Taking care of the pennies

My children are given a monthly allowance based on their age. I expect them to use this to cover non essential purchases such as outings with friends, confectionery and whatever we should call the ‘toys’ that big children buy. As they get older, the things that they wish to own or do become more expensive. My daughter recently bought a ticket to a concert that used up most of her monthly allowance in one go; she will still have to find the means to pay for food and transport around the event.

To make up any shortfall between the children’s wants and their wealth, I offer them jobs around the house for which I will give them an extra few pounds per task. I am not a generous paymaster so unless they are feeling particularly poor they will not undertake these extra assignments.

One of my sons likes to work on small engineering projects which require a lot of specialist parts. He never has enough money to buy all of the bits and pieces that he needs to complete his ambitious plans, so is generally the most willing of my three children to take on the jobs I offer. This past weekend he was cleaning out our chicken coops with a pressure washer when it stopped working. This is nothing unusual; it is a temperamental beast that only seems to respond positively to my husband who happened to be out at the time. We tried a few things, but eventually decided that to finish the job my son would need to resort to using sponge and bucket. He felt that this should earn him an increased wage.

The discussion that ensued got me thinking about how we view cost and value. I started badly by claiming that I couldn’t afford to increase his fee. He rightly pointed out that this was nonsense; I had the small amount of extra money requested in my purse and had no immediate plans for it’s use. This did not mean, however, that I was willing to just give it to him; I was still only willing to pay him what I thought the job was worth. If too much were demanded then I would do the job myself and no money need change hands; I was essentially paying him for my time. He completed the job for the originally agreed fee.

This morning, as I hung out a load of washing, I noticed that some socks were looking very worn. I thought to myself that it wouldn’t be long until a hole appeared at which point I would bin the offending item. My husband will try to bin socks when they start to wear thin whereas I will wait for a noticeable hole to appear. Given the cost of a pair of socks, I wonder why it offends me so much to think of throwing something away before I consider it to be worn out.

My mother had many mantra’s that she would repeat to me when I was a child. One of her favourites was ‘a wilful waste makes a woeful want’. She also drummed into me early on that if I took care of the pennies then the pounds would take care of themselves. I feel a smug sort of satisfaction when I make an item of clothing last a few weeks longer than I probably should, yet I will send a much more expensive garment to a charity shop just because I do not wish to wear it anymore. There is little logic in my actions.

I regularly hear people talk of wishing to do something but being unable to because they cannot afford it. I would like to trade in my twelve year old hatchback for a new, convertible, retro style car. I won’t because I will use the money for other things that seem more important, like giving my children the chance to travel abroad. I couldn’t afford to buy a private, island retreat, even if I sold everything that I owned, but I could afford a more expensive car if I and my family did without other things. What we can afford and what we are willing to spend are often quite different, yet in our minds we conflate the two.

Children have a much clearer picture of what they can manage to pay for, probably because the essentials such as food and accommodation are provided for them by their parents. They look at their bank balance, at the cost of their desired purchase and make a simple decision based on lack of future purchasing power once the money is spent. As an adult I am constantly thinking about the many as yet unknown but potentially essential things that I could need money for, and try to avoid spending when I can. Although my husband is not a spendthrift, he is more willing to gratify his desires than I.

Probably because of the way I was brought up, I find it very hard to be profligate. I can see that holding on to sad looking socks for a few extra weeks will make little difference to the family finances, but if I were to take a casual, throwaway attitude to everything then I worry that it would actually start to impact our way of life. I feel more comfortable taking care of those pennies, however daft it may seem to others.

I have been accused of being tight by a friend who chooses to live at the limit of her abilities to pay for her wants, which she refers to as her needs; who am I to judge? I know that I am both debt and risk averse, which I do not consider to be a bad way of living, but also recognise that I often take this further than I need to; it is how I choose to live my life. As a family we allow ourselves many indulgences; trips away, meals out, new clothes; but on a day to day level, I still like to save those pennies when I can.

My desire to raise my children to appreciate the cost and value of material goods may make me appear mean, but I still feel that it is a necessary lesson for them to learn. It will be no bad thing if they grow up able to relax and enjoy whatever wealth they are capable of earning, but I also hope that they realise that material possessions are amongst the least important attainments in life. It is hard to find happiness and satisfaction when hungry or cold with no prospect of improvement; holidays abroad and a new wardrobe of clothes each season can add enjoyment to life but are not as essential as some may make out.

My children hope to gain places at a university in a few years time. In the current economic climate this means that they will start their adult lives with a huge burden of debt that could take them a lifetime to repay, and will remove many of the choices that I enjoyed at their age. However unfair this may seem, it is now an unfortunate fact of life. Saving their pennies may not go far in relieving them of the worries that debt can bring, but knowing how to go without and save may well become an essential life skill.

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