I’d like to say that there’s some wonderful and mysterious origin story that that explains who I am today, but it came about due to the most common and banal reason around: I was born and bred by two thrifty parents.
Having two cheap parents is the worst. New clothes shopping involved a trip to the fabric store to get materials for the three identical jumpers my mother would make me before school started; vacation every year was a drive to New Jersey to hang out at the pool in my grandmother’s retirement community; and the big splurge of the week happened on Friday when my mother would give me 35 cents to get an ice cream sandwich in the cafeteria at lunch.
Now, my mother would claim that all this was because we were poor, not cheap, but this is the woman who to this day thinks it’s normal to drive an hour and a half to buy a comforter from the JCPenny Outlet instead of going to the regular JCPenny five minutes from her house. And my father pretty much doesn’t give a gift unless its something he’s gotten free in the mail.
I came to this conclusion early on: two cheap people should never be in a relationship together. It goes against the laws of nature. Yin and yang, fire and ice, sweet and salty, and all that stuff. People need balance. When two cheap people get together, they’re never able to embrace the joys of capitalism, and their lives are the more boring for it.But the situation is even worse in relationships where neither person has any spending control. Take, for example, this annoyingly popular girl that I went to high school with. She was super rich and pretty. Her parents drove BMWs; she looked like she got regular manicures and some kind of skin treatment; and I’m fairly certain that every article of clothing she owned and wore only once was from a designer I’d never heard of. Our senior year we had this conversation:
Me: God, I’m so tired of trying to figure out how in the world I’m going to afford going to college. I should probably just stay in state.
Rich girl: Ugh, I know!
Me: Don’t even! Isn’t your dad, like, a doctor or something?
Rich girl: Well, yeah, but they don’t have any money saved up for college.
Me: Um, what?
Rich girl: Yeah. My parents were having my work on the FAFSA last night, and it turns out that they, like, don’t even have any savings accounts. They just spend everything.
All the happiest people I know are in relationships with someone who is their spending opposite. The thrifty person helps keep the finances grounded and ensures that there’s always a comfortable cushion when the stuff of life happens; the non-thrifty person remembers that life is about more than just working and hoarding all your money.
Take, for example, a conversation I had at brunch a few weeks ago with a couple friends that have been happily paired off for more than a decade:
Me: So, I can’t believe you’re finally going to be out of law school in a few months and making six figures. How crazy is that?
Thrifty guy: I know! I can’t wait to finally save some money again.
Non-thrifty girl: You mean, you can’t wait until we can afford to pay someone to come clean our apartment twice a month.
Thrifty guy: What? No. We need to start putting money away. I might not want to work at a big law firm forever.
Non-thrifty girl: Oh, and you’re going to have time to cook and clean when you’re a first-year associate? What you will have time for is meeting me out for dinner and drinks three nights a week when we’re both getting off work at 8pm.
Thrifty guy: Okay. Fine. Once a month. We can get someone to clean once a month.
Non-thrifty girl: God, I can’t wait until we’re rich.
I play the role of the thrifty one in my relationship (shocking, I know), and my partner (he of name-brand buying Ritz cracker fame), is the saner one. This balance has helped us immensely over the years.
Four and a half years ago we rather spontaneously bought an apartment. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but about a month after moving in, I started staring at our finances and convincing myself that we were going to default on our mortgage and have to eat peanut butter sandwiches without jelly for the next ten years of our lives.
My hysteria came to a head one evening in the dairy section of the grocery store (and no, not all of the major events in our relationship happen in supermarket aisles, just some). We were going through our shopping list, and although I had clearly written down “margarine,” this guy reached out and picked up a box of butter. Now, the margarine v. butter question isn’t like the debate about whether to get name brand food. Butter isn’t just 40 cents more than margarine. It’s, like, two or three dollars more than margarine. Switching to margarine was going to make the difference between whether we could afford our new apartment or not.
He listened carefully, butter in hand, as I made my case. When I finally finished, my hands shaking and eyebrow twitching, he calmly put the butter in our basket and said, “Let’s go home.” Once we put our groceries away, he opened up my crazy-person finances spreadsheet and explained to me that our mortgage payments fell well within the normal range for our income level and that all my projected spending on things like clothing and nights out were completely bogus since I pretty much never spent money on anything except for thrift-store t-shirts and concert tickets.
Frugal people need spenders like a money needs a wallet. A lot of people think that things like political views and back hair are deal breakers. But I say that you can make it through almost anything as long as you don’t have two crazy cheap people or two irresponsible spenders. Or, you know, if you’re so rich that money doesn’t even matter.
Annie Schutte is a school librarian in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: flickr/pink poppy photography