Dear Mom, You Were Right

Right after the first of the year, I’ll turn 35. And what a life it’s been so far.

My childhood wasn’t perfect, but I was raised by parents who showed me they loved me every day. I didn’t always like the lessons they taught me, but I know now that they were always coming from a good and honest place. And it was those lessons, the hard ones, that forced me to grow up and be… me.

Once I finished school and transitioned into adulthood, I fell in love — real love — with my husband. Several years later, we became the parents of two amazing children who light up my world. And in 2012, a lifelong dream of mine came true; I started a business that eventually allowed me to leave my 9-to-5 job and support my family as a solopreneur.

I’ve traveled many places in the world, achieved things I never dreamed possible, and experienced so many joyous moments that I feel utterly undeserving.

And it’s all because of the lessons my parents, and specifically my mother, taught me — all of them.

‘Watch Your Pennies and the Dollars Will Follow’

I remember it like it was yesterday. Our family of five went to Ponderosa for dinner and we were waiting to order. Of course, I asked my mother if I could get a Coke for what was probably the hundredth time.

“We watch our pennies here,” she said. “The dollars take care of themselves.”

In other words, no.

I hated that answer — every single time. I was only a child, but I knew that Cokes didn’t cost that much. I wondered, “What difference does an extra dollar make?”

Still, my mother never budged, and I drank water during every meal out I can remember as a child.  Of course, I spent that time plotting and praying for the day when I could simply order a round of Cokes for everyone. And that was exactly what my mother suggested, too.

“When you’re grown up and paying the bill, you can drink as much Coke as you want,” she would say with a wink.

But isn’t it funny how things work out? Now that I’m “in charge,” I don’t let my daughters drink anything other than water when we go out. The truth is, my mom was right; the little expenses do add up. A drink for one of us might only be a dollar or $1.50. But for four of us? It could easily add $6 or more to the cost of a meal. My mom knew that money would be better spent elsewhere.

And now that I’m an adult, I realize it, too.

‘Live Far Below Your Means’

My parents were the epitome of frugality and thrift. But as a child, teenager, and eventual young adult, I just didn’t get it.

In junior high and high school, I had friends whose parents gave them everything — televisions in their rooms, new clothes all the time, dinners out, and big, fancy birthday parties. I never minded going without those things, but it also confused me. I knew their parents didn’t make much more money than mine. So that begged the question, “What were my parents doing with their money?”

I later found out exactly what my parents did with all of their hard-earned income: They saved it. Even though we never talked about it at the time, I eventually found out that my parents paid off their home in 17 years instead of 30. Instead of buying us designer clothes, they helped us save for college and for the future. And in lieu of televisions and giant birthday celebrations, my parents saved steadily for retirement — an early retirement they deserved. My parents saved their entire lives, and they avoided many of life’s bumpy rides simply because they lived below their means.

And now that I’m an adult, I thank them for every dollar they didn’t waste on me when I was young, clueless, and spoiled. Because now, they can use that money to live a happy and secure life instead of struggling like so many others.

‘Debt Is a Burden’

My parents hated debt so much that my mother often drove old, worn-down cars to avoid having a payment of any kind. I distinctly remember one of them not having a radio, and another not having heat — and hating them both.

But my mother went without for a reason. One thing she tried to tell us was just how burdensome debt could be — whether it was in the form of a loan, credit card debt, or a car payment.

“Avoid debt like the plague,” she would tell us. “It’s a burden you do not want.”

I didn’t listen to that advice until I was in my 20s. In fact, I ran up several credit card balances and financed a $25,000 car before the age of 22.

I chose to learn that lesson the hard way, but I learned it nonetheless. That $25,000 Mitsubishi Galant came with payments of $500 per month, and I struggled to pay my other bills for years because of it. And those credit card bills? I hated them, too, and I hated myself for running up balances I couldn’t tie to a single purchase.

I paid everything off eventually, even the Mitsubishi. And I vowed never to go into debt again. Debt really is a burden, and it’s one that should be avoided at all costs.

Of course, now that I’m an adult, I’m the one with the embarrassing car — a 2007 Dodge Caravan with a crack in the back hind quarter and a few pieces of duct tape on the bumper. And guess what, it’s paid off.

‘Someone Will Always Have More Than You’

“The only way to win the game is not to play,” my mother would often say when the subject of other people’s spending habits came up. But what did that mean?

At the time, I thought it meant that she just didn’t care what other people bought or had and didn’t want to compete. And in a way, that was true.

But it meant more than that, as I would find out over time. As a young adult, I spent a lot of time trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” That $25,000 car I financed is an excellent example, but there was more than that. I bought designer clothes, on my credit card, of course. I purchased expensive makeup and perfume. I balked at anything on sale because I felt I deserved better.

But at age 35, I see things exactly as my mother saw them many years ago. No matter how hard you try to keep up appearances, there will always be someone who outdoes you in an outrageous way.

Get a new Toyota and your friend will one-up you with a shiny BMW.

Splurge for last season’s Coach purse and your neighbor will buy the new Cole Haan.

Upgrade to a house with a basement and your best friend will upgrade hers to a bigger one with a basement and a pool.

Now that I’ve been alive longer, I can honestly say I couldn’t care less. Because, like my mom said, “The only way to win is not to play.” My parents always focused on our family goals instead of worrying about others or keeping up with the Joneses.

And now that I’m an adult, I do the same.

‘It Isn’t What You Make. It’s What You Spend.’

When I was growing up, I believed a lot of things that simply were not true. One misconception that sticks out was that earning a lot of money is the one true way to get ahead.

I remember plotting and planning for a high income when I was in high school, although I had no real plan to get there. I wanted to earn as much money as possible because that was the one true way to achieve real wealth. Or so I thought.

Once I matured enough to realize how my parents turned their average income into a lifetime of security, I changed my tune. Now that I’ve lived in the real world, I know for certain that a high income means absolutely nothing if you spend it all.

I see it everywhere I look — acquaintances who earn more than six figures yet cannot afford home repairs they desperately need. Friends who buy new cars but have nothing saved for retirement.

Now that I’m older, I realize just how easy it is to squander a high, even extremely high, income. There are plenty of ways to spend your money, and if you’re not careful, you can literally spend it all… and then some.

My mom always told me that a high income guaranteed nothing. “It isn’t what you make,” she would say. “It’s what you spend.”

A family that earns $50,000 and saves 10% of their earnings will one day be wealthier than a family that earns $150,000 and saves nothing.

That’s one lesson I don’t intend to learn the hard way. And thanks to my mom, I’ll never have to.

Dear Mom, You Were Right

Isn’t it funny how our view of the world changes once we reach adulthood?

As a child, I saw my parents as adversaries who stood between me and what I really wanted in life.  But now that I’m adult, I realize they are the sole reason I was ever able to really live at all.

Cokes at restaurants add up, and so do designer clothes and fancy parties. And the people in our lives who appear to have the most sometimes have nothing but a lifetime of debt to show for it.

After all this time, I realize that my parents knew something I simply had to learn myself — life can be challenging, but we have the power to make our lives far easier and simpler.

My daughters are ages 3 and 5, and they ask for lemonades and juice boxes, toys and trinkets, and even trips to Disney World. My oldest is convinced that she’s getting a Wii for Christmas (‘not), and thinks only evil parents don’t order desserts in restaurants.

I simply laugh and tell her the things my mother once told me. “We’re on a budget,” I say. Or, “All of those little expenses add up, my dear.” In the meantime, I sock money away in their college funds every month. I save heavily for retirement so that we aren’t a burden on them when we are older. I stash money away so I can help her pay for her wedding and a down payment on her first home. She may not know it now, but she’ll find out soon enough. Life is so short.

I could never repay my parents for all they have given me, both financially and emotionally. And it would be impossible anyway. The truth is, the biggest gifts they ever gave me are ones that can’t be purchased at all: The ability to find happiness in small things — my children’s laughter, a beautiful day, a good book. The confidence to delay gratification — to save for what I want, to earn it. And the reality that “stuff” can never fill an empty heart.

I desperately hope my daughters learn these lessons too. But, like my mother, I don’t want to preach it; I want to lead by example.

My dream is that, one day, my children will follow in the footsteps of their grandmother. They’ll create a happy, fulfilling life built upon a foundation of hard work and perseverance, and filled with happiness brought on by the little things. They’ll take chances. They’ll save for the future. They’ll find the kind of love you can only find when you truly, honestly love yourself first. And they’ll teach their children how to create their own joy and contentment without the burden of debt — or the hassle of keeping up with others.

And when that day comes, I hope she’s watching.

Holly Johnson
Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.

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