I don’t live in a very nice house. It was built in 1925, and it’s got nice bones, but it shows its age in a hundred small ways. A few of the shutters are gone, for example, and I can’t find a proper replacement. Also, a previous owner covered the plaster walls in wood paneling in the 1970’s; he was probably as overwhelmed with the cost of fixing plaster as I am. I’ve had to change out half a dozen leaky stop valves in the basement. With the more expensive fixes, I have to take half-measures. For the wood paneling, I ended up painting it a nice bright color. It doesn’t look bad, actually.
On my drive to work, I cross a hundred-year old bridge that the state keeps limping along with small bursts of structural repair money. Replacing the thing outright is so mind-bogglingly expensive that no politician will touch it. My commuter car is a paid off Toyota with a Kelly Blue Book value of $3,000 that a coworker recently called ‘an oversized rollerskate.’ At my work, management cut floor mopping and trash cleanup to once per week to save money. If the trash is overflowing and I know important people are visiting, I take it out myself.
I only recently recognized the pattern in all this. I’m surrounded by people dealing with constrained resources, doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
And I’m not complaining. There was a time when it depressed me a bit. “Why don’t I live in one of the shiny new places,” I would ask myself, “where all the houses looked like new construction and the office parks gleamed with floor to ceiling, freshly-glazed windows?” But my attitude has changed with age. I better understand the trade-offs necessary when you’re living within your means. Now, when I notice a small amount of disrepair in a house or business, I see the good frugal values at work.
Understanding this is important to saving for retirement. Delayed gratification, necessary to meet long-term savings goals, means not always driving a brand new car or living in a perfect house.
Probably two of the best-maintained places I’ve ever stayed at were my small liberal arts college and the hospital where my daughters were born. Both places had beautiful landscaping, state of the art facilities, highly paid employees. The food was abundant and delicious. Every surface shined there.
And more often than not, the people attending weren’t the ones paying the bill, at least up front. That’s another pattern I didn’t notice until recently.
Same with the luxury cars I saw pulling into the parking lots of my college, which data tells me are financed more than half of the time. If something seems a bit too nice, don’t get jealous and try to mimic it. Ask yourself, “who’s paying the bill, and when will it come due?”
Right now, saving for retirement is my priority. Unfortunately, when guests come over and see the imperfect wallpaper in the bathroom, I can’t explain it away by flashing my 401(k) account statements. I have to be at peace with how I’m spending my limited resources. And I am. I love my house, truth be told. Not in spite of its problems. Because of them.