I had a very modest upbringing as a kid. I grew up in a suburb of Columbus, OH, where we lived in a rented townhouse apartment. It was nothing fancy, but it was comfortable and located in a good school district.
I was fortunate to have had good health, a good education, and even some fun stuff, like a basement with a weight set and ping pong table that we built on saw horses. What I didn’t really realize at the time was that we were living just above the “paycheck to paycheck” level.
Even though I was a pretty smart kid and well-educated in subjects like math and science, I understood next to nothing about money. By the time I graduated college, I had a degree in Marketing, about $30k in debt, and no clue about personal finance.
Contrast to Allison’s Upbringing
My wife, Allison, had a very different childhood than I did. She grew up in a very nice 3-bed cottage house in an upper middle-class neighborhood of Queens, NY. Both of her parents worked professional jobs and were able to earn enough money to buy a home, save for their two daughters’ college tuition, and invest the rest.
It’s hard to say exactly where Allison got her super frugal ways, but it probably stems from her grandparents, who emigrated to the U.S. from China. In the “old country” they had to scrimp and save every penny to make ends meet, and they brought that mentality with them.
They ingrained that behavior in Allison’s parents, who in turn taught Allison the same lessons. Whatever the root cause, Allison embraced the frugal lifestyle and still lives it to this day.
Because Allison was very frugal, and I didn’t even know what that word meant, I had some lessons to learn about money. Here are the 4 most valuable ones I’ve learned from Allison over the past 20+ years we’ve been together…
#1. Respect Your Money - the Wallet Lesson
Allison and I met back in 1995 in NYC, while working as food servers in a big sports-themed restaurant in Time Square. We made a fair amount of money (at least for a 25-year old), and it was mostly all cash. I remember leaving each night with $20s, $10s, $5s, and $1 bills crumpled up and scattered in all my pockets.
When Allison saw how I was handling my money she was aghast.
The first money lesson she taught me is the simplest one, but it had the most profound impact on me. She taught me to respect all that hard-earned cash by keeping it all neatly stacked, folded, and in order of denomination in my wallet.
This may seem like a minor tweak, but it forever changed how I thought about money. Before this lesson, I would spend my money without thinking, I didn’t keep track of it, and I certainly didn’t have a strategic plan for it.
Since learning this valuable but simple lesson, I’m much more mindful about my money -- how I earn it, where I put it, how I protect it, and how I grow it.
#2. Buying in Bulk - the Mayo Lesson
Allison and I moved to San Francisco 6 months after we met in NYC. We were planning on just visiting for a couple of weeks, but we loved it and decided to stay.
We didn’t know anyone, and we didn’t have jobs or a place to stay. Through perseverance, we managed to find a (relatively) inexpensive studio apartment in a fairly safe and vibrant neighborhood.
I remember one day shortly after we moved in, Allison sent me to the grocery store to pick up a few items. Because I was used to living like a bachelor, I came back with a tiny little personal-sized jar of mayonnaise.
Allison couldn’t believe I didn’t get the largest possible size to take advantage of the bulk discount. Sure, this was just one jar of mayo, but this was a larger lesson -- to always get the largest possible size of everything we buy that we can use.
Needless to say, Allison sent me right back out to the grocery store to exchange the mini jar for a family sized far. To this day, we get most of our groceries in bulk from Costco and Sprout’s (a local health food store), and we make sure to use them up before they go bad.
#3. Doing Things Ourselves -- the Toilet Lesson
We bought our first house in San Francisco in 2000. It was very small (“cozy” as the Realtors phrased it) and about 80 years old, so it needed a few repairs and upgrades.
Some of the work needed to be done by a professional, like taking care of mold and termites in the below level garage. But there were other projects that a motivated DIY-er could do.
One of those projects happened to be replacing the toilet in the only bathroom in the house. It was an old toilet (probably original), and we wanted to put in a new low-flow version. If I were single, I know I would’ve paid whatever it cost to get a plumber to replace it for me. I would never have even considered doing it myself.
Allison, on the other hand, assumed immediately that this was something we could (and should) do on our own. Her dad is an electrical engineer and very handy around the house. Fortunately, he taught Allison a fair amount about doing a variety of household projects.
It wasn’t the most glamorous job, and there were some old rusty bolts that were really hard to remove. But at the end of the day, we managed to do all the work ourselves, and it felt great!
That was my first real DIY project ever. Since then, we’ve done lots of projects -- painting, installing ceiling fans, changing light switches, fixing dishwashers, and even replacing another toilet.
#4. Getting stuff for Free -- the FreeCycle Lesson
Before I met Allison, I never even thought about the concept of getting stuff for free. I just always assumed you had to pay for everything.
But Allison is a master of finding things for free. I’d venture to say 50% of all the possessions we own we got for nothing (or next to nothing).
It all started about 10 years ago when Allison discovered the website FreeCycle. It’s a great place for people to give away stuff that’s still usable rather than throwing away into landfill. We also use Nextdoor and other community sites to find things.
Another great discovery we made are clothing swaps. Our friend Monica organizes a twice yearly clothing swap for all her friends and their friends. The concept is simple - you bring all the clothes you no longer wear to give away, and you take whatever clothing you want that others brought. Everything leftover goes to charity.
For the past 8+ years, we’ve spent next to nothing for our clothing, and we’ve gotten some really cool stuff -- leather jackets, boots, funky tops, and lots of casual wear.
Over the years, we’ve gotten so many other things for free, too -- everything from cat food to furniture. It’s not only great for your wallet, but it’s wonderful for the environment to reuse stuff.
If I have one tip for young people who are dating and looking to settle down. Find yourself someone who is great with money and finances. This is an area in life that can cause the most happiness or heartbreak, depending on how you manage it.
I’ve been lucky to find a wife who not only isn’t a shopaholic, but is extremely frugal and astute about the value of money. These four lessons are simple but have forever altered how I think about and manage money!