Rich dad, stingy dad

This guest post from Anna is part of the “reader stories” feature here at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general “how I did X” advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.

My experience with money is probably the opposite of many readers here. I've always had money. I got a generous allowance starting at age 5, and was encouraged to save it. What I'm not sure about is how to spend it. And I definitely don't want anyone else knowing I have it (which is why I'm posting anonymously).

I don't come from a long line of family wealth — just one generation of two thrifty people (my parents) who worked steady jobs with benefits starting in their twenties, and kept those jobs for their entire lives. Growing up, my dad told me that our family had more money than others in our relatively poor, rural area. And it was a secret. I shouldn't tell my friends about my allowance. There weren't a lot of outside signs of our money — we rarely ate out, we shopped at the Salvation Army and JC Penney, and we got our hair cut (badly) in some lady's kitchen for five bucks.

We Have That at Home

Two irritating practices of my father's brainwashed me into the idea that money was only for saving, not for spending.

The first was the dreaded “we have that at home.” If we wanted a 50-cent soda out of the vending machine, my dad would say, “We can get a 12-pack of soda at the supermarket for $2.50, so each can would only be 21 cents. I'm not paying 50 cents for a soda.” And we would never get that soda.

Same with ice cream: “For the price of that cone, you can get a whole gallon of ice cream at the supermarket.” This was infuriating. If you have kids and don't particularly care about them liking you but want to save money, “we have that at home” is definitely the way to go.

If we protested with, “But you have so much money!”, the stock reply was “I wouldn't have so much money if I wasted 50 cents on a soda all the time.” True for many, but considering that my dad managed to save a few million dollars, I'm pretty sure he would have had room for a whole bunch of sodas in the budget.

Spending Money Like It Grows on Trees

As we got older, my family started to take summer road trips. We'd bring a cooler, stay in cheap motels, and generally have a great time. Better yet, on vacation, my dad would inexplicably buy us treats like ice cream cones. We loved it, until one day when we were sitting on a bench eating our forbidden ice cream cones and my dad sighed and said, “We're spending money on this vacation like it grows on trees.” I wanted to throw my ice cream cone in his face.

With that one sentence, my dad made me feel guilty for the entire vacation, even though I had had no part in planning it and he was in charge of all the cash. Later, when I traveled by myself, I did everything I could to save money — to the point of hitchhiking and other things most people would consider unsafe — just to avoid that same feeling of spending too much on a vacation.

Was It Worth It?

If you, dear readers, knew the kind of money my dad has given me over the years, you might (and probably will) call me an ungrateful brat. The truth is that I am grateful. I'm grateful to both of my parents for teaching me financial responsibility, how to be thrifty, and how to live beneath my means. And, of course, I'm grateful for the money they've given me — or at least, I will be one day when I finally give myself permission to spend any of it.

I never need to worry about whether I have enough to pay a bill, or whether my decision to return to grad school was financially smart. (Don't worry: I pay for it by working assistantships, not with dad's money.) But I do have to obsess about whether I'm getting the lowest price for everything.

It took me two years of grad school to come to terms with occasionally buying coffee and studying in a coffee shop, instead of staying at home where I could drink cheaper coffee I made myself! I put myself through bus hassles because I refuse to pay for on-campus parking, live in cheap apartments that always seem to have more annoyances, and only apply to nearby conferences because I just can't see spending hundreds of my own dollars on academic travel.

My personal savings (which just topped $100,000) have no impact on my spending decisions. I have no level that I would consider “enough” to spend more freely.

Not My Choice

While it's great to have my own earnings and the money from my dad sitting around earning interest, I didn't choose it. I'm ashamed of having money, and constantly irritated with myself for my cheapskate tendencies. If I could go back, I would have bought my childhood self more sodas and more ice cream cones (in addition to teaching frugality in general), even if it meant having less in the bank.

Money doesn't buy happiness, or love. The way I came about it, it buys security at the expense of enjoyment. I'm trying to tell myself to lighten up a little — to go out to dinner with friends without worrying about the bill, or buy a shirt I really like even if it's full price. I've become a little more reasonable over time, but I still have a long way to go before I can spend money like a normal person.

Photo by Eden Pictures.

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Morah Mary
Morah Mary
9 years ago

It’s hard to undo the patterning we receive as youngsters – good AND bad. Depending on what works for you: writing options and listing what possible outcomes will be (I’ll have less money AND an outfit I feel comfortable in when I need to make a good impression); talking to a counselor or therapist to identify what options are available (I worked with a great career counselor once – she didn’t tell me what to do, but helped me figure out what I could do). The fear of not having “enough” sounds like what drove your parents… if you can… Read more »

Ron
Ron
9 years ago

I just buried a friend who confessed many of his regrets before he died.

Living a life full of regrets isn’t a life. I’m reminded of a proverb: “Better a little where there is joy and feasting, than great wealth where there is sorrow and regret.”

Chipmunk
Chipmunk
9 years ago

Dear Anna, allow me to quote from a comment that I made a few months ago in response to another post: “I have NO debt to speak of, not even credit card. Over two years I have amassed $40,000 in my bank account, an amount that gets steadily larger every month, because I have become compulsive about saving, nay, *hoarding* money to the point that it is affecting the quality of my life. I’ve stopped having a social life, because I begrudge myself every little penny that I spend on “fun.” I beat myself up constantly for not saving even… Read more »

mchan
mchan
9 years ago

Thank you for sharing your story! I feel like the takeaway lesson here, though, is not really about money, but instead about parenting. Certainly, having a philosophy with how you handle money is one thing, but I also think that just as important, particularly in a family situation, is how you convey that philosophy to the people around you. There are certainly positive ways to reinforce the idea of saving and spending conservatively that can avoid feelings of shame or guilt. Perhaps more than the financial implications, it may be more important to think about the psychological implications in this… Read more »

Chris at yardsalequeen.com
Chris at yardsalequeen.com
9 years ago

Your comment about your guilt about the ice cream cone reminded me of the time when I was in 2nd grade (40+ years ago!!) when I accidentally threw away a dime that was on my school lunch tray. I still remember the self imposed guilt I had over that! I’m ok with it now 🙂

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

I’m sorry; I know we’re supposed to be nice to the guest writers here, but this entry sounds more like bragging disguised as a “problem” than anything else. The writer mentioned specific savings amounts (a few million for her dad, over $100,000 herself).

Being “ashamed” for having money is like being “ashamed” for being good-looking. If it really bothers you at a core level, it’s time to seek therapy, not write anonymous personal finance articles.

Jane
Jane
9 years ago

Let me put this as nicely as I can: You are an adult now. It’s time to stop blaming your parents for not being the people you want them to be. It’s also not on them that you turned out to be different than the person you want to be. Kids find parents embarassing. That’s life. You need to understand that they had issues of their own to deal with, things that even the most touchy-feely parents will never tell a child. Growing up with a minimum of sugary soft drinks and ice cream outside the home is a fact… Read more »

Holly
Holly
9 years ago

This is a real eye-opener for me as I tend to say, “We have that at home.” to the kids quite often. I certainly don’t want to be a scrooge but it’s sometimes difficult to teach children how to save money and why it’s important to save.

I will try a more positive approach such as an allowance. This way they can master the art of saving and sometimes splurging.

Anna (not the author)
Anna (not the author)
9 years ago

While I understand the POV offered by readers such as Jane and Patrick, I really have to say that you two (and others who feel like you) are truly LUCKY not to know how this kind of guilt feels. It doesn’t eat at you or wear at you or niggle or bother: it consumes. There is nothing but that feeling and every moment you are pulled down into a space that is full of even more anxiety, and then self-hatred for feeling that way. It’s nice and easy to say “You’re an adult now” or “You’re just bragging, I wish… Read more »

Map
Map
9 years ago

I was a little upset by Patrick’s comment. I think you got distracted by the dollar amounts and missed the point that saving can become a problem itself (as Chipmunk’s comment so clearly illustrates). While we didn’t have as much money, we were raised in the same way. “We have that at home” was a common refrain and when we were out and there was a cheap gift that I might want I might be given the money to buy it with the lesson, “well, you can buy that now – OR you can save it and buy something bigger… Read more »

Chipmunk
Chipmunk
9 years ago

Anna, I suspect that you are going to get a lot of less-than-positive comments here, but I want you to know that I understand your predicament, and that you are not “bragging” about anything. Holly, you are on the right track. I grew up with parents who were both working professionals who made quite good salaries, and yet because of their own impoverished childhoods, they had great qualms about spending any of their money on their own children. In fact, I cannot remember ever receiving an item of clothing that didn’t have a half-price sticker on it. Growing up, I… Read more »

Janette
Janette
9 years ago

I grew up in that family:>) The difference is that two of us “recovered” and are now (in their 50’s) deeply in debt. One is obsessive- has several mil in the bank- and is just now enjoying life and two have just moved on. The blessing I take is that I always know how to save a dime. I can always help someone in need and am often come to for advice in difficult situations. I still only buy on sale (except groceries) and would never bother with a Coach purse! It isn’t worth the financial security my parents ingrained… Read more »

Mike
Mike
9 years ago

I resemble those remarks, especially the “We have that at home.” I didn’t get it from my parents though I think I just grew into it.

I can make coffee at home for .20 a cup vs 2.00 at the coffee shop. 🙂

VanimaAndune
VanimaAndune
9 years ago

I had a very similar experience growing up, though not quite to the same extremes. From my parents, I learned a lot about how to save money, and that saving and planning for retirement was important, but I didn’t learn very much about how to spend money. For a long time, I rarely bought anything. When I did buy things, including necessities like clothes and shoes, I felt bad because I worried that somehow it would be a waste of money. This website has helped me feel in control of my money (which I need because of my compulsion about… Read more »

Sarah J.
Sarah J.
9 years ago

I totally feel for you Anna. In my experience, my parents’ frugality (though not to the level of your parents) taught me how to be frugal when I need to be, but they loosened up when they were financially comfortable, and I can do that too… However, I have this compulsive need to do well academically and be a perfectionist, because they drilled that into my head repeatedly to a level that I am sure they did not intend to be damaging, but was. In the past I have made myself physically ill over the stress I put myself through… Read more »

Danielle
Danielle
9 years ago

I grew up very similarly to you–wealthy parents who worked upper middle class professional jobs but didn’t have many outward signs of their wealth. However, for some reason, my childhood of feeling like spending for pleasure was taboo led me to become an adult with a serious spending problem. I honestly wish my reaction to that upbringing was the same as yours. I have $20,000 in credit card debt (even though my combined net income with my spouse is over $100,000), in addition to a mortgage and a car loan, and am struggling to find the discipline to stick to… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
9 years ago

I appreciate your honesty, and I could have written something similar when I was in my early-to-mid twenties. A year of therapy and a few years of “spending like other people” (ouch!) helped me figure out a middle road I am comfortable with. Growing up, I had everything I needed, but not everything I wanted. Dad always seemed to skimp most on things involving fun and family time. (In retrospect, those are also the situations that make introverted Dad most uncomfortable.) My parents paid for what they thought was most important for us. What they didn’t do was share their… Read more »

Chett
Chett
9 years ago

If your intent on writing this post is to simply tell a story, congratulations on a well written post. Your writing was fluid and you have a distinct voice in your writing. If your intent was to seek advice from the readers, here is my two cents. Every person has to come to terms with their own childhood and adult experiences. Don’t blame your parents for the decisions you are making now. You’re an adult who is conscious of the person you are and the person you would like to be, so become that person. We are all shaped by… Read more »

Rachel
Rachel
9 years ago

Hi Anna,

I think you might benefit from reading the chapter in Gretchen Rubin’s book, “The Happiness Project,” on ‘spending out’. [Of course, I suggest borrowing the book from the library. :-)]

Rubin decides to try countering her cheapskate ways by letting herself buy a little happiness — to enjoy her money and let it enrich her life, even though she’s trained herself absolutely not to do that.

Maybe reading about other thrifty people giving themselves permission to spend will help you do so, too!

Good luck on your journey.

Jamie
Jamie
9 years ago

I can relate to your struggle with shrugging off the negative lessons from your childhood. There’s a clear difference between blaming your parents, and consciously trying to shape your habits to what you would like them to be, and I think you came across clearly with which of those two you were doing.

I myself have found it a daily struggle to not repeat my parents’ relationship habits with my own husband; I know how difficult it can be to do something different than what you’ve known most of your life!

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Weird. Your dad sounds like my dad. I had many of the same experiences growing up. Yet I did not take away the same lessons and overall I am very happy with my relationship with money. I wonder what the difference is. Maybe it’s that I only got a small allowance and I was allowed to spend it on whatever I wanted and to make my own mistakes with it. Good luck moving forward and developing your own healthy relationship with money. If you haven’t read Your Money or Your Life, it might be a good place to start. Off-topic:… Read more »

Tim
Tim
9 years ago

Great post. And to everyone that is suggesting “bragging” and to “stop blaming your parents”, this issue is an inherited issue that could only be healed by counseling and intervention from others. This explains why she is writing for help and feedback.

The love of money is the root of evil, even if that love contributes to wanting to continuously save. That evil/drive takes over you and bars you from living.

Don’t let this lifestyle take over you!!

Kestra
Kestra
9 years ago

Interesting story and well written. Although my parents had a lot less money than yours I also received my share of comments that induced guilt in me, but were only about choices they themselves had made. I really hope you’ll be able to detach from your parent’s values and determine your own way of living. I second reading “Your Money or Your Life”. It’s not just about saving and early retirement but using your money inline with your values. I also think you’d really benefit by forcing yourself to spend money. Start with perhaps $10 or $20 per month, if… Read more »

uncertain algorithm
uncertain algorithm
9 years ago

I concur with Jane (whose point was right on the money). This post is nothing but “it’s-all-my-dad’s-fault.” If you find your father’s money management poor, fine, then change your behavior instead of expressing foolish petulance. But it’s not your dad’s fault how you behave now: you have a choice. Of course, as far as amassing wealth (or as you call it, hoarding money) goes, you will find that money you spend on yourself or money you save for yourself will never go as far as giving money to others. If you are amassing wealth for just yourself, I do feel… Read more »

fantasma
fantasma
9 years ago

Hey JD, Off topic but this would be a great idea for an article quantity vs quality. My friends grandparents bought a Louis Vuitton weekender bag about 30 years ago, and its still being used. My grandfather on the other hand buys cheap luggage all the time b/c he’s trying to save a buck. In the long run he really doesn’t save b/c he keeps having to buy luggage again! To Anna, I would love to know what your parents did in detail to have amassed all that money? Did they also invest money? What type of jobs did they… Read more »

Maharani
Maharani
9 years ago

I grew up with the same mantras too, but also the diametrically opposite one “dont worry about money, your husband will do that for you” (I am single, this is not irony). I am not OCD about money. The last mantra turned out to be the strongest so my challenge has been to learn to manage money well. One thing I always try to remember is that money is a symbol-it has no value in and of itself-you might just as well collect cowrie shells, some do. Its only value is in what it can buy for you. So this… Read more »

Jim
Jim
9 years ago

Thanks for sharing this, Anna. You could’ve been writing about my childhood, and as is the case with you, I’m still trying to manage feelings of guilt when it comes to spending money. My wife is also like me, although her sense of guilt is even stronger, which I think is linked to having grown up in a poor family that couldn’t manage to save. I remember one painful example from a trip to Barcelona (my guilt obliges me to say we got free plane tickets and stayed with a friend 😉 ) where she told me to pay the… Read more »

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

I think many parents either leave out financial literacy or make the message to SAVE. There is less active instruction in the home regarding how to spend. Money management is more than just saving. Since you can’t redo your childhood financial literacy, make your focus now on finding tools that help you learn it. It’s the same as people who grow up and are spenders having to find info and tools to help them save. I highly recommend some sort of personal software budgeting tool that will help you feel in control of your spending categories. There are many from… Read more »

CarolH
CarolH
9 years ago

Each person comes from a family that instructs them by word and by example. Your parents didn’t become what they were in a void. They also learned from the generation before. My father spent and my mother saved. I guess I’m a fairly balanced blend of both. (My sister isn’t.) It is important that you work out what style money person you really want to be for your “grown-up” years. You may be able to do this by yourself or with some counseling. Thank you for writing this article. Besides being good for you, it has the potential to help… Read more »

Nick Roberts
Nick Roberts
9 years ago

This story is very similar to my in-laws’ approach to money. They obsess about every dime they spend. They seldom spend on themselves and wouldn’t think of buying anything unless it was on sale. Every conversation somehow comes around to financial subjects. If the stock market drops at all the father-in-law frets for days about how his money is disappearing. They don’t seem to enjoy what they have worked a lifetime to amass. All we hear from them is how we’ll all benefit when the will is read. It’s very sad to see people so obsessed with MONEY. I admire… Read more »

Kaylee
Kaylee
9 years ago

I don’t think this article is about “bragging” at all. I guess you could only understand if you had a similar experience. My parents were also always about pennypinchingneverspendadimeever also. When I had freedom I tried to compensate for those years I feel I “lost” and racked up a small debt. I think I got it out of my system now and I’m living a much more balanced life. Although I might be on my path to being a scrooge again now that I think of it.

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

I enjoyed the post Anna and I understand why you wanted to be anonymous. I think the whole key is your dad’s vacation comment — he didn’t allow himself (and by extension you) to enjoy what money can buy. That’s the sad part and that is the lesson that is cemented in your brain. I am pleased to hear that you are making baby steps toward splurging. It is a key part of the money balance — spending a little money that you can totally afford on something that makes you happy, even if it’s a cup of coffee.

Leigh
Leigh
9 years ago

The money lesson I learned from my parents was that I was not worth spending on. My brother (the favored child) got the best of everything. If I wanted something, I could either take the hand me down or pay for it myself. The result was that I’ve been able to take care of myself for over 4 decades and save a nice nest egg. Meanwhile my brother puts everything on credit while he waits for my parents to bail him out of his debt (even if it requires waiting for their passing to inherit what he thinks will be… Read more »

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

I don’t think you are bragging, and I don’t think you’re blaming your parents. You’re stating the way things were, and how that impacted the way things are now. My father was similar, except that we never took a vacation. When my mother would ask for money to fix up the house, he woould say, “We can’t do that, we have to put Diane through school.” Which made it, in my teenage eyes, MY fault that my parents were unhappy. It took me years of therapy to get past that.

Nicole2
Nicole2
9 years ago

We didn’t have a ton of money, but your story sounds very similar to mine.

The funny thing, I’m in my 20s now and my dad told me “Don’t be like me. Spend your money and have fun. Keep a safety net, but enjoy life.”

Anna
Anna
9 years ago

Hey everybody, thanks for the comments. #2 (Chipmunk), I do remember your comments, and I’m glad that you were at a place in your life where advice from GRS readers could actually help you recover! #4 (Patrick), nope, really not bragging. I originally didn’t have those figures in the article, but then decided that since I was posting it anonymously anyway, I was really going overboard with the anonymity thing. #6 (Holly), I don’t want the message of this piece to be that you should buy your kids whatever they want- just that there’s a balance between stingy and overindulgent.… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
9 years ago

I think many of us have to learn to shrug off the guilt and weird rules our parents had for money and come up with our own rationale (and our own weird rules) to suit us. It makes sense that your dad, a person who was able to save so much, had issues with money – being terrified of spending is a great way to save. What you’ve recognized is that it leads to quality of life issues. Therapy is a great option for you and probably available for free through your student health center. Learn to get over your… Read more »

Omster
Omster
9 years ago

Anna – Have you checked out Resource Generation? They might have some useful tools & a community of peers facing comparable issues. http://www.resourcegeneration.org

Janette
Janette
9 years ago

@ Nicole. I don’t begrudge the one Coach purse. That is reasonable. My family members who need to SPEND have a number of them. I see it as their war bags. Didn’t really mean to jump on a particular brand- just the attitude. “I am so rich I can carry a different Coach bag every day of the week!” “My daddy was such a cheap ___________that I buy whatever I want- even if I don’t have any money left.” Either go on the path and make tons of money or learn moderation in all things. Still- I will never spend… Read more »

evelyn
evelyn
9 years ago

I feel for you. It’s hard and sometimes impossible to shake off damage a parent inflicts. My brother treated his children the way your dad treated you, although my brother had no money; he was just cheap and selfish. His kids are in their early twenties and I see their constant struggle with self-worth and many other issues. I grew up with a father who had lots of money and set up a trust fund for me and my brother and eventually the grandchildren – millions. We were always told, “Don’t worry about a thing. You’ll have your trust fund… Read more »

Rachel211
Rachel211
9 years ago

I totally remember the “one of these right now can buy you a whole pack for at home!” BUT – I think if you are a parent who is going to use that logic, then you have to actually buy the gallon of ice cream or 12 pk of soda and let them have one! My parents used to say this to us all the time, but then they would never actually buy the other thing. That just told my sister and I that we would never get ice cream unless my parents felt like eating it. The worst frugal… Read more »

brooklynchick
brooklynchick
9 years ago

Wow – pretty intense! I want to echo @Morah Mary – our parents imprint us with patterns and un-doing them is tricky. In my own case, seeing a therapist was the best way for me to untangle which I wanted to keep (saving, looking for a bargain) and which I wanted to discard (never enjoying things like travel because its self-indulgent).

I hope one way or another you can find a way to keep the best that they taught you, while allowing yourself to enjoy life, even the parts that cost money.

Good luck!

Virginia
Virginia
9 years ago

Wow! In some ways this could have been my story, especially the guilt from spending money. Thanks for sharing.

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
9 years ago

You and your dad have different values when it comes to spending money. Your dad is what most people would call miserly (and so am I) and what we prefer to call frugal or “highly efficient with money”. We live this way because “efficiency” is of high value to us. Much higher than a spontaneous purchase of a can of coke. To me (us?) paying 50c for that is a failure to prepare (also a high value, independence) and food may be of low value (it’s just fuel). This is also how we end up with a lot of money.… Read more »

MelodyO
MelodyO
9 years ago

As a thrifty parent, I must say this article annoyed the daylights out of me (driving me to comment for the very first time, in fact). As someone from a fairly dysfunctional family who is trying my best to raise my kids with love and boundaries, let me point out that your dad was not a cardboard villain in the movie of your life, starring YOU. He was a human being trying to do the right thing for his family, dealing with the baggage from his own childhood – we all have some – in the best way he knew… Read more »

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

Anna, I appreciate you sharing this story and I’m sorry if other readers react negatively to it. I personally don’t see it as “bragging” about what you have or “blaming” your parents. I will be a new mother very soon and stories like yours make me step back and think about what I would like my son to eventually understand about money and how I might go about teaching him. I agree with some previous commenters that as individuals we should not “blame” our parents for our adult actions as a way of not taking personal responsibility for ourselves. However,… Read more »

Caleb
Caleb
9 years ago

i enjoyed this posting. I did not grow up in a home that pinched pennies, and as a child I never felt that we had less than anyone else…which i found out years later that we were quite strapped. My parents ingrained giving more than saving, not that I practiced that in my adult life until more recently. As I entered my teens, we moved to a big city and my dad made more money, and I would be what you call a spoiled brat. It confused the idea of what a “need” and a “want” was, so it took… Read more »

Sam
Sam
9 years ago

I can relate to a lot of the Dad’s habits the writer complains of. My parents were frugal and hippies, we never bought a can of soda, rarely ought ice cream out and about, never bought fast good or ate out, etc. Most of my clothes were hand me down or from thrift shops. My parents never bought new cars and the cars in our family were used until they died – I recall watching the road under my feet because the under carriage was rusted out. I was always annoyed by these behaviors/habits as a child, although because we… Read more »

Allan Williams
Allan Williams
9 years ago

Anna: I skimmed your story. I am 62 years old and I have the same story about brainwashing by parents. Mine was about excessive education and excessive success. Although you will nost likely never shake what your dad did to you completely, over time you will develop into your own person and and you will grieve a little less about how you handle your day to day activities. Perhaps this is small consolation for one unable to shuck such a big brother from her life; but it will subside….somewhat. The lessons you were taught were good. But few things remain… Read more »

Meg
Meg
9 years ago

I agree that there’s no point in saving a very large amount of money if it’s not used for something worthwhile. I also agree that it’s not good to feel constantly guilty, and I agree that it’s important to enjoy life. But I am guessing that very few people will agree with me that I think you can do *all* of these things while spending almost no money at all–in particular, while not spending money on most of things Anna mentions in her post, like ice cream, restaurant meals, full-price shirts, etc. In my personal experience, I have found that… Read more »

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