Having a baby? Getting married? 10th anniversary? Adopting your first iguana? We’re led to believe that each of these milestone events is a requirement to spend money. In fact, there’s an entire cultural phenomenon built around the idea that in order to properly fete an occasion, we should buy stuff–and often, a whole lot of stuff. The media, advertisers, and society at large all trumpet the false assumption that money = celebration.
While these life landmarks are usually mandatory, the spending is optional. We’re manipulated into buying by both marketing and our own internal belief that we need to spend in order to convey our devotion and joy. I certainly used to believe this and I think most people outside of the frugal weirdo cohort do. It’s just what’s done. But why? When did we start equating spending with happiness and love?
How We’re Hoodwinked Into Spending
In many ways, I think this cultural norm becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re told that babies are expensive, ergo, we spend a lot on them. We’re taught that buying expensive gifts for our partners on anniversaries is socially acceptable, therefore, we do it year after year. The conflation of major life events and money is an ingrained trope made all the more poignant by the fact that there are underlying sentiments surrounding these occasions, most notably: fear, guilt, and excitement. That’s a lethal combination as far as our wallets are concerned. And those trying to sell us things are keenly aware of just how vulnerable we are at times of intense fear, excitement, or guilt.
Fear: perhaps the most powerful tool in a marketer’s reservoir. There are endless advertisements designed to prey upon this base human emotion. Is our car safe enough? Is our house secure enough? Do we have enough toilet paper??? Granted, these are serious concerns, but there’s a limit to just how much we can and ought to spend in service of them. Should we rush out and buy a new car every time a different safety feature is released? Nope. But we’re left with the lingering suspicion that perhaps we could buy our way to a better, happier life…
Fear is particularly front and center when new babies are on the scene. Ads all but say, “buy this product or your child won’t be safe/content.” As we prepare for Babywoods, the fear mongering directed at our demographic has reached levels of hysteria heretofore unknown by Mr. Frugalwoods and me. Fortunately, we’re steadfast in our commitment to accepting hand-me-downs and only buying used for her. We’re still clocking in at just $20 spent in preparation for her arrival and her entire nursery is outfitted.
But I’m completely sympathetic to the plight most new and prospective parents find themselves in. We are literally bombarded by every source imaginable–from childcare books to medical professionals to friends and family to the media–with the refrain that babies are expensive and we should be procuring a ton of material goods in order to ensure their safe passage through life. There’s a very real preoccupation with the concept of buying one’s way to good parenting.
With relation to milestones, there’s an abiding fear of missing out in some way on the most precious aspects of the event in question. If we don’t have doves, a string quartet, and custom-made bridesmaid dresses, our wedding won’t be the ideal we’ve dreamed of. And if we don’t shower our kids with expensive toys at Christmas, maybe they won’t love us quite as much or have quite as happy a holiday, which leads us to…
If we don’t buy things to demonstrate the depth of our emotions, how will people know we care for them? It sounds a bit sarcastic phrased as such, but I think it’s actually a very real concern for many of us. Anniversaries are a prime candidate for guilty spending. I used to labor over what to buy Mr. FW for our anniversary. I had no idea what to get him–probably because the man hates clutter and doesn’t want anything except for a used 1940’s John Deere Crawler tractor, which I’m obviously not going to source for him. He’s virtually impossible to shop for and so I’d end up getting him items he didn’t need or want (and which we’d usually later return or give away).
And lest you think I’m an ideal gift recipient, he never had a clue what to get me either since I similarly hate clutter, don’t need anything, and the stuff I do need is extremely specific and I want it used anyway. Hence, a totally futile period of stress and consumption all for naught!
We came to the mutual realization that giving gifts to each other wasn’t fulfilling the actual point of celebrating our anniversary. Gift giving was merely our capitulation to cultural norms and it had no bearing on how we live our lives. The important thing is for us to acknowledge our love for each other, spend quality time together, and reflect on our marriage. Nowhere in there is a gift necessary.
Thus, we don’t give each other gifts. Ever. And we couldn’t be happier. We encourage one another to get the things we need and want, but we don’t toil away trying to devise presents for one another. I much prefer that Mr. FW puts energy into cooking a delicious meal for us and spends time putting his thoughts about our relationship down on paper. And if you’ve ever seen his handwriting, then you know how difficult a task that is for him ;).
Aside from anniversaries, guilt fuels a fair amount of spending. It’s a simple balm for challenging situations or relationships in crises where we’d rather not confront the underlying issues. Jewelry and car commercials around the holidays seem like an especially egregious example. The blatant equation that diamonds = kisses is downright despicable when you think about it. Are we really so shallow that we’ll love our partner more for the things they buy us? No! Also, who actually buys a luxury car for someone else as a surprise gift? “Hey honey, get excited, I’ve just saddled us with a 10-year lease on this brand new car that we totally don’t need!” I personally don’t think that’s a wise way to someone’s heart, but it’s the bizarre image of an ideal relationship that society holds up for us to attain.
Weddings, babies, birthdays, reunions, and the like are thrilling and there’s a temptation to rush out and buy a bunch of stuff to mark the occasion. But why? In our culture, spending money is often the first outlet we think of for commemorating or denoting our pleasure. It’s an external signal that something exciting is happening in our lives.
Mr. FW and I definitely fell victim to excited overspending in the past. When we adopted Frugal Hound, we initially went way overboard on procuring doggie paraphernalia. We’d read all these books and articles about hound care and were convinced we needed 9,000 different products and supplies in order to adequately care for her dog-related needs. False. Totally false. Our anxiety about this experience fed into the marketing around getting a dog and suddenly we’d amassed a veritable mountain of stuff.
Our initial expressions of love for her were through the things we’d purchased, which she couldn’t care less about. All Frugal Hound wanted was a loving home with attentive parents, some food, and a bed. But we’d let our glee get the best of our wallets and overspent by a long shot. We’ve since returned or gifted away all of our unneeded and unused doggie ephemera, but it was a telling experience that made us realize just how susceptible we are to the thrall of consumption.
Here’s what I learned: don’t, for example, wander around a pet store aimlessly when you’re planning to get a dog. You’ll come out with $100 worth of junk, just like we did. I’ve taken my own advice here and haven’t set foot inside a single baby or maternity store for the entirety of my pregnancy. If I didn’t need it before I went into the store, then why browse?
But what will people think if we don’t brandish our credit cards in service of a special event? Who knows and who cares. Frankly, I’d much rather achieve financial independence than impress other people. If society thinks it’s odd that Mr. FW and I don’t give each other gifts, than so be it. I’m comfortable with that trade-off and I see no reason to bend to external manipulation to purchase things.
Case in point, taking the road less purchased for Babywoods has netted us a bit of criticism. Plenty of folks think it’s odd or gross or unusual that all of our items for baby are used. The crucial factor for us is that we don’t care. We know that a used onesies is just as good as a new one and that a hand-me-down crib will provide an equally satisfactory sleeping surface.
But it’s not always easy to buck the dominant trend and remain steadfast in your commitment to frugality. What helps me is the combination of: 1) thinking that new baby stuff is ridiculously over-priced, 2) talking with our awesome frugal friends who have kids, did the same thing we’re doing, and their kids are totally fine, 3) my hatred of waste, which is what most new stuff will become.
But What About The Gifts, Mrs. Frugalwoods?!?
While it’s all fine and dandy for Mr. FW and me to gladly abide by a no-gift clause, it’s not fair for us to impose this on our friends and family. Hence, we are gift givers. But we’re creative and savvy gift givers. Our chief frugal gift giving tactics are as follows: 1) homemade gifts, 2) gifts purchased with credit card rewards points, 3) gifts procured using gift cards.
Homemade gifts are ideal for friends who live nearby. I enjoy baking tasty treats to give away and people seem to enjoy eating them. This is especially useful for holidays, birthdays, and thank-you presents.
We have the Amazon cash-back rewards credit card, which entitles us to free items from–you guessed it–Amazon. This is typically how we obtain Christmas gifts for our family members. I’m a huge advocate for leveraging credit card rewards points, provided you pay off said credit card in full every single month.
Strategic gift card deployment is frugal tactic #3. I save every gift card we receive and often utilize them for purchasing gifts for others. This is due to the fact that there’s not much we need and it seems to work well to translate these gifts into other gifts.
Gift card usage is particularly handy for wedding gifts. I’m a big believer in purchasing wedding gifts from a couple’s registry and I often have a stash of gift cards for typical wedding registry locales. Frugal pro tip: save all of your gift cards together in one place and pull them out anytime you need to obtain a gift. I keep ours in a highly technical location: inside a ziplock bag in our bottom kitchen cupboard. I have gift cards in there dating back to our wedding seven years ago, but hey, they still work!
Conflating Money With Emotion
When Mr. FW and I came to our decision of not giving gifts to one another, we made the discovery that gifts (and therefore money) served to mask our true feelings about our relationship and were more of a distraction than anything else. This isn’t to say that giving gifts is inherently bad–it’s certainly not and plenty of couples derive great satisfaction from the practice. It’s just to say that it’s not for everyone and it’s not a requirement for a happy relationship. A key lesson for us was to divorce the concept of love from stuff. Things do not connote love, actions do. And honestly, acquiring stuff is often a whole lot easier than putting in the time and sentimental effort to create a truly meaningful gesture for one’s partner, children, or friends.
My dad writes my mom a love poem for each of their anniversaries (48 thus far) and my mom often frames these notes. I’ve rarely seen my dad give my mom expensive jewelry or other “traditional” trappings of “love,” but the depth of their commitment to one another is evident in their daily life–not to mention the fact that they’ve been married for forty-eight years.
The poems my dad writes take time, thought, and effort. And they’re a whole lot more personal than something from a store. Poetry isn’t for everyone, but I think this is an emotive lesson on the power of employing one’s creativity in demonstrating love for another person.
This idea of homemade love is something we apply in many facets of our lives. We cook meals for our friends rather than go out to dinner with them. I bake breads for people as gestures of thanks rather than buying them things from stores. Mr. FW and I perform acts of kindness and respect for each other on a daily basis rather than bringing home flowers or chocolates. We also prioritize experiences together. We’re happy to spend a couple hundred bucks to stay at an AirBnB in Vermont for the weekend, for example, so that we can enjoy quality time together. Here again, we’re gifting our time and energy to one another.
Spending Money Is Fine When It’s A Conscious Choice
There’s nothing wrong with spending money when it’s warranted and needed. Plus, sometimes it’s downright unavoidable. But buying shouldn’t be our default modus operandi anytime something new or exciting is taking place. Dollar signs don’t need to accompany every momentous occasion. And buying isn’t a solution. Procuring a ton of expensive baby accoutrements wouldn’t make us better parents–it would make us poorer parents. With this approach, it’s about making a conscious choice to spend, not feeling like you have to.
Spending is often automatic in our culture. We’re taught that for every imaginable milestone, there are myriad opportunities for us to purchase things. But buying doesn’t proffer the stuff we actually crave. What we truly desire is the love, connection, community, assurance, and joy that such occasions bring. And none of that can be bought.