As far back as I can remember there’s been a yellow comb on my parent’s bathroom vanity. It sits to the left of the sink, under the wall-mounted toothbrush holder, and it’s about the size of a banana. I’ve seen it so many times that it sort of blends into the background, and I’d never thought much about it. But I used it on my visit last weekend and have found myself thinking about it quite a bit. More than I’ve thought about any other comb, at least.
If I had to explain my parents to a stranger, that yellow comb would be a good place to start. It’s a marker for their values, though I’m sure they don’t see it that way. They’re values that have made them successful, and ones I hope that I’m carrying on in my own financial life.
I haven’t asked, but here’s my guess as to the story of this comb. Shortly after my parents bought their house, one of them found their hair out of order. Having no luck with their hands, it became necessary to buy a comb. They went to CVS, or Zares, and spent 0.99 on a comb. Fast-forward 37 years and the comb is still going strong. Its been treated well, it hasn’t broken, and no advances in comb technology have convinced my parents to upgrade to a newer comb. It hasn’t stopped working, so they’ve found no reason to throw it out.
There are a lot of items like this comb in my parents’ house: my dad’s set of knives, his pans, the “good plates” that were a wedding gift in 1978 that we still eat on. I’ve noticed three common traits among all of these items:
- They’re high quality. In most cases, my parents have saved up and bought good products. My Dad’s pans are All-Clad, not bought as a set but collected over the years during sales and ‘scratch and dent’ discount events. The knives, some German brand, are so sharp I can barely use them. Even the yellow comb must have been high quality by comb standards: it hasn’t broken a single tooth. Most durable goods have been purchased once and kept for life. Even items that had to be replaced, such as washing machines, have only been replaced once in thirty-five years instead of three to four times.
- They get taken care of. My parents have worked diligently to keep their household goods in working order. The pans get scoured. The knives get sharpened. The plates are quickly dried and put away in a cabinet. And lord help you if you use a metal spatula on a nonstick pan (don’t get my dad started on seasoning a cast-iron skillet unless you’re an insomniac in need of relief). Preventative maintenance on cars, oil-furnaces and other mechanical devices is strictly enforced, even if it means spending more money up front. Because of this, objects in my parents’ house simply do not break, rust or go missing.
- 3.Process is better than product. My parents love to cook, but I became aware early on that they didn’t buy a lot of the same crazy kitchen gadgetry as my friends’ parents. As a child I begged them for a ‘Tater-twister’ that made curly fries to no avail.
Later in life, I discovered it wasn’t strictly cheapness as much as a life philosophy: if you enjoy the process of your hobby, you often care less about the products. My Dad enjoyed the act of chopping meat and vegetables; therefore a good set of knives was more important than a lot of complex gizmos. I’ve transferred this philosophy to my bicycling hobby. My friend has a “Specialized Tarmac Expert with disc brakes”. I have “a decent road bike”. I know his is better than mine, but I don’t think it makes my rides any less fun.
Another way to sum up this philosophy is: utility is king, novelty is the enemy.
This might not sound like a big deal. What do a few dollars in un-bought combs have to do with retirement? How will cleaning a pan the right way make you rich? I just know that my parents have saved a boatload of money by buying consciously, avoiding trends, and taking care of their stuff. That, combined with some hard work and a bit of good luck, has allowed them to save up and retire earlier than an average couple at their income level.
I keep asking if my parents are planning to decamp to Florida like a lot of their friends are threatening. I don’t think they will though. Their house has served them well for almost forty years, and I think they treat the house itself no differently from the rest of their stuff. But if they do move, I guarantee the yellow comb is coming with them.