The Ant, the Grasshopper, and the Child

When I was a kid, my parents had a few relatives and friends that were pretty big spenders. I had a cousin who always had the latest everything – if a new hot video game had just come out, you could rest assured that he had it. There was a friend of my father who collected trading cards and had a collection that blew away my own meager stacks. One particular friend seemed to always be driving a new car.

On the other hand, my parents were definitely more of the frugal type. We grew a lot of our own food in our large vegetable garden. We always drove older cars. We never seemed to have much money, but we never went without anything we needed.

What’s the difference? My parents were both retired by their late fifties, while most of the other people mentioned above worked until they were near their deathbeds, often at jobs that weren’t exactly ones you want to be working later in life.

Looking back, I can see the parallels between those experiences and the fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper. Here’s the full version from the Library of Congress:

One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.

“What!” cried the Ants in surprise, “haven’t you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?”

“I didn’t have time to store up any food,” whined the Grasshopper; “I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone.”

The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.

“Making music, were you?” they cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

A little dark, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

Anyway, when I was growing up, I always had this impression that the “grasshoppers” in my life were the ones to emulate. I wanted to be the person that had all of the trading cards. I wanted to be the person that had all the video games. I wanted to be the person who had the shiny new car. Those were the people who were enjoying life, I thought.

The funny thing is, I had those thoughts while I was going on a hike in the woods with my father and older brother. I had those thoughts while eating fresh garden vegetables at our dinner table. I had those thoughts when I was reading a book checked out from the library. I had those thoughts when playing checkers with my mom after school. I had those thoughts when I was listening to a baseball game on the radio with my dad on a warm summer day, as we sat out under a shade tree.

What I didn’t see is that I actually already had a wonderful, fulfilling life with my parents, the “ants.” I just didn’t always see it that way. I remember people sometimes telling me that my childhood was a lot better than I believed it to be at the time – looking back, they were right. (The only bad thing about my childhood was dealing with a bunch of health issues.)

In my twenties, I tried my absolute best to be a “grasshopper.” I bought lots of things. I had lots of experiences. I put away very, very little for the future. Instead, I spent and spent and spent. I bought into this underlying sense that I would take care of things later.

But, eventually, the summer waned. I started bumping up against credit limits. We had nothing saved for a house. Then, suddenly, we had a little baby to take care of, too, and that added a lot of child care costs to the mix.

The warmth of the summer was starting to fade, and here I was, trying to be a grasshopper, fiddling in the fading light.

So I became an ant. We paid off our debts. We started saving for the future. We started spending less than we earn. I currently drive a fourteen year old vehicle we bought off of Craigslist. We have absolutely no debt at all. We’ll likely retire even earlier than my parents did.

The thing is, I expected the life of an ant to not be very enjoyable. After all, it certainly looks like there’s much more fun to be had with the grasshopper life.

I go on hikes in the woods with my wife and children.

I eat fresh garden vegetables at our dinner table, usually with our whole family gathered there.

I read books checked out from the library, right along with my kids.

I play board games with my kids many days after school, and board games are a big part of every summer rainy day.

I listen to the radio when I’m doing something outside, or just relaxing with a book in a nice chair out there.

Sound familiar? It’s because a lot of the same notes that I hit in my childhood with “ant” parents are the same ones I’m hitting now. Why? Because those things manage to both be deeply enjoyable and fit in perfectly with an “ant” life.

I’m sure that my own children see “grasshoppers” in their life and want to emulate them. I know that some of my kids have friends where their families seem to have everything, and I hear them mention this. We have friends who are constantly traveling to interesting locales and while we do occasionally travel, we are far from jet setters.

In the end, I see three things from this analogy.

First, I find the life of an “ant” to be deeply fulfilling. The sweet music of the grasshopper is pleasant, but I find that in the activity of the ant, there is great joy to be found as well. I find a lot of joy in doing things that don’t cost much at all, like reading a book from the library or playing a strategic think-y board game (think chess). I find a lot of joy in simply building relationships and spending time with people. I find a lot of joy in making things myself and doing things myself and repairing things myself. I find a lot of joy in finding better ways to do things. All of that contributes to an overall sense of peace that comes from spending less than I earn and watching my savings for retirement build and build.

Second, the best way to encourage my own children to become “ants” is to make sure they experience the joyful aspects of the “ant” life. I find myself returning to many of the things that I enjoyed from my own “ant” childhood now that I’m an adult. Those highlights – things like playing chess or checkers or cards with my kids, reading books, spending time together as a family, growing a garden and eating that produce, making things together – are things I enjoyed as a kid, drifted away from as I tried to find my own direction, and then returned to as I began to appreciate their true value. My children, I suspect, will follow some variation on that path, eventually returning to the life routines that they found value in when they were younger. You take the best of the lessons you learn in life and mix them with your own steps (good and bad) to form your own life, and I hope that I’m giving them some good “ant” things to incorporate.

Third, it can be a struggle to avoid the music of the grasshopper when others in your life are dancing to it. As I mentioned, all throughout my childhood, I was constantly enticed by the things that the grasshoppers in my life were doing. I perceived them as having the life that I wanted to emulate because, from the outside, it looks very exciting. However, eventually I learned that having a fabulous life on the outside comes with a lot of expense and stress and challenges, and those are things that I don’t want in my life. It’s absolutely fun to live the life of a grasshopper, but in doing so, you find that you have nothing left behind for the moment when winter comes.

The life of a grasshopper may be fun, but the road to financial security and lasting inner peace is built by ants. The best part? There’s a lot of unexpected joy along that path. It’s not the kind of flashiness that you get from the grasshopper life, but it’s there and it’s deep – the kind of deep that gets passed along to younger ants.

Good luck.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.