Miss Moneybags

Please Don’t Tell My Mother

I learned at an early age that I cannot have a sane conversation with my mother about money. In 1990, while still in college, I purchased an espresso maker. It cost $40. Other people’s parents would judge that as a prudent purchase since it allowed me to skip buying $4 mochachinos every day like my fellow undergrads. Well, the way my mother went on about it for TEN YEARS after I graduated from college (and still owned the same espresso maker, mind you) you would have thought that I’d robbed a convenience store to pay down my online poker debts. How could I be that fiscally irresponsible? It was almost as bad as that time during freshman year when I had a psychotic break and bought an answering machine. Oh. My. God. What a ridiculous extravagance.  You know, it’s a slippery slope. First you buy an answering machine and the next thing you know you’re Evita Peron and you’ve just bankrupted Argentina. Explaining to my mother that I’d split the whopping $30 bill for the answering machine with my room mate, made no difference in her mind. I shouldn’t need an answering machine because I shouldn’t have a phone in my dorm room in the first place. Who could be calling me anyway? And, I don’t need to call anywhere but home and I can do that four floors down in the lobby of my dormitory on the pay phone just like she did when she went to college in 1962. 

My mother is a victim of her upbringing. Her domineering father came from nothing and made himself a fortune. And even though as a self-made millionaire, he could afford to raise his family in a beautiful house, drive luxury cars and install the first private swimming pool in the state of Kansas in his backyard, I don’t think he ever psychologically got over The Depression. He was a brutal skinflint who would drive 50 miles to save a penny on a gallon of gas. To save money on electricity, he would turn off the power to the house every night at 9pm on the dot. Cramming for that final exam? Too bad. You should have done all your studying while the sun was out. Quit crying about your bronchitis. You’ll still be coughing in the morning, and you can plug the vaporizer back in at 6am. 

My father’s parents had the opposite reaction to enduring The Depression. My paternal grandfather was a compulsive gambler and my paternal grandmother developed an addiction to shopping.

So, is it any surprise that my parents have a very conservative view on spending money?

I am very good at spending money. I’m also good at making it. But what I’m best at is “getting by.” I live the most bourgeois life on no money. Between 1996 and 1998 I paid for my entire life by trash picking home furnishings and reselling them at weekly garage sales. 2002 to 2004 were paid for entirely with ebay sales of items that were gathering dust in my house. In 2006 I made $26,000 but managed to travel to Italy three times and Spain once. I never worry about making “enough” money, because I know that I will always be able to make the amount I need to get by, because I always have. This attitude makes my parents crazy. From their point of view, I have inherited the worst, not the best, traits of their parents. I am the tightwad spendypants of their nightmares.

My parents have been good savers their entire lives. Their fat retirement account has allowed them both to retire at age 65, and devote themselves full time to philanthropy. My father, who gave up his private practice three years ago, volunteers his doctor skills three times a week at the local VA hospital. He sits on a variety of medical ethics boards. My mother runs two Head Start programs and teaches art at the local child crisis center. My parents moved into a smaller house and hired a gardener so my mother, who suffers from arthritis, could use 100% of her remaining hand strength for designing and maintaining one of her city’s major parks. 

I’m not complaining. I’d much rather have parents who are good at saving than parents who are not. Too many of my friends are looking at a future of paying not only for their own retirement, but for the retirement of their parents who are buying boats and plasma televisions, content with the idea that their children will take care of them in their old age. Not that I believe that taking care of your parents is a bad thing. Honoring your parents is a good thing. But, taking care of your parents shouldn’t involve dipping into your children’s college fund to pay down the credit card debts of their grandmother. So I’m very happy that my parents are solvent enough to do amazing things in their retirement. 

But I’m not sure that they are enjoying it. 

My parents, who are living on less than 2% of their retirement savings, are afraid to go on vacation. They can’t afford it. Or, at least they think they can’t. Which makes me very sad, because I spent my entire childhood listening to them talk about how they were going retire at age 55, sell all their belongings and retire in Kenya as volunteer medical workers. Granted, when I was growing up in 1970’s Africa was not being torn asunder by civil war and AIDS, so I can understand why my parents decided that they didn’t want to spend their golden years in an ever-expanding refugee camp. But the fact that they have given up on their lifelong dream of an exotic retirement, not to mention the entire third world, in order to hunker down in their two bedroom, suburban condo is just depressing. What is the point of saving for your dreams if you don’t then spend it on your dreams? To make matters worse, my mother has macular degeneration, which means that she is slowly going blind. Which means she’s on a ticking clock because the window to the world, that she has been saving for her entire life to see, is closing with every passing moment as her eyesight continues to fail.

I had a bitter argument with my mother over this just last week. I’m potentially going to be working in Italy and/or China this year, something I’m very excited about. My mother, who still fantasizes every day about living in Costa Rica, could not have been more negative about my plans. Won’t I make more money if I stay here? She nags me about saving for the future, completely ignoring the fact that when I’m seventy, it’s unlikely that head hunters from Italy will be knocking on my door and demanding to see my resume. She cannot fathom this idea because she’s never been paid to work where she wants to live. 

The 100k Challenge should really be called The Roman Apartment Challenge, because that’s what I really want. There’s pretty much nothing that I like more than walking the streets of the Eternal City. In 2006 I decided that I was going to spend the next four years preparing to move to Rome. I’d work on becoming fluent in Italian, sell all my extraneous possessions and sock away a couple years of living expenses. In 2010, I’d move to Rome and figure things out as I went along. But, there was an unforeseen crimp in my plan:  in 2007 I fell in love with Mr. Foxypants. Luckily he shares my  expatriate fantasies, but unfortunately, he is tied by his job and his house to Los Angeles. I thought that finding my partner in life would dampen my desire for a permanent roman holiday, but it hasn’t. My future roman apartment beckons. It’s still the big, invisible hand, that pushes me toward certain life choices and away from others. Because of Mr. Foxypants’ commitments, I won’t be moving to Italy next year, but hopefully putting 100k in an interest bearing fund for 20 years will give me enough money that I won’t have to think about retiring anywhere else. In the mean time, I’m going to continue to get by so I can continue to enjoy the world while I still have eyes to see it.

My parents have intentionally and unintentionally taught me an important lesson about retirement: I may not be able to grow old in Italy, but I’ll always be able to grow old and blind in suburbia. So, why not try for Italy?


  1. Christina in GA
    Posted January 8, 2009 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have expatriate fantasies, but of England. I have always been fascinated by the country. I was able to visit for 3 weeks last summer. My plan is to finish my degree and then work at a DOD school so I can live and work in Europe and be able to travel during breaks. My dh is still tied to his belongings and his precious books. I’m trying to get him to see the adventure in all of this. My son wants to live in France. I say live your dream!

  2. editrix
    Posted January 8, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Elegantly said, Max. Go for it.

  3. Elsie
    Posted January 12, 2009 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Are your parents from families with long-lived ancestors, giving them fears that they’ll outlive their money? Or ancestors with histories of ailments that they might inherit and which might end up costing them huge amounts of money for health care? (Your father’s medical background may play into this???) Or ancestors who are long-lived and invoke thoughts of many years of living in high-cost retirement homes that also have health care and Alzheimer’s units? I wonder if it’s one of the above…or something else that has them unwilling to spend.

    “What is the point of saving for your dreams if you don’t then spend it on your dreams?” is an interesting question. All those years of sacrifice/scrimping/saving like my parents (who after paying off their first house early, paid CASH for their next five houses over the next 50 years) and what is there to remember in old age? Not dreams, but merely years of sacrifice/scrimping/saving.

    OK, I’m telling my friends I’m in for the trip to England this summer. You’ve convinced me.

    Elsie…who votes for the Roman apartment

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>