“It’s Only Money!”

By , January 15, 2016

How we think of money as a family may help us to pursue a frugal lifestyle (Catch up by starting with Homestead Core Values: Frugality).

Growing up in frugal families, Michelle and I often found that lack of money created obstacles to us getting what we wanted. Despite the guidance of our parents (see Frugal Family History: Upbringing) we sometimes rebelled.

Michelle’s parents like to tell stories about Michelle and money. When she was about five, she listened to her grandfather complaining about the cost of something, then said, “Oh Grandpa, it’s only money!”

They also like to describe a particular pout of hers when she was 12 years old, that climaxed with her dinner table pronouncement: “I hate money!”

Luckily for me, she chose her college based on money. She decided between two colleges based on the financial aid package, choosing the one that offered $60 more than its competitor. I attended the same school, where we met, fell in love, and married.

These telling moments may explain a lot about how Michelle regards money. For both of us, the need to earn, the inability to truly break free of money’s influence in our society, proves frustrating.

However, we tend to think of it differently than most people. Last summer, as Michelle led a walking tour, one of her clients asked, “Can you make a lot of money in Haines?” She found the question somewhat odd. People obviously live well in Haines, but few do it by making a lot of money. Look around, she thought, there’s more to living here than making money! She felt the person asked the wrong question.

To us, quality of life matters far more than material wealth. We don’t feel that acquiring the latter ensures the former.

We also tend to view money as what it really is, an artificial social construct that works as long as everyone agrees that it has value in life.

I’m not going to launch into an argument for returning to the gold standard here. While I understand the case for such an idea, I also agree with the advantages of going off of it. However, the fact remains that the true value of a dollar resides in our agreement that it represents that value.

This allows us to regard money in general as a potentially transient aspect of life. It holds value right now, but may not in the future.

This sparks a ongoing, low-level debate in our household. The question becomes, do we save up money for the future, hoping and trusting that its value will not degrade? Or, do we spend all we’ve got now while it can purchase goods and services of value?

Most of the time, we operate between these two ideas. It allows us to leave our retirement funds in play (I’m fully vested with the State of Alaska, Michelle’s had several jobs that have contributed to her retirement) and not worry about them too much. We figure that when we need it, it’ll either be there, or it won’t, and there’s not much we can do about that now. If it’s there, then it’s necessary. If it’s not, then money no longer matters; we’ll have bigger problems to deal with. If that happens, our lifestyle will have prepared us pretty well on the whole (see Living on the Edge–Security Through Insecurity).

On the other hand, if we find opportunities to purchase durable goods that might have value after money disappears or changes beyond recognition, we try to take advantage of them (see Silver Hunting for a Less-Than-Ideal Future).

In the meantime, we stick to our mantra: more calories than cash. In most cases, we try to do for ourselves first, then spend money when we must. For instance, we buy groceries we can’t grow here, but we work hard to garden, forage, and hunt as much food as we can. This leads directly to the next homestead core value, hard work. I’ll discuss that in future posts.

By the way, throughout the many essays on frugality I’ve covered here, I’ve never quite figured out how to work in a mention of a friend who really takes frugality seriously. Check out her blog, The Frugal Girl!

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