the showerhead — it would never provide more than a dark-colored dribble — so she and five of her siblings commuted back to her grandfather’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side once a week to wash. When she started dating, she told her boyfriend she lived somewhere else. Despite their hardships, the family was grateful to have an opportunity in the US. Every cent mattered, but they found ways to enjoy life.
Her and her siblings’ pleasures were simple and cost nothing: They made a jump rope out of linked rubber bands; they played jacks with rocks they found in the street. To celebrate one of her birthdays, the kids pooled together their change to buy a pack of Hostess cupcakes, Jell-O, a roll of Life Savers, and chips.
They never received public assistance. Eventually, her family saved enough by hand washing other people’s dirty clothes to move out of the basement and buy a home nearby.
My father was born in New York City and grew up in the tenements and housing projects of Lower Manhattan. The bathtub was in the kitchen and his mother would lay a metal cover over the tub, turning it into a countertop. It made bathing a real chore. He and his brothers slept on a pullout sofa and rollaway cots in the living room, while his sister slept in a cot in the kitchen. Once, in the housing projects, a kid tried to mug him for the $2 in change he saw my father put into his pocket after buying new sneakers. His sister was assaulted in the stairwell, but was saved by a neighbor. Two other older siblings remained in Hong Kong, as it was with many families who were separated at that time. But my dad never expected his children's pity from telling these stories — it’s just the way things were, he said.
My father’s father, who back in China was on the path to becoming a lawyer before the political upheaval forced him to leave, ended up running a laundry in Long Island and later in Queens. He slept in the back of the store and commuted home to his family just once a week in order to save the 15-cent train fare each way. By the 1970s, they had saved enough to make a down payment on a modern two-family home in Queens. It was a hard-earned and bittersweet victory: A fire that started in a store near my grandfather’s laundry burned the business to ashes before the mortgage was paid up. Fortunately he would avert disaster: His children would live in that home and helped pay off the remainder of the loan in the form of cheap rent. Shortly before he passed away in 2002, my grandfather made his final mortgage payment — he died an American homeowner.
My parents’ stories are similar to those of so many who plant roots in the US, leaving behind the horrors sweeping their home countries. We all carry the legacies of our families with us in some way.
The values cultivated by one generation inevitably trickle down the bloodline and so, while my own middle-class upbringing was much more comfortable, stories like these would shape my view on money.
My parents worked themselves out of poverty — my mother through a series of retail jobs and my father as a graphic designer. They eventually opened their own gift and furniture store in Brooklyn in the mid-1980s, shortly after I was born.
On most levels, my childhood wasn’t that different from my classmates, whose parents worked white-collar jobs. We bought a four-bedroom house in Brooklyn when I was 8 (before Brooklyn became the gentrified Disneyland it is today), and most of our money went to mortgage payments. But I still had Nintendo and, later, Super Nintendo. My mother enjoyed shopping at sample sales, so we all wore designer clothes. I got a small weekly allowance when I became a teen. Every summer, we had enough money left to take a weeklong vacation. I never felt deprived — especially because I knew enough about my parents’ own upbringing.
Still, we kept a careful eye on how we spent our money. There was enough; sometimes it felt like it was just enough. We stretched our dollars by clipping coupons and filling up on cheap gas whenever we drove through New Jersey. My parents always knew where the milk was on sale. We kept the heat on low in the winter to keep bills down, making that first step out of the shower dreadful during the cold season. Still, at home, I always felt fortunate.
Outside of the home was another story. Little rituals would teach me subliminally that being frugal was wise, but it was something we should keep within the family, something we should hide. We learned the Chinese word for “sale” so we could discreetly talk about prices while shopping — Is there a sale? There is a sale! There’s no sale (we knew to put it back). We bought discounted groceries for everyday meals, but would buy expensive desserts if we hosted parties. There’s no price on pride, especially for the formerly poor.
At age 35, I still live a frugal lifestyle. I earn enough now that I can afford the occasional $20 cab ride, though I rarely do. I have managed to pay off all my student debt. My husband and I were able to buy a small apartment in the section of Brooklyn where I grew up and where housing is still affordable (in New York these days, owning any place is enough to be proud of). We have a used, blue 2007 Honda Accord that we park on the street because the $275 monthly fee to park in the nearby lot never felt like a wise way to spend our cash.
And even though I’m judicious about spending my money, I do enjoy picking up a round of drinks. I buy gifts for people — small gifts, but well-intentioned. And I’ve been in a fortunate enough position to have loaned money, thousands of dollars at a time, to the people I love.
I am able to do this by foregoing luxurious dinners; the new clothes I have are almost exclusively from sale racks. The simple fact is, I have plenty of goals and only so much money to make them happen. My family has come a long way to give me what I have, and I hope to honor that legacy. ●