“Kids these days feel so entitled,” said my childhood friend. “Remember the good old days when we never asked our parents for anything?” she added, as we sipped a cup of coffee and started reminiscing about our childhood in India.
My friend grew up poor in India. She shared a 10′ x10′ thatched hut with her mother, sister, brother and grandparents. She saw her father only once a week when he showed up drunk to beat up her mother for more alcohol money. The women slept inside on the unfinished dirt floor, while the men slept outside. The hut would collapse every monsoon season and flood with water up to hip level. They would camp in empty marriage halls or temples during that time. They never had electricity. Homework and studying were done by street light.
Everything from uniforms, textbooks and notebooks were acquired for free or secondhand. She walked five kilometers one way to school, without any shoes, as they were not affordable. She started working at 13, tutoring other kids. She got new clothes once a year when politicians gave away stuff for votes.
There were no food stamps, libraries, Internet, cable, TV, phones, beds or running water.
I have had a cushy life compared to hers. I enjoyed a blessed middle-class life. Both my parents were educated and employed. So, by no stretch can I say I struggled, even though my parents, grandparents, sister and I lived in a one-bedroom house where we slept on the floor and had trouble getting water six months out of the year. We didn't have air conditioning, a washing machine, a dishwasher or any luxuries, but were never deprived of any necessities either. We got a phone line when I was in the final year of high school. I biked five kilometers one way to school, and to this day my parents get around everywhere using public transportation.
Twenty years later, there we were, sitting in her comfortable porch overlooking a small garden, in a suburb of a major city in India. She is now a successful physiotherapist, happily married, with two adorable kids, leading a comfortable middle-class life. I am an immigrant to the U.S., earning an above-average living.
“We did alright,” she concluded. “I just wish I could find a good way to impress upon my kids that life is not always flowing with milk and honey.”
I don't have kids, but that comment stuck with me. I have been asked to write about frugality lessons from India in my blog. I have at least seven or eight draft posts that touch upon this subject, but I never hit publish on any of those. I'm unable to convince myself that these tips will help anyone. Why? Plenty of reasons. To name a few:
- Yes, we were frugal but that was a necessity, not a choice. The problem is, when extreme frugality is not a necessity, it becomes difficult to hold on to it. My grandparents paid for their house in cash because there was no concept of a home mortgage. Consequently, their house was very small. My parents took a small loan from their workplace to buy a house and their house was a little bigger. Now my friends have taken mortgages for 90 percent of the value of their palatial houses. When our society changes, we change with it. A simple tip of “buy your home with cash” won't help anyone if they already don't have the mind-set.
- Different environment, different culture, different priorities. I have read more than one post recommending that people should make their own clothes. In India it made sense because the materials and labor were cheap. Anyone in the U.S. who has tried knitting as a hobby knows how expensive it is. And unless I want to do it, why would I want to waste three to four hours of my time making a dress for my little girl when I can buy cute outfits for a couple of dollars?
- Some frugality tips cross over to being cheap. Sometimes, I have seen people do things that are unethical, if not downright illegal, in the name of frugality. One of the shortcomings of developing countries is that a lot of them are corrupt and, unfortunately, some people bring that attitude with them.
So what can I teach my kids who will grow up in a comfortable middle-class society in a developed country? I can't give them frugality tips; it just won't stick. Does that mean I have nothing to pass on to the next generation when it comes to money? That doesn't seem right. It was one of those questions I decided that I will automatically get the answer to when the time comes and I moved on.
So what will I teach my kids?
Just to make it clear I am not giving parenting advice — I'm not qualified to do that. Rather, this post is about what I would like to teach my kids when I become a parent.
I am in the fortunate position of having been brought up in humble surroundings and now working in a developed country, leading a comfortable life. I want to give my children the comforts I can afford, but at the same time I want them to appreciate how blessed they are to get them.
I will teach them…
- There are plenty of people who have it worse than you. Appreciate what you have and focus on taking advantage of that. Be thankful for that instead of focusing on what you don't have.
- Shed the sense of entitlement. The Indian system is competitive. If you want something you have to work for it (minus the caste system, but I am talking in general). There are no food banks, unemployment benefits, Medicare or Social Security.
- Take responsibility. I feel responsible for my parents' retirement, my kids' education and my own retirement. Growing up in India has taught me to believe that no one cares about my money more than I do. So saving comes naturally to me.
- Get priorities in order. Realize what is important in your life and figure out if you have the means to provide for it. If not, eliminate or minimize what you spend on things that are NOT important to you. Everything else will automatically fall into place.
- Help others as much as you can. You don't need money for this. At least in developed countries, most of the time, people who are struggling to come out of poverty have access to need-based aid or government assistance. What they lack is a mentor or someone to guide them along the right path and tell them where to look for things they need for the future. They need someone to show them there is a world full of opportunities waiting for them, and give them the hope and confidence they need to get out of poverty.
- Contribute to and take advantage of your social capital. The family system in India is very strong. Now, more families are becoming nuclear, but that doesn't stop them from relying on each other. Grandparents babysit the grandkids, some uncle or second cousin who is a plumber will spare a few minutes to give an honest opinion, an extended family member would happily provide meals for a few days when you are sick. Even in the U.S., immigrant communities are some of the most closely knit communities. Offer help and use your network to find help.
- There are plenty of non-material ways to feel rich. I feel rich when I can spend time with my family. My mother's home cooking is worth more than the world's most expensive restaurant meal to me.
- Be resourceful. I won't teach them to make their own clothes or grow their own food just for the sake of saving money. I will teach them how to do all those things and be resourceful because they are good skills to have.
- And finally, I would teach them to never stop learning. Both the developed and developing countries have their own strengths and weaknesses. Wherever life takes you, if you think their way is better and don't see other cultures and practices with an open mind, you will never grow.
When it comes down to it, most people already know quite a few frugality tips. Whether or not you want to actually practice what you know is what makes the difference.
Why be frugal? Is it to get out of debt? Amass a big bank balance? Or is it to appreciate and conserve what is available to us in the best possible way in order to achieve fulfillment in life? Ultimately, I want my children to be good citizens of the world. They won't learn that by memorizing tips but by imbibing the right principles which they can apply to any situation. By living my life according to the principles I've outlined above, I hope to teach them by example, on how to evaluate what goals are important in their life and how they can achieve them.
Suba Iyer is a blogger by trade and a personal finance geek at heart. After living from paycheck to paycheck in spite of her above-average income, she figured money is not just about math. It involves human psychology, application of knowledge to individual situations and having all the right information. She now dedicates most of her time to writing about intelligently leveraging knowledge, time and money at Wealth Informatics. When she is not writing, you can catch her in her garage working on wooden toys for her daughter.