It is finally starting to feel like fall. This morning as I waited for the train, the chilly air whipping through my still damp hair, I was brought back to my early school days when I would wait for the bus in a similar fashion.
I remember the shock of the frigid air as I struggled to get going out of bed. My father used to leave the house at a cool 60-65 degrees in the winter. This was part of his prescription to stay healthy during months of hibernation: keep the house cold, take a daily vitamin, and drink lots of water. The flu rarely hit our home, despite it being overcrowded with eight children.
Some of my siblings and I would wake up and get dressed in an unusually quiet, dark house. We would slurp down an icy bowl of cereal or soothing oatmeal and gather our homework from the various chairs and couches we sat at the night before. Then just before we went out the door, my dad would reach up above the cabinets for his ancient red lunchbox, the same lunchbox he’d used since his first job at age 16.
He dug around on the bottom and take out a pile of coins, then arrange them in several small towers on the counter. Each tower added up to 40 cents: usually one quarter, one dime, and one nickel. On our way out we each snatched one of the towers and put it in our pocket or change purse or whatever we used to keep track of our lunch money.
Then my father would drive us to the bus stop at the end of our road and let us wait in the car with him if it was too cold or wet outside. As the bus rolled up the hill to a stop, he said a prayer for our day and kiss us each on the forehead with his Vaseline-coated lips.
Although I am by no means a morning person, I still look back on these mornings with great sentiment. I wish I had those crowded mornings at the dining room table, fighting over who can read the cereal box next. I miss my dad’s oily kiss, even though in my teenage years I urged him to stop for obvious reasons.
I also miss my father’s small donation to our pockets as we headed out for the day. We used to get a reduced-price lunch, which explains the small sum despite the fact that this story doesn’t take place in 1954. It’s funny, I didn’t even know we got reduced lunch until middle school. I thought all the kids paid 40 cents for their hot meal; after all, it still seemed like a lot of money to me.
People have been asking me my entire life how we do it: how do ten people live on one middle income? I always answer the same thing: I don’t know. My parents always told me that it is impossible to do what we do, but there are some strategies I have picked up along the way.
First, you are never alone.
In a big family, there is always a team of people ready to help you make any decision or point out when you are messing up.
Financially, this means that there is always someone around to help you out. Whether it’s borrowing a few quarters as a kid to buy an ice cream, or my sister buying those boots I love and saying we can share them.
So often in life it’s easy to feel alone, especially when thinking about your bank account. But don’t forget that there are always people and options out there to give you a hand. Ask around to see if anyone has advice on the best deals. Get creative- switch banks, cut up that credit card, split the bill at lunch, get an ImpulseSave account. You should never feel like you are in this alone.
Second, money is absolutely an object.
When I was younger, and all my friends went to Disney World for Spring Break, I had just as much fun visiting my cousins in New Jersey. I didn’t have the latest fashions from Limited Too, but I got creative by recycling my sisters’ hand-me-downs. In short: money was an object, and that is all it was. We didn’t let my father’s income determine who we were. In my family, people are always more important than stuff.
My parents never filled us in on how much money we had or didn’t have, they just made it clear that certain things were within our means and other things weren’t. However, being frugal does not require living a destitute life. On the contrary, being frugal for my family meant living the best - the healthiest, the happiest, the most fun, the most rewarding, the most productive - life you can within your budget.