Do We Expect College to Take the Place of Frugality?

Let me say at the outset that I have no hard statistical evidence to back this post up. This is just something I found myself thinking about the other day based on personal observation and experience and I wanted to put it out there to see what others think. So here it is: I found myself wondering whether or not we now expect a college education to take the place of learning frugal skills.

It seems like we send kids to college today in the hopes that they won’t have to be frugal. We send them to school to get a degree that will (hopefully, unless they major in philosophy) earn them enough money so that they won’t have to deploy any frugal skills. The hope (or expectation) seems to be that Junior will earn enough that he will be able to easily pay someone else to fix his car, clean his house, or make his meals. It’s like we’re trying to earn our way our of frugality.

Since it became the “norm” to send kids to college a generation or so ago, I’ve noticed that many people don’t teach their kids frugal skills anymore. The widespread teaching of cooking, sewing, car repair, basic handyman skills, and gardening doesn’t happen any more. It’s not even that the parents don’t want to teach the kids, it’s more often that the parents themselves don’t have the basic knowledge to pass on because they never learned frugal skills. These skills aren’t even taught in most secondary schools anymore. Shop and home economics classes are relics of the past because there isn’t time to teach those kinds of classes and get the kids through all the AP courses that will get them into college.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting kids to earn high salaries. We should all be so lucky. College is certainly one way to punch that ticket. However, even with a great degree and a high earning job, there is likely to come a day when frugal skills will be needed. Look at the sheer number of highly intelligent, hard working people on the unemployment line today. Many of them did everything “right” — the same kind of right that we hope our kids will achieve by going to college. They went to a good school, got good grades, got a good degree and a good job. For many years they probably earned enough that they didn’t have to be frugal. But economic Armageddon happened. How great would it be if they could repair their own car, prepare cheap yet nutritious meals, or repair their own clothes? Their situation might not be so dire if they’d learned some frugal skills along the way. Instead, many people try to learn this stuff late in the game when they have no other choice. Trying to learn frugality on the fly while no money is coming in and things are getting worse by the day is stressful and doesn’t yield the best results. If people had a deep well of knowledge and experience to draw upon, they’d have a greater chance of weathering the storm.

Even if economic tragedy never strikes, high earnings coupled with frugal skills puts you further ahead of the game. You’re able to keep more of that money you work so hard to earn. You can out-save those who have no frugal skills and set yourself up for an early and well-funded retirement. If you earn good money over your working years and you keep more of that money by doing much of your own maintenance, repair, cleaning, etc., think how much more you’ll have stashed away than the person who earned the same amount but paid a cleaning lady every week, a contractor every time something malfunctioned in the house, and ate out five times per week because they couldn’t cook.

There are also other times someone might need frugality despite earning a good salary. What if you want to take that great college education and start a business that will eventually earn you millions? Chances are that business won’t pull in a ton of money the first year. It would be helpful if you knew how to live frugally while waiting for things to take off. It’s also helpful to be able to live frugally while saving the money to start that business in the first place. You’ll need money if you want to quit your day job. Frugal skills also come in handy in the business world as you can run your business on a shoestring until you have the money to upgrade.

College is great and I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t go. But I think that we (as a society) have perhaps placed too much emphasis on college as a way to avoid having to be frugal. We’ve sold ourselves and our kids on the idea that, if you just go to college, you can earn enough money so that you never have to be frugal and that isn’t really true. We place so much emphasis on AP classes, languages, extracurricular activities, sports, and anything else that will get the kids into college that we don’t (or can’t) teach them the frugal skills that will make their lives much easier if they ever have need of them (and they will). This is why we see so many people today who are completely lost. They are having to be frugal for the first time and they have no idea how to do so. At least the good news is that today’s adults are acquiring skills that they can teach their kids.

I would suggest that, as parents, if you are able to teach your kids things like cooking, car repair, coupon use, gardening, or sewing that you do so. They may roll their eyes and think you’re nuts, but someday they’ll thank you. If the kid has a chance to take shop or home economics in school, let them take it. College is great, but it’s not a substitute for frugality. You can’t earn your way out of needing frugal skills forever.

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2 Responses to Do We Expect College to Take the Place of Frugality?

  1. krantcents says:

    Although I would like to see a financial literacy requirement for graduation, I believe parents should teach young people about frugality or money. Most children will emulate what their parents do regarding money anyway.

  2. Gail says:

    Your post reminds me of the show downsized, that my son tapes and brings over since I don’t have cable. At one point the dad was bringing in over a million a year into his business and life was good, then he lost it all. At one point in the show they showed the kids at the grocery store using a food stamp card. They found that they only had about $2 in the account so what did the girl do? She bought a packet of gravy! Gravy and other cooking skills are things than kids need to learn to make. This family with 7 kids, a mom that doesn’t like to cook or isn’t a good cook (haven’t figured it out yet) and a dad who works hard and is the only one that seems to know anything about cooking. What happened to people learning these skills? Even if your parents didn’t teach you, there are plenty of cookbooks that show things step by step. The same with sewing. I have taught myself most of my sewing knowledge. We live in an era of lots of easy to access knowledge and too many don’t want to take advantage of it.

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