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.

Money cash


Learning from history

I love history. From Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’ to Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’; through fictional novels woven around historical facts to memoirs of growing up in cultures I find hard to imagine; the places, times and experiences relayed show how much has changed about the way we live, yet how little the people portrayed differ from ourselves. Humanity may have adapted to a different way of living, but we still think and feel as our ancestors did. We still react to our immediate, personal circumstances and cope, because we have no other choice if we are to survive.

So much of the history that we are taught as fact has been gleaned from the merest scraps of information. Archaeologists and anthropologists become very excited when new finds are uncovered as they may revisit premises and further their understanding. They are not afraid to question established orthodoxies; to share and build on knowledge gained elsewhere. They will interpret the artifacts, location and any other information available from elsewhere to establish the historical story as best they can. They make educated guesses based on what is already known; what has gone before and what we have now; they use their expertise, but do not try to claim that they can explain everything fully. It is often the unknown, the what might have been, that makes the tale so compelling.

More recent history benefits from information preserved in writing. The oldest scripts would have been written by the very few scholars; wealthy or religious, educated men with time to write and resources to allow this pastime. The writers may have had employers or sponsors; they were most likely under the influence of the rulers of their age. The histories of the time need to be read in this context to be understood. The physical evidence preserved in land and grave can often tell of a more sinister undercurrent pervading the culture of the time. Social history is complex and often disregards the impact of events on the poorest yet most prolific.

As literacy spread, so too did the nature of the writings preserved. Life expectancy and leisure time increased for many allowing the slightly less wealthy and even some women to start writing accounts of their lives and times. The official records would still be produced by the powerful victors and, through the ages, some have tried to destroy accounts of histories that did not tell the tales that they wished to be perpetuated. The power of propaganda was well understood and the general population considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves.

Eminent historians are well aware that context and bias must be taken into account; authenticity can be scientifically checked but reliability is harder to gauge. Talk to a sibling about their memories of an event from a shared childhood and differences in recollection become apparent. When a history is recorded it is from the perspective of the writer whose own recollections will vary over time.

With the advent of the internet it sometimes seems that we can research the true facts with just a few clicks. Unfortunately the very opposite is too often the case. The hidden agendas of the powerful come into play as their influence and subterfuge skew the perceptions of the general population, still considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves. One of my pet grievances is the way in which global warming, now referred to more accurately as climate change, has been presented to the public over the past thirty or so years.

I am not an expert in science or climate science, merely an interested observer. I can see the sense in not polluting the soil where we grow our food or the air that all living things need to survive. I understand the benefits of biodiversity and the importance of being good stewards during our time on this earth. What I object to is the pervasive anthropomorphic climate change industry and the lies woven as facts to influence decisions made by the wealthy countries of the world to financially benefit the few at a significant cost to so many.

The Natural History Museum in London has a display in it’s dinosaur section showing temperature fluctuations over millions of years. It is clear that the earth’s climate changes regularly and has always done so, even before man walked this earth in his present form. These climate changes are very gradual in terms of a human’s lifespan but obvious in the geological evidence that exists. Keeping detailed records of temperature, rainfall and other weather phenomena are a very recent practice (from around a century ago) and the data collection methods have changed over even this short period of time making reliable, scientific comparison tricky. Examples of extreme weather are mentioned in some historical documents but these do not provide a clear picture (mentions refer to the effects of the Little Ice Age which was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period but climatologists and historians working with local records cannot even agree on either the start or end dates of this period just a few hundred years ago).

Given that this is a controversial topic in which I have an interest, I will save my opinions on recent climate change pronouncements and their impacts for another post. I see it as a prime example of the wealthy and powerful trying to force their opinions on a gullible public with a clever mix of carefully placed publicity and misinformation. More than anything though, it is a lesson in how history can be skewed to suit the influential of the time.

It can be hoped that, in the not too distant future, the truth will be uncovered by those who are capable of unearthing the evidence and interpreting the facts with critical and impartial deliberation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we can learn from history if we open our eyes to how and why it has been written. Our descendants may well look back on our gullibility and wonder how we could not have questioned what was being done ‘for our own good, and that of our children’. I hope that they do not judge us too harshly for not taking more affirmative action to prevent the inevitable impact of our inaction; for passively complying with the wishes of those in power.