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Giving up the 'gimme' brings a new perspective

As the talking heads on TV kept speculating about just how bad the economy could get, Americans took a lot of hits.

We're spoiled.

We've spoiled our children.

We have a sense of entitlement as never before.

We can't live without having the latest toys: the shiniest cars, the newest iPod, digital, hi-def, FiOS, Blu-ray, TiVo, the thinnest laptop, BlackBerry or iPhone.

And we want it all NOW.

And we could have it all now because we had Visa and MasterCard and American Express and Discover!

Because, for all the amazing technological advances since the Great Depression, the real change was in how we paid for it all: Buy now, pay later.

Where did all that "gimme'' come from? Certainly not our parents.

As one of eight baby boomer children just one generation removed from the farm, I was taught that a car was transportation, not your self-worth, that you ate food that was in season and put up and shared what you didn't need, that you didn't get everything you wanted and you were thankful for what you did receive. Hand-me-downs were just fine, and something home-cooked or home-baked was better than any restaurant could offer.

And more than anything we were taught that people were more important than things.

But here we were, 40 years later, living in a world with so many cool things!

And then we crashed.

No, we weren't visionaries who saw the national problem coming. Our family just crashed first.

Week after week my husband and I went to our good jobs, and at the end of the week, when the paycheck was direct-deposited, and we'd paid the bills online and then drove off to the grocery store like everyone else, we had less and less of our own money to spend.

It was in our nice house and the home equity loan our personal banker had encouraged us to take out. And our two nice vehicles, both fewer than 4 years old. And grabbing dinner out whenever I worked late and just didn't feel like cooking.

We were paying the credit card bills for trips to Target for things we didn't really need plus a toy for each child "to be fair," or to Sam's Club, where there was always something that was such a bargain we had to get it even though it wasn't on our list. Or how about the trips to the bookstore, where I felt good about buying the kids things because, hey, they were reading!

Then there was the one weekend too many at Disney. Once we said no to one more Mickey Mouse or Tinker Bell purchase, the magic bubble burst.

It was time to put on the brakes.

We took a hard look at our spending. What we needed vs. what we wanted. It's an exercise I suspect other families are going through as things get tighter.

My cell phone was easy to cut. I was paying too much for a phone that I used sporadically. It was amazing how little I missed it.

We looked at cable, decided we would keep it and cut back on going out. So we called our provider to make sure we had the best possible deal.

Probably the biggest change we made was to get rid of the big Ford Explorer. Since then, the two of us have been driving one car for a year and a half. It's working. We're lucky that we both work close to home and have some flexibility in our hours. The savings on car payments and insurance have been substantial, plus we didn't have that gas guzzler when prices hit $4 a gallon.

One of the surprise benefits was that by sharing just 10 minutes in the car together each morning and evening, we talked. Without the kids. Those few minutes between home and the office became time to plan for our day or vent at the end of the workday.

There have been only a handful of times in that year and a half that we couldn't get everywhere that the four of us needed to go, or somebody has taken the bus to make things work. (Route 59 runs just three blocks from our house. It's all an adventure.)

We'll need to get another car eventually. Our son just turned 16, so we're keeping an eye out for a good used one. He'd like a Mustang. He'll drive whatever we get.

We cut way back on eating out. The trade-off is that we're having fun planning meals to cook at home. The kids are pushing to try new cuisines, and hopefully they'll be able to make a few things by the time they move out on their own.

And the kids and I are learning that a book is just as good if you borrow it from the library.

The big change we're still working on is having money on hand for unexpected expenses. For when the washing machine gives out or the termites invade and you need to take care of it right away.

I'm not sure a spender can become a saver overnight. My Grandpa George used to tell me I had a hole in my pocket. Luckily, Grandma Rose taught me how to sew, so maybe I can fix it.

I'd like to be smug about the changes, but we worry we did it about 10 years too late. I can only hope that it's in time for the kids to learn some of the lessons I learned growing up, like the ones from the stories readers share in today's LifeTimes about the Great Depression.

As Joy Stafford Chaszar, 77, of St. Petersburg put it, "You appreciate something a whole lot more when you save for it, anticipate it and earn it. I wouldn't trade those early years for a million dollars — I know I can manage financially during lean times . . ."

I'm finding that the kids are pretty tight when it comes to spending their birthday money, so maybe there's hope.

Jan Brackett is news editor of LifeTimes. She can be reached at jbrackett@sptimes.com.

Giving up the 'gimme' brings a new perspective 01/26/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 11:58am]

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