When my parents helped me move into my freshman dorm, I begged them to change their outfits.
They were wearing jeans and matching XL t-shirts with the "Bose" insignia. They didn’t even know that it was an electronics company, but they'd insisted on snagging multiples a few weeks prior at the grand opening of a Best Buy in Burlington, MA.
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The problem wasn’t that they took free t-shirts. My problem was that they let their frugality dictate their every action.
They can afford to go to the salon, yet my mom trims her own hair. They can eat nice dinners, but they fill up on food court samples. They can afford to live like the upper-middle-class folks that they are, yet my dad will pull over his car to pick up a can on the sidewalk—“this is a free five cents!”
I would love nothing more than for my parents to travel the world—or, at the very least, travel out of state. I don’t want them to have only worked to care for their kids. I want them to enjoy what they’ve earned. When I've told them this, they reply, "Someday ..."
Penny-Pinching Was Their Way of Life
To the other first-generation folks reading this, I'm sure that my parents' frugality is anything but surprising. It seems to me that immigrants from my parents' generation tend to either be extreme savers or over-spenders. While I don’t have stats—just experience with friends from Italian, Greek, Indian, Armenian and Hispanic households—immigrant super-savers seem much more common.
My dad grew up on a modest farm in Italy, where he claims that he “rode a donkey to school, and got my tooth pulled out without any novocaine,” so he’s pretty used to “lower standards of living.” When his family came to the U.S. in 1967, my dad was a teenager whose high school guidance counselor encouraged him to pursue trade school, instead of college.
The message that he couldn't do better drove my dad to prove himself by becoming a successful electrician, multiple-property owner and one of the smartest men I know. And I think that his modest childhood inspired him to create an extremely secure life for his family. He never wanted to lose what he worked so hard to earn—thus the extreme frugality.
I Love/Hate My Parents' Frugality
They have no debt, they always have cash and they hardly use credit cards (and if they do, it’s only to earn points, and they pay the balance off immediately). They don’t have a home filled with things that they don’t need. They were able to pay for my braces, my college tuition and my first car. I am forever grateful for their generosity.
Their saving mentality has also turned my stay-at-home mom into a coupon queen. Each New Year, she does a tally of what she saved in the last year using coupons—and every year it's more and more impressive. (The photo at right is her 2011 savings total through coupons alone!)
I’m not a coupon clipper, but I am damn good at bargain hunting, thanks to my mom. I get a high from scoring something for $19.99 that I know was once $150.
However, I also feel a rush of anxiety whenever I'm around freebies. I don’t want pencils that say HSBC on them, but when I see them sitting there on the bank counter, begging to be taken, I get overwhelmed with WWGPD (What Would Giulia’s Parents Do?) energy and start shoving handfuls in my purse. Don't get me wrong, free is great, but before you know it, you can find yourself living in a home filled with tacky swag that you don't need. If my home is cluttered, my brain feels cluttered—and I need a clear mind to make better decisions about money.
When I was in my early 20s, I spent foolishly, perhaps rebelling against their money-clutching mentality—everything from cheap dresses at Forever 21 to "a round of drinks on me!"
In my 30s, I finally learned to save—although it sometimes feels a little too late. I want to eventually own a home, have a kid (or two) and maybe even take a real vacation, but those things take money. Nowadays, I feel bad just treating myself to a manicure or a non-clearance dress! It's almost like I want to punish myself for the financial mistakes of my youth. Then again, the thousands of dollars of credit card debt left over from that 23-year-old me that I'm still paying off is evidence that I’ve splurged enough.
I’m really not sure what the “right” way to save or spend is. What I do know is that I'm proud of my parents. They came to this country and achieved the American dream of financial security. Who am I to tell them how to save and spend when they seem to have done a damn good job of always being in the green?
I just hope that, before they leave this earth, they'll get a little wild. Maybe they’ll (gasp!) enjoy a meal without using a coupon. I also hope that they throw away those stupid Bose tees.
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Giulia Rozzi is a writer and performer who has appeared on Vh1, MTV, CNN and TLC. She is also the author of Tales of the Irresponsible Younger Sibling.