When talk of saving money comes up, it usually leads to talk of the “good old days” when things were simpler and less expensive. Many people reminisce about the days when a stamp was ten cents, a loaf of bread was twenty-five cents, and a gallon of gas was fifty cents. Oh, the good old days, indeed. Not only were things less expensive then, we had far less on which to spend our money. Money went further simply because we had fewer temptations and “necessities.”
I was going through my files in Quicken the other day and looking at the budget categories I have set up. I noticed something: Most of these categories are things that my grandmother would not have had to worry about. In fact, my mother wouldn’t have worried about most of them, either. Many of the categories I deal with today are inventions of the past thirty to forty years or so. You can argue as to the necessity of any of these items (many of them are merely nice additions to our lives rather than true necessities), but there can be no denying the damage that they have done to our finances. Where once food, shelter, and clothing were just about the only budget categories a family had to balance, now there are many more to worry about. If you have most of the these items (and a lot of people do) it probably means that your income (which likely has not kept pace with the number of things/services available to buy and use) is stretched to the breaking point. No wonder the good old days sometimes seem so attractive.
Here are some things that most of us spend money on that our forefathers would not have had in their budgets.
We got by for many years without constantly being in touch and forking over $100/month for cell phone plans and $300 for phones. Yes, they are convenient but they are also big money drains, particularly if you buy a full featured phone and the unlimited plan that goes with it. Your forefathers would have made do with a landline phone or, let’s go really retro, a snail mail letter.
You not only have to buy the console, but you have to keep it supplied with games. And then there are all the fun accessories that go with it that you want to have. Even if you buy on sale or used, it’s still money spent that your grandmother would likely have deemed foolish.
As a kid, going to a restaurant was a big deal. We went maybe once or twice a year and I only got fast food a few times per year. My grandparents only went out to eat in the later years of their marriage and then only once or twice a year as a special event. In days gone by you ate at home or at another person’s home, so having a budget category for “eating out” was unheard of. The notion of going to a restaurant every week or multiple times per week would have seemed wasteful to my grandparents. (My grandmother would also have assumed you had no talent in the kitchen or that, “Something is wrong with you if you can’t cook.”)
My grandmother made food from real ingredients, most of which she grew herself. A box of Kraft Mac and Cheese, a Lean Cuisine, or a Twinkie would not have constituted real food to her. As such, she would have saved a fortune by not buying overpriced convenience foods.
Entertainment (and the associated equipment)
Most of us have an allowance in our budget for Netflix, Blockbuster, Best Buy, gaming websites, access to special web content, or our iTunes account so we can rent and buy our entertainment. But back in the day you listened to the radio or, on rare occasions, went to see a movie on the big screen. Entertainment was not a budget line item. It was a rare thing to pay for any sort of entertainment. Entertainment usually consisted of families getting together for a group dinner, going to a church social, or watching some locals who had talent perform. Maybe the odd carnival or trip to the circus that was saved for all year. All of this was free and a big deal because it didn’t happen often. Today we expect to be entertained every minute that we’re not working and we pay dearly for it, both in purchasing the entertainment and buying the home theater equipment to show it to best advantage.
My grandparents finally bought one car. They never had two or three (or more cars). One car was what they could pay cash for and reasonably maintain, so one was what they had and it served them just fine. Today, families have multiple cars and that just multiplies the expenses associated with them. Yes, they make getting around easier, but cars are big money sinks. By the time you buy the car, pay taxes, maintenance, insurance, and registration fees, and then fill it with gas (and pay for parking if you have to) you’ve eaten a good chunk of your budget. And that’s just having one car. If you have more than that you can quickly find yourself drowning in car expenses. I still say that if you live in an area where you can get around without a car, you’re one lucky person. I wish I could.
No doubt that computers have made things easier and the Internet has opened up a world of communication and information possibilities that we’ve never had before. But they are expensive and many families have more than one computer. You have to buy the computer, then buy and update the software, and buy peripherals to print and store data. Even buying cheaper models is pricey by the time you have it all set up. And then if you want to connect to the Internet, you’ll likely have to pay a monthly fee for the privilege. This is something my grandmother and mother never had to deal with.
High end clothes, handbags and shoes
My mother made a lot of my clothes and my grandmother made just about everything that my mother and her siblings wore until they left home. You didn’t have a closet full of clothes, instead you had one good outfit for each season and a couple of outfits for every day. What was bought was simply serviceable; nothing was high end or trendy. Today we have the ability to buy designer everything, at grossly inflated prices. And those of us who seek to compete in the style category have a much bigger clothing budget than any of our forefathers would have dreamed of. Even if you buy cheaper clothing, we still buy so much more of it than we really need that our closets are bursting. If my grandmother walked into some of these houses where the closets are jammed or someone has to have three closets for all their stuff, she would have had an apoplexy. In her day, you just didn’t waste money like that on so much that is unnecessary.
As with entertainment, above, the idea of paying for TV would have appalled my grandmother. There was too much else to do to watch a lot of TV in the first place, and what you did watch could be obtained for free with rabbit ears. Paying for specialized programming would have seemed foreign. If you wanted to learn how to cook, you cooked. If you wanted sports, you went out and played. You didn’t watch others do it on TV.
They may make us safer (a debatable point), but it wasn’t something our forefathers had to worry about. Either crime was low so you didn’t worry about it and you left the door unlocked when you left, or you got a big dog or a shotgun and dealt with the problem yourself. The idea of paying a company to monitor a box on your wall would have seemed silly.
In days gone by you didn’t have to worry about credit cards because they didn’t exist. Or, if they did, they went only to the very wealthy or very responsible. Everyone didn’t have credit card debt to deal with. You saved up and paid cash, or maybe a store would extend you credit if they knew and trusted you. Otherwise, it was cash up front. Even when I was a kid my parents didn’t have credit cards until I was almost ready to leave home, then my dad finally broke down and got one for travel. But the idea of doing all your shopping on credit would have been appalling to my grandparents. Debt repayment wasn’t a line item in their budget.
If you even went to school, and that wasn’t always a given, you went to whatever school the state offered. Private schools were only for the very wealthy. Now we send many of our kids to private school, at great expense to ourselves. We say it’s because they get a better education, but plenty of people from my parents, grandparents, and even my own generation turned out rather brilliant on public education in a one room schoolhouse. The money may buy you a better education (debatable) but it’s not something that would have been a line item on most budgets fifty years ago.
College used to be for the very wealthy or the genuinely gifted. Now we expect everyone to go to college, even if the kid can only pull a D average and has no interest. We scrimp and save (or rack up tons of debt) to get a kid through school because it’s “the right thing to do,” but our forefathers would have said, “If he doesn’t want to go, or isn’t interested or gifted enough to do well, or if we can’t afford it, then junior can go in the military or get a job.” You can debate whether or not college is necessary, but the fact is that it’s an expense we all worry obsessively about today, but that previous generations would have considered only briefly and then moved on.
I’m not going to get into a political debate about women in the workplace, but the fact is that we now spend thousands per year on child care that our grandmothers would have provided at home. When I was a kid, either mom stayed home or you stayed with some other female relative like an aunt or older cousin. A daycare or a nanny was something that only the very wealthy used.
Almost everyone I know has a budget item for vacations. But up until recently, the idea of a vacation being anything other than a trip to grandma’s or a trip to the local shore or mountain campground or budget hotel was deemed extravagant. Trips to Europe or Disney World, cruises, or frequent jaunts across the country were for the very wealthy or the frivolous. But now we all want to see new places and take expensive vacations. And many of us do, either saving for them or incurring debt. Vacations didn’t used to be a budget category. They were trips to inexpensive, nearby locations or to visit family, if you even went anywhere at all.
Many of us pay large monthly fees for lawn care, housecleaning, car detailing, and pet care. In the good old days, you did this work yourself (and pets for sure weren’t the budget drains they are today). If you didn’t do it yourself, you paid a neighbor kid a few bucks to do it and he was glad for the work. But now we’re so busy we can’t do things ourselves and no kid will work in your yard for a few dollars. So these services have now become line items in our budgets.
Most of the things we spend money on today are not strictly necessary to survive. In fact, everything on this list could be taken away and not affect your ability to live. You might be inconvenienced and uncomfortable, but you would still survive. This is why, when tough financial times strike, writers like myself and others urge a return to the basics. Despite the proliferation of things on which to spend money, food, shelter, and clothing (basic, not designer) are still the only necessary items on a budget roster. If you pare your budget down to just those three things when times get tough, you’ll probably be amazed at how much money you can save.
Our grandmothers and mothers were able to make ends meet much more easily than we can, at least in large part, simply because they didn’t have the choices we do. Their lives were pretty basic and it kept money management simple. Today there is so much we want and think we need (thank you, Madison Avenue) that it’s becoming more and more difficult to make ends meet. There is something to be said for the good old days. Sometimes too much choice isn’t a good thing.
What else do you find contributes to the decimation of your budget that your forefathers didn’t have to deal with?