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The family that saves together

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Sarah Beth Glicksteen / The Christian Science Monitor / File

(Read caption) Zena Lum shops with her son Dylan Smith in Stellabella toy store in Cambridge, Mass., on September 27, 2009. Lum says her family pays off its credit card bills every month. They have taken advantage of interest-free financing for some furniture and a television, and chosen monthly options for charity donations. The family sets monthly thresholds for their bills, and switch to cash towards the end of the month if they need to spend less.

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My four year old son thinks that the way you get a new video game is by trading for it at the used video game store.

At dinner time, they both eat exactly what their parents eat – and that’s considered normal, as opposed to making them a special kid-friendly meal that racks up the extra food dollars.

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My two year old daughter thinks that the best way to get a new book to read is to go to the kids room at the library.

They both think that a spectacularly fun evening involves going to the local park and eating a picnic.

The only time they’re spoiled on the things they want is their birthday, Christmas, or when Grandma comes to town. After all, that’s why they have an allowance.

My four year old is saving for charity and has already made a contribution to his college fund.

What do these things have in common?

Obviously, all of these are choices that save money, at least, compared to the “typical” way of acquiring things. We usually make a point of these things that we do that save money. For example, when we take a bunch of canvas bags into the grocery store, we tell them that we save $0.05 for each canvas bag we use in the store, which helps shave a bit off of our grocery bill. We compare the park down the block to other kid-friendly places we might go and talk about how the park is free.

I already see these types of ideas showing up in my son’s thinking. One of the first things he asks when he’s considering an item is how much it costs, and he’s begun to understand that some things are bargains, some things are not bargains, and if you’re patient, sometimes you can find big bargains on the things that you want.

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More importantly, these are all choices that set up a standard of financial responsibility. Our children see frugality as normal. We make dinners at home – dinners at home are normal and eating out is a very special treat. Making your own meals at home is normal – it’s normal to see a parent in the kitchen preparing some dish or another. It’s normal to spend a couple hours in an afternoon at the library. It’s normal to spend an evening at the park (and, frankly, it’s really weird that we’ll go to a park and our children will be the only ones using the play equipment on a beautiful evening).

They see such choices as the norm. They do not see rampant overspending as the norm. When we do make a major purchase, our children are probably getting sick of the dinner table conversation about which particular one to choose (our discussion about replacing our television is entering year three or so). A big part of that talk? The best bang for the buck.

In the future, the key part will be why we’re doing this. When I was growing up, we practiced a lot of frugality, but the “why” of practicing that frugality was often simply that we didn’t have enough money to go around. Gardening and reusing things and the other tactics we used weren’t part of a big overall goal – they were just methods we used to make ends meet.

For us, frugality enables us to spend far less than what we earn without giving up things that are really important to us. We don’t have to do it – we choose to do it because of the life it’s creating for us. That difference will change the rules of the game as we grow older, enabling us to retire earlier and do incredibly powerful things with our time. Our choices now are opening up giant windows of opportunity down the road, just in time for our children to see the real benefits of a frugal life.

The family that saves together dreams together.

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