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.