By Colleen Oakley
I knew I had married my father the day my husband Fred lost his black comb.
It was four inches of plastic with teeth and cost about 75 cents at the CVS, but instead of parting with three quarters to buy a new one, Fred spent the better part of a day tearing our house upside down, searching every nook and cranny of his Jeep and muttering things like, "It's not like it could have walked off on its own!"
My dad is cheap, and I thought my husband was just like him.
That is, until we needed a new car. I balked at the mere suggestion that we needed Bluetooth, or leather or--God forbid--a sunroof. As my husband envisioned a new, luxury vehicle, all I could see were dollar signs adding up fast. "Wait a minute," I said. "I thought you were the cheap one in this relationship. Why do you want to spend so much on a car?"
"Me?!" he sputtered. "You thought I was cheap? What about the time our washer broke and instead of buying a new one you spent three days calling repairmen until you found the lowest price? Or how you only let us eat out at places for which you have a Scoutmob? Or how you make me call our credit card every three months to ask if they'll lower the interest rate?"
"Your APR is ridiculously high," I said, folding my arms, but inside I was horrified.
I realized that my husband might get frustrated at the loss of a 75-cent comb, but it was actually me who was just like my dad.
Of course, maybe it's not such a bad thing. My husband and I are in the best financial place we have ever been, and I know it's partly because of these lessons I have subconsciously learned from my dad.
In honor of Father's Day, here are the best lessons my father taught me about money:
1. Never Buy a New Car
I can remember many Saturdays of my childhood that my dad spent in the garage, covered in grime, changing the oil in our very used cars, or tuning up the engine, or fixing a window-roller-upper that didn't want to roll up any more.
One time I asked him why he spent so much time fixing our cars, when he could just buy a new one with no issues. He said, "A new car loses value the second you drive it off the lot." I scoffed, but when it came time for Fred and me to make a car decision, I literally couldn't bring myself to agree to a brand-new one. We settled on a pre-owned car with 19,000 miles on it, and saved at least $4,000. Our car payment is lower than most of our friends'. Our car still looks great, doesn't require Fred to spend Saturdays under the hood and has a lot of life left in it.
2. Talk About Money
My parents never kept their financial status a secret from us. We often heard phrases like "We only have $50 until payday," and I remember overhearing them discuss what they spent that day so they were on the same page. Now Fred and I do the same thing. Money is a taboo topic in our society, but thanks to my parents, it doesn't make me uncomfortable. Because of our open running dialogue about our finances, we never argue about money, unlike most couples.
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3. Save, Save, Save
I opened my first savings account when I was 7, at the prodding of my parents. I remember how proud I was when it first reached $100. My dad taught me that no matter how little you have, you should always make sure you have a cushion in case you hit hard times. Even when I was making $300 a month in college, I always put $5 or $10 in my savings account--and was glad I had when Fred got laid off just a few months after we got married.
4. Don't Spend More Than You Have
I opened my first credit card when I was a senior in college to buy a $125 plane ticket to visit my boyfriend who lived three states away. My hands were sweaty and I was nauseated because all I could hear was my Dad's voice saying: "Credit card money is not your money."
He always preached the importance of spending within your means. It was hard to do in my early 20s when I was living on a $25,000 salary with champagne tastes and Jimmy Choo dreams. But the lesson kicked in when I got married and Fred brought nearly $30,000 in debt to our relationship. We decided right then to not use our credit cards for anything, and concentrate on paying off the money owed. Four years later, we're down to a $6,000 balance left on one credit card and live faithfully by Dad's rule: If we can't afford it with cash, we don't buy it.
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5. Every Little Bit Counts
Okay, so my Dad definitely took his frugality overboard at times--like when my parents bought a pick-up truck and he asked my mom to drive it around with the tailgate down because it got better gas mileage. And I don't keep the thermostat at 80 degrees in the summer and 68 in the winter (as he did every single year, despite my constant whining).
But I do find myself tapping the temperature up or down a notch or two if the house is comfy. And I'll buy store brand food as opposed to name brand to save a few cents. And I wash my clothes on the cold cycle to cut down on our electricity bill.
It may not seem like much, but it's nice to have a few extra bucks at the end of the month so we can afford things we might not otherwise have been able to spring for--like little plastic combs.
Colleen Oakley is a fiscally responsible freelance writer in Atlanta. But her Dad is just cheap. You can find out more about her at colleenoakley.com.
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