Kathy Petersen’s Blog


Posted in frugal by Kathy on April 21, 2008

Are we really worse off than our parents or our grandparents? I don’t think so.

The problem with comparing ourselves to those in the past, is we’re making a false comparison. This is because we’re not looking at our parents at our age (or the number of years we’ve been on our own), but we’re looking at the way our parents are living now (having been settled for 30 years). I’m 31 years old now; I was a baby when my mom was 31, so I obviously have zero memory of the way things were for them then. But I’ve heard their stories, and I know that my parents had nothing when they were in their 30s. The lifestyle my husband and I have now is more similar to my mom’s lifestyle now (CDs, DVDs, computers, food, etc.) than it is to the way my parents used to live. They sacrificed. Quite a bit. I think of something that was in the book The Tightwad Gazette about living on one income — if we’re willing to live like past generations did, then we will be able to make it on one income. The problem is that we’re wanting to step out of our parents’ home (which has taken 20-30 years or so to accumulate all of the amenities) and step into our own home with the same lifestyle.

I never hear any more of people sacrificing and living on nothing as newlyweds. Whatever happened to the “starter home” of less than 1000 sq. ft. (or being in an apartment for a few years)? I used to hear about “early married” furniture, which was basically whatever you could cobble together. Nowadays, newlyweds expect to have a 1500-1800 sq. ft. house to start with, fully furnished with Ethan Allen furniture. But they complain about the bills that go with it. Simply ridiculous! Our parents didn’t start out like that, which is how they were able to eventually afford the larger house with nice furniture. We’re sacrificing our future to have baubles today.

Do this for a month: write down everything you spend, and what you spend it on. You can have somewhat broad categories (one category for food vs. categories for each type of food — although it might be eye-opening to see how much you spend a month on junk food and eating out), but they need to be specific enough so that you can see what you’re really spending your money on. Just saying “household stuff” and having everything from toilet paper to the complete DVD collection of Friends or 24 is too broad. And then compare that in your mind with what your parents likely spent at that same era of their lives. Did they buy clothes like you do? Did they eat out like you do? Did they go out to movies like you do? Did they buy as many records as you buy CDs? They didn’t even have the option of buying movies on tape, much less DVDs. Was cable even an option? What about phone service? There were no cell phones; and long distance was very expensive. What about cars — did they have two cars? Were they bought brand-new, or were they clunkers? They didn’t have computers (much less top-of-the-line computers needed for on-line gaming, complete with flat-screen LCD monitors, printer/scanner/fax machines, DVD burners, etc.). How many TVs did they have in the house? What about stereos? With surround-sound speakers, so you can get that “theater experience” in your own home?

As Amy Dacyczyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette said, even if you are worse off than your parents, complaining about it does nothing productive, and simply drains energy from what you could do to improve your life. If you have time to sit around and mope about how you don’t have enough money, why can’t you go get another job? Or put some time and effort into saving money with frugality? (If you need some ways to get started, go check out The Tightwad Gazette from the library. It’s free — you don’t even have the excuse of not wanting to spend the money.) You can save money (which equates to earning the equivalent amount of money, tax-free) and net yourself quite a good hourly wage, by just practicing active frugality. You can save even more, by practicing passive frugality, which is more-or-less defined as foregoing activities or things that cost money (not buying junk food, not eating out, basically just living simply).

All I’m saying is, before you whine about what you don’t have, be grateful for what you do have. Before you complain that you have it worse than your parents, you need to really sit down and make sure that they didn’t have it worse than you. Maybe they could more easily afford a “middle America” lifestyle than you can; but it’s not because the essentials are so much more expensive, nor that your income is so much less. It’s because what the “average” American now has, what “middle America” now is, is so much more affluent than the way your parents (and certainly your grandparents!) lived. So you might not be able to afford all the DVDs that your friends and neighbors have. Big deal. Even one movie is more than your parents had when they were young. Get over it!


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