My Parents Were Frugal, but Sometimes I'm Not - picture of adult children walking with parents

My Parents Were Frugal, but Sometimes I’m Not

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Please enjoy this post from Brian Fourman of Luke1428.com!

By every inch of the definition, my parents were thrifty. They shopped for clothes at second-hand stores, always bought used cars and could sniff out a sale with the best of them.

They had to be. There wasn’t another option on a social worker’s and private school teacher’s salary. They simply had to live that way or go without.

And we never were without. I don’t remember a time ever being hungry,  or lacking clothing or any of the other necessities one would consider normal for a child. In fact, they even managed a way for my sister and I to receive a private school education. Thank you, private school teacher discount!

I’m completely thankful for the example my parents set in regards to the wise use of money. I’ve carried many of those same principles of frugality and budgeting into adulthood, although the concept of budgeting took me longer to grasp. I haven’t completely followed in their path, however, and sometimes those differences sometimes bother me.

Ways I’m Different Than My Parents

The three biggest ways I’m different than my parents when it comes to my financial life:

I want to buy new. Thrift shop clothes don’t interest me. I’d prefer a new car rather than an old one. Most of the pieces of furniture in our house are new. Any used items are either functional (i.e. antique dinning room table and chairs) or hand-me-downs.

I don’t know why it is that I like new things. My parents were always drawn to antiques and other used items found at garage or estate sales. We shopped at second-hand stores frequently and found nice items to keep us adequately clothed. And they saved a ton of money doing so. I don’t remember it bothering me then, so I often wonder why this practice didn’t filter down in a greater way to me.

I find it annoying to haggle. I do not enjoy this at all. Bargaining for a price is something I hardly ever do. Just tell me what you are pricing the item at and I’ll pay and be on my way.

Perhaps it’s my personality that keeps me from haggling. I don’t thrive on or in situations that produce conflict- my naturally tendency is to run from that.

I don’t want to fix things. If it’s broke my first reaction will be to replace it, not fix it. This is because I:

  • struggle with patience (which is much needed when in a repair situation)
  • place a higher value on other priorities
  • think it takes too much of my time (which would be saved by buying a new one) and
  • simply don’t enjoy repairing things

I don’t trash all broken items nor do I abhor remodeling projects. But if the cost of replacing a broken item is minimal in my eyes then that broken item is more than likely headed for the dumpster.

A Generational Shift

I’ve often wondered whether these differences are a psychological backlash to the financial challenges I saw my parents go through when I was young or just a personal choice I’m making based on my own financial circumstances. I’m leaning towards the latter, mostly because I don’t believe that living a frugal lifestyle is inherently wrong. I can’t fault anyone for choosing that path.

I find it interesting though that, while some kids follow in the footsteps of their parents, others do not. They choose the opposite path, completely revolting against the financial values set by their parents (whether that’s for good or for bad). What causes this 180-degree shift in thinking?

I can think of at least four reasons why a child who grew up with frugal parents may resist that lifestyle when they become an adult.

1. They think the values are antiquated. That was fine for the previous generation but times have changed.

2. They feel the societal pressure to keep up. Everyone around me is living this way so I must too.

3. Frugality is not always seen as “cool.” I’m not going to be laughed at by my friends because I’m clipping coupons to reduce the cost of groceries.

4. They have no life experiences that force them to think differently. I’m financially better off than my parents and have no trouble paying my monthly bills or buying what I want. Why should I change?

When I dwell on those reasons in trying to resolve my own questions, I only see myself agreeing with #4 on the list. In the 18 years we have been married, my wife and I have seen our net worth grow as money has come into the family through various sources (better paying careers, investing, family gifts, etc.). Those inflows have created a scenario where I am financially better off than my parents were at a comparative stage of life. It’s not a knock on them rather simply a function of how our pattern of life has evolved.

So perhaps the fact that I can afford it has contributed to my liking of new things, my refusal to haggle and my dislike of fixing things.

Insights Please

Clearly I’m still working through this. I’m not above thinking there is a deeper psychological, emotional or spiritual issue at work here that I just can’t put my finger on. All I know is that I prefer buying new stuff and am clearly willing to shell out a little extra money for it.

Does anyone else feel this way about buying new things? I’d appreciate any insight you could give that might help me analyze my own feelings better.

Reader Question: Am I wrong for only wanting to purchase new items? Other than saving money, what’s the value in purchasing used? Do you enjoy haggling for an item or repairing broken ones? How are your financial habits different than that of your parents? What are some other reasons children might reject the financial values of their parents?

About the author: Brian Fourman is a former private school personal finance and Bible teacher now turned stay-at-home dad and blogger. His hobbies include rental real estate, running, cooking and sports. In his down time, he loves hanging out with his four kids and hearing his wife talk about all the cool things CPAs do at work. You can check him out providing encouragement and inspiration on his blog at Luke1428.com or by connecting with him on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.

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57 Comments

  1. You’re not wrong at all for wanting new or nice things. I am completely the same way. I see more value in buying good quality products rather than messing around trying to fix something myself or waiting weeks for someone else to fix it (which by then it costs just as much to buy the same product new). It doesn’t mean you’re disrespecting your parents, it’s just a change in the times.

    1. It costs less to purchase many items new than it used to due to the advances in technology which have reduced productions costs. People from my parent’s generation can remember when a basic four-function calculator cost well over $100.

  2. Hey Brian, I think you’re right, it’s just a cultural shift. In today’s world it would be considered strange not to furnish your first home with brand new items bought on credit. I can only think of a few friends who bought or were given used furniture for their first home. But back in my parents day it was considered the norm to start with used stuff. It’s just how society has shifted over time.

  3. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 31 (as of yesterday!) and I feel like my generation is swinging back to the frugal mindset. I think many people my age are into buying used, finding deals, and seeing the value of making things last. I’m sure this has to do with entering adulthood during the recession, as well as being saddled with big student loan debt that previous generations were not.

    1. “…entering adulthood during the recession…” I can see how that economic time period might alter a young adult’s spending habits as opposed to someone a little older who may have already had an established career and a more stable financial life.

  4. Very interesting! I can’t personally identify with the desire to buy new things. I myself love to get everything used. I find that clothes, furniture, cars, etc are all vastly cheaper used. Plus, if I need to resell something I’ve purchased used, I can usually sell it for the same or more than I bought it for. But, I think everyone should prioritize and spend on the things that make them feel happy and fulfilled. There’s certainly no one right way!

    1. To be fair, in the early part of our marriage we bought most of our big purchases like furniture used…#wehadnomoney. 🙂 Now that our financial lives are in better condition we don’t feel the need to do that anymore.

  5. I always tell clients that they can buy whatever they want as long as it’s part of their overall plan and the first part of the plan is saving and planning for their life events. As long as those are covered, then you can make room for other things that you want. It’s funny because my parents were not frugal when I was younger and I find myself more frugal than them now. I used to want more and definitely new, but my views have evolved, over time. Again, as long as the spending is part of a plan, then I don’t think there is anything wrong with the choices.

    1. “…part of their overall plan…” I think that is really good advice Shannon. The basic building block of a solid financial life begins with saving. And you have to set a plan in motion to do that…it won’t happen out of thin air. From there the spending plan can fall in place based on your capacity to do so.

  6. catherine says:

    For me it depends. I usually buy new clothes but will also look for used, always buy new furniture (you just don’t know the history….), and depends on the item in terms of fixing it.

  7. I can’t really fault you much at all Brian…probably because I’m very similar. So, I guess some might argue as justifying my liking new things lol. For me it comes down to the value I’m going to get out of it. We’re better off than my parents were, but my parents also spent needlessly whereas we’re much more disciplined with our finances. If it’s something we might derive a lot of value or enjoyment out of then we’ll look at new, but if not we’re much more likely to look at something used. I’m not one who tends to like to repair things, but have gotten more so that way over the past few years mainly as a way to teach myself more than anything.

    1. I should probably do better with repairing things, if for no other reason to teach my kids some skills and that it is a viable option to pursue rather than always spending money on new stuff.

  8. I like buying used because I feel it provides a better value. Sure, there are times where that’s not always the case, but otherwise, I’m a big fan of thrifting, repurposing, exchanging, etc.

  9. I’m not sure if I have a preference. As long as it fits into my overall plan and I feel like I’m getting good value for the items I’m purchasing I don mind purchased used. I don think I’d buy an item to repair, but have often fixed things around my house that have broken instead of replacing all together.

    1. My dad was totally into buying items and then repairing/refinishing them. Mostly pieces of wood furniture or antiques that were purchased at auctions. He became really good at it and produced some real masterpieces. And saved the family a ton of money along the way.

  10. I tend to buy most of my clothing new, but there are some things that I totally buy used. Used books are a steal on Amazon and they are usually in pretty good condition. We buy cars used with low miles. And I’m planning to buy much of my infant daughters clothing used because she outgrows things soooooo fast. No point in paying new prices for something she may wear for a matter of weeks! But most other things we usually buy new. I am also not a big fan of fixing things 🙂

    1. I don’t remember buying much used clothing for our kids when they were infants…we had so much new stuff given to us. But you are right…they do grow fast and are in and out of clothing before you know it.

  11. My mom started off living large and later converted to a more frugal lifestyle. I ended up doing exactly as she did. I also haven’t gotten into the thrift shop experience and I prefer to purchase our clothes brand new. When we furnished our apartment this summer, we bought the living room and bedroom sets brand new and furnished the accessories via Craigslist finds. I really don’t stress about this because we have our financial ducks in a row.

    1. “…we have our financial ducks in a row.” When that is the case this really becomes a non-issue and just boils down to personal preference. Good point!

  12. I’ve never been into thrift store shopping because I feel like you have to spend so much time searching for nice looking pieces (as in making frequent trips to see what’s available) that it’s just not worth it. I don’t like clothes shopping and would rather try to buy only things that I feel are absolutely necessary, really love and will last for a long time. That said, if I ever needed something like a super fancy dress that I’d only wear for a special occasion, I would try to buy it at a consignment shop rather than paying retail.

    1. We have several clothing thrift store near us. We’ve been there several times in the last few years shopping for the kids. Each time I always look for myself just in case…and I never find anything I like. So that’s discouraging. And so I don’t want to make the effort to go there next time I shop in the hopes that I’ll find something.

  13. I prefer new technology over anything else; I would never buy used. That said, I will always buy a car that is at least 2 years old. I think it’s just personal preference!

    1. “…new technology…” I’m with you on that Natalie! Technology advances so fast it seems it is outdated the moment it hits the market. I would definitely want to keep pace with the current advancements when I’m ready to make a purchase.

  14. When I buy used, I feel like I’m being more green by reusing or repurposing something, and that is a big draw for me. But I’m terrible at fixing things (and luckily my husband is great at it.) But I’m with you in the haggling thing- I hate it! It makes me nervous for some reason.

    1. I think haggling is probably a learned skill just like everything else. The more you do it the more comfortable you become with it. I just never do it…hence the reason I don’t like it. 🙂

  15. My parents were bad with money. Like, BAD.

    And I saw how much they struggled for really small things and that’s why I approach finances differently now. I can’t live at the edge of my income the way we did. I can’t get comfortable with debt. I can’t not save for retirement.

    Gah it’s giving me anxiety just to think about it all right now!!!

    I don’t think it’s uncommon to pursue the opposite of what your parents did.. that’s what I’m doing.

    1. Haha…relax Bridget…no anxiety attacks please. 🙂 Sounds like you are on the right track.

  16. No Holly, you are not wrong for wanting nice new things. One time I asked my mom, who is possibly the cheapest person I know, didn’t she ever want something new and shiny? She said she never thought of it as an option. As a depression era baby, her family always had to make do with extremely limited resources and new was just too expensive. That period of time shaped her entire life’s behavior with money. I agree, #4 on the list is probably what impacts most people today. They can’t envision going without because they’ve never had to. I wonder how many people could survive if we ever got hit with a depression as severe as the one in 1929. Of course now, with government supporting so many already, perhaps most people wouldn’t even notice.

  17. Whenever I think I’m really dialing in my “frugalness” my parents seem to come for a visit and my mom somehow makes sure to show me in some way that there’s sooooo much we could do without. It’s a good shock to the system…. 🙂

  18. There is no wrong or right, just choice. I almost never buy used clothes, but my apt is filled with either used pieces or hand-me-downs. Mostly because I can hardly justify buying new in a rental, and secondly because I don’t care that much. I’m with you on when things break, although I do feel guilty putting it in a dumpster, so I almost always take something back to be recycled, or give it away for free…something like that, but like you, I lack patience. My parents spent money, but more in a blue/white collar way, meaning nothing fancy, but we always bought new stuff and never wanted for anything. For me, I’m not better off than my dad, so sometimes my frugality is a choice, other times it’s not.

    1. “…I do feel guilty putting it in a dumpster…” Isn’t that the worst? I can just hear my dad (or all my frugal, fixer-upper blogger friends) saying, “All you need to do is (fill in the blank) and it will be fine.” 🙂

  19. My Mom grew up really poor and never had anything new in her life. I think once she got to high school, she was very embarrassed by her lack of modern things so she hardly ever bought anything used, although I would still consider her frugal, at least while we were growing up. I myself could care less. I would buy everything used if it were good quality, which is hardly ever available where we live. Thrift stores are full of junk, but if we lived in a city, I bet I’d find just about everything there. I wasn’t always this way, and I think that’s why I embrace it now. We probably value our time as much as anything so if it takes a weekend day to repair or do something around the house, it will probably get hired out.

    1. “…if it takes a weekend day to repair…” Yeah…my limit on repair might be an hour on something small and three hours on something big. If it’s beyond that (or above my skill level) I’m not trying to figure it out. I’ll hire it out and use the time saved for something else.

  20. I’m so different to my parents with money… firstly because I earn a decent salary, but also before I keep something aside for the future. They’re very in the moment/spend it fast (I think in part due to a lack of education) and it was very challenging growing up and seeing these behaviours. It definitely shaped me to be more frugal!

  21. I know the feeling, but I don’t share it too much. I do like buying new, because that was I can ensure that the item I’m buying has no real defects or hidden issues. I’m not very good at haggling, but I do enjoy it from time to time. Where we really disagree is on fixing things. As someone with an analytical background, I just like knowing ho things work, and fixing them gives me the opportunity to learn more about them. Guess it all depends on how you’re wired, and what interests you. Nothing wrong for preferring to hire a handyman/buy a new thing when an old one breaks, if your priorities lie elsewhere.

    1. “… has no real defects or hidden issues.” That’s my feeling as well. Although I hate to get an item home, begin to assemble it and then come to realize there is a vital piece missing.

  22. I find that I buy less when I buy new, because I’m buying exactly what I want instead of settling. Like with clothes, I wear them out but I buy new (on sale). I don’t have a lot of clothing. When I bought second hand, I had 6-7 times the amount of stuff. Do you do the same?

    1. “…I buy less when I buy new…” That’s an interesting take Meghan…hadn’t really processed that before. That could potentially lead to overspending even though you are getting items on the cheap…you are just getting a bunch of them. I don’t shop for clothes often but would probably buy more items (including stuff I didn’t need) if I bought used.

  23. Interesting! I don’t like haggling either, whereas my mom is not afraid to ask for discounts when she can. My dad loves to fix things, but I’m pretty impatient, so I’ll usually just call him for advice. =) That said, my parents were frugal because they had to be as well, but they managed to get into a lot of debt. Like Bridget, I have a huge aversion to consumer debt because of that, so I tend to look for deals everywhere, and I’m not opposed to buying used when it makes sense.

    1. “…my parents were frugal because they had to be…” You know Erin, that really explains the whole essence of this post. I would be more frugal if I had to be.

  24. While there are times I will just buy new, I try to fix almost everything I can. I like working with my hands and fixing broken items teaches me more about how these items are made. I learn a lot and can use those skills in other areas of my home or car.

    1. I could probably improve in the fixing things arena. But I’d really struggle with the car…I’ve never been mechanically inclined.

  25. I sometimes want to buy new – I’d love a new car, for example, but I know that I’d get better value if I bought used. Even if I buy a used car that’s only a year old, I’ll probably save over £3,000 on the price if it was new. But, I tend to buy more stuff if it’s second hand, mainly because it’s cheaper. So there are pros and cons to both ways!

  26. We are a lot a like, Brian. I prefer to buy things new and generally in good to high quality as they tend to last longer and I will keep them until they break. 🙂 I hate overpaying for things but I have no problem spending money on the things that I love, provided, of course, that I can actually afford them. I know people have varying definitions of frugal but to me, it’s always meant making mindful choices on how you spend money and avoiding debt. I consider myself frugal but I’m sure others would say we’re not.

    I also find with clients who have problems with overspending but had very frugal parents that they associate having things with doing well. So they buy things to make themselves feel as thought they are doing well, even though their actions actually have the opposite effect. In other instances they haven’t financially matured yet. They don’t see their parents as making smart financial choices (partly because parents too often don’t explain the why behind the “no”), only that they felt deprived.

    1. “[frugal]…it’s always meant making mindful choices on how you spend money and avoiding debt.” That’s a great definition in my opinion Shannon and mirrors what I think. Can I use that going forward? 🙂

  27. Ben Luthi says:

    I think it really boils down to preference. If you can afford it and it doesn’t kill the rest of your financial plan, go for it. The thing that makes me sad is when I see people pay 20% of their monthly gross income on a brand spanking new car. It’s just crippling.

    1. “…20% of their monthly gross income on a brand spanking new car.” Yeah…that’s not going to work in the long-run Ben. Those people are not really thinking through that decision properly.

  28. Brian,

    I like new too. I think that’s normal and ok (if you have the budget) but in regards to fixing things. I’m not talented in that aspect. My dad? Oh my. He’s a fix-em-up guru but he grew up in the 50’s-60’s and in the Detroit area and did nothing but fix stuff his whole life.

    I don’t have that mindset or ability (and I try so many times…). I work in the IT world where I fix things on a software/hardware/networking level. Something my dad can’t do.

    Good post.

  29. Brian, you sound ALOT like me… basically everything lines up.
    My parents are fairly frugal, always buying used cars, mom walks or bikes to work, very do-it-yourself (but they didn’t really do the thrift store too much). But I have a tendency to like buying new… and I don’t really enjoy most DIY projects – during the process at least. I am not really into haggling, I mean only when it is clearly something you typically haggle with (like a yard sale, or something of that nature) would I even attempt to haggle. And out of your list of reasons… number 4 is really the only reason I can come up with as well. We are probably just ahead of where our parents were financially at this point – which is a blessing. But are we letting our blessings go to waste by not embracing this frugality that we experienced as children?

    1. “…are we letting our blessings go to waste by not embracing this frugality that we experienced as children?” That’s a really good question Kipp. I can’t speak for everyone but I don’t personally feel that way. We really hold the line on spending now that we’ve gotten our act together. So I don’t think we are going wild with any of these new purchases.

  30. I typically buy new items too. On a general note, I feel like it takes a lot of time to find what I’m looking for at thrift stores. I just don’t have a lot of time these days : ( When I do purchase something, I almost ALWAYS find a sale and or coupon – finding coupons and sales has become very easy for me. I know where and when to look. Those little savings make a big difference overtime.

    1. “…takes a lot of time to find what I’m looking for at thrift stores.” And the merchandise is so hit and miss. It cycles through so quickly you never know what you will find from visit to visit.

  31. I think that the reasoning behind frugality has largely changed with the generations. (Outside of the reasoning of actually NEEDING to be frugal,) many older folk remember the great depression and are frugal in order to protect themselves. But you can also be frugal for other reasons. You can be frugal because you care about the environment. You can be frugal in order to buck the highly consumeristic system we live in. You can be frugal to order your priorities. (Example: If you are willing to drive a clunker it can drive home for you that you do not find your value in your vehicle.)

    You don’t have to (and, in fact, shouldn’t) follow something just because your parents did. But you might still find yourself following for other reasons. ; )

    1. Those are good points to consider Mrs. WW. I guess everyone has their own reasoning for why they spend money.

  32. Sometimes I am ok with looking at thrift shops, but only for certain things. Items like clothing and shoes, I want new.

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