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Forced Simplicity

Here’s an upside to our new economy: Americans, particularly young Americans, have been forced to live more simply. A friend of mine said her efforts to do so have saved her family $1,800 a month. That’s a remarkable figure, particularly when you consider the fact that my friend didn’t feel shortchanged at all. In fact, she felt better.         

As for me, I haven’t had to change my spending habits all that much. It’s not that my family hasn’t been affected by the economy—it has—but I’ve always been relatively frugal in my day-to-day spending. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, but for the most part, I live with a gnawing sense of fiscal responsibility. It’s not that I’ve never wasted money (I have a basement with extra lamps and rugs to prove otherwise), or that I couldn’t have lived more simply all these years—I could have—but we generally live on a tight budget regardless of how much money we have in the bank. As a result, my husband and I have a great credit rating and virtually no debt, with the exception of our mortgage. But the lack of debt isn’t the main thing that separates me from some other people in my generation; it’s the fact that I’ve never lived the way so many people do: without thinking.

When it comes to money, I think first—then I decide. The first major choice I made was to stay home with my kids. Contrary to popular belief, it actually costs money for both spouses to work. Not only do you shell out thousands of dollars on daycare and nannies, but you also spend on gas, food (prepackaged foods, lunches, coffee), and dry-cleaning/work attire. Generally speaking, the more you’re out of the home, the more money you spend. For example, being home allows me to cook the majority of the week’s twenty-one meals. When we do go out as a family, we split meals and don’t order drinks, or we go out for lunch, instead of dinner.

When I shop for clothes and food, the vast majority of the items I purchase are needs, not wants—and they seem to always be from Target. (I could take it a step further and go to Walmart, but I admit I have my limits!) I rarely see the inside of a mall; if I do, it’s when there’s a clearance sale. When I want to read a book—which is often—I head to the library, not the bookstore. We own one car (my husband has a company car), which we bought used and, after a trade-in, cost only $15,000. For entertainment, we go out for dinner only once in a while (with the cost of a sitter, the evening easily costs $100) and instead entertain at home. Finally, we go on one vacation a year, and until recently, not even that.

I never thought much about my lifestyle and how it may differ from that of other people in my generation. I was raised by a mother who grew up during the Depression, and the experience never left her. Consequently, she’s been instilling her frugal philosophy since I was old enough to understand. According to her, every purchase must be for good reason. Do I need it? Is it my birthday? If not, no sale. Though I’ll never be as frugal as she is (she still wears my old coats from high school, for God’s sake), relative to my generation, I guess I’m prettyfiscally cautious. When Oprah interviewed a young couple in debt last week, the wife described her new spending habits. In doing so, one of the things she said she does now is go to the library. “Did you know you can check out DVDs from the library?” she asks Oprah. “No!” Oprah says. “I didn’t know that!” This exchange would never have occurred forty years ago. Forty years ago people used their local libraries. The philosophy back then was the same as my mother’s: why pay for something when you can get it for free?

This is a lesson my generation could stand to learn. Not only will it put more money in their pockets, but it will also make them feel better about themselves. Because the real issue with the modern generation isn’t that “two incomes are necessary” or that the cost of living has skyrocketed (though it has); it’s that our expectations have changed. Lower these expectations, and just about anyone can live on less.

It’s too bad it took a failing economy to get the message across—but better late than never.