Ohana Nords just finished a three-week family vacation in Bangkok. As spending goes, it was the most frivolous blowout we’ve enjoyed in decades. When we roamed the city we saw vignettes of incredible luxury, scrappy entrepreneurialism, and abject poverty. It was a very interesting mirror that reflected our own attitudes toward using money or hoarding it– and the value we get from our spending.
My spouse and I have enjoyed financial independence for over a decade, and it’s worked out very well. We should enjoy these types of vacations more often. We know that we could build a huge collection of material luxuries. If we wanted more exotic experiences then we could afford a world cruise. However, our frugal habits were set early in our adult lives, and we keep “relapsing” to that behavior.
For example, submarine duty taught me how to live in a small tube with over a hundred of my closest friends. I slept in a three-person upper bunk on a 28″x72″ Naugahyde-covered foam pad, and the overhead was too low to sit up. I had storage space for about two seabags to last a 90-day patrol. I had to take care of my things or learn to live without them, because if they broke we might still be months away from a portcall.
My spouse spent the first three years of her Navy career in 1980s Spain and the Azores. Her apartment was warmed with a portable butane heater and an electric blanket. Water pressure was unreliable yet the Azores rain squalls frequently flooded out her apartment. Electric power regularly failed, so she stocked candles & flashlights and used a windup alarm clock to wake up for duty on time.
Our lives occasionally crossed the line from frugality to deprivation. However, we were busy learning how to do our jobs and didn’t have much free time, we had lots of friends to share our fun, and we were saving money. Life was good.
Today our adult daughter smirks at those sea stories. She thinks that when we parents were young we walked to school barefoot in the snow all year long (uphill both ways) and we were poorer than Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen. But we actually grew up in typical 1960s families with relative affluence. We graduated from a service academy to begin our adult lives with small car loans, ensign starter kits, and steady paychecks. We had great times with our friends & shipmates, we traveled all over Europe, and we have many fond memories of those first duty stations. However, our standard of living definitely took a big dip during those early career years, and we formed frugal habits that are surprisingly hard to change.
We still seem to need a purpose for our spending. Even our trip to Bangkok had a mission. For over 20 years the Navy helped us travel the world for free, but it was almost always for a reason. It was frequently in cramped military fuselages on webbed seats, and a charter flight on a civilian aircraft felt like getting away with a minor felony. Today we have the entertainment budget to go anywhere but we still find it psychologically hard to just hop on a plane for fun. We still feel as if we should be leading training or attending a conference and working for our liberty. In Bangkok we were running an offsite retreat: we enjoyed a few final weeks of quality family time before our daughter starts her own Navy career. We joked about showing her how to do safe overseas liberty without getting ripped off– and she put up with that for three weeks.
Our frugal habits reflect our mental attitudes. These attitudes aren’t simply a fear of losing our wealth and enduring our elder years on cat food. We know that we have “enough”. Instead, we feel the burden of stewardship and we try to squeeze the most out of every nickel that we spend. We still have a difficult time spending money unless we feel that we’ve earned the privilege. When we give ourselves permission to spend, the experience or the possession still seems way overblown compared to our memories of how we used to live.
Even today, both of us still pick up spare change off the sidewalk. (My spouse spent two years at one command doing daily runway FOD walkdowns. 30 years later, she can still spot a coin on the sidewalk at 10 paces.) Like Bill Gates stooping for a $100 bill, we’re wasting our time picking up pennies– but it pains us even more to just leave them lying there. The free money gives us a tiny high from the little jolt of endorphins.
In Bangkok, we continued this habit with quarter-baht coins. (The Thai economy must be doing very well– after a decade of Bangkok trips, this is the first time we regularly found money.) A quarter-baht coin is worth about 0.75 cents at today’s exchange rates, so we were working even harder for less. However, a quarter-baht coin goes a lot further in Bangkok than a penny goes in America.
I know that 100 baht buys me more street food than I can eat in one meal, so I felt extravagant by spending 350 baht for a restaurant buffet. But again I’m deciding between spending $3 versus $11 for a vacation experience… probably a waste of financial effort in America, let alone in Bangkok.
When we started our military careers, we were frugal by occupation and necessity. Today it’s a choice, yet we still live a green lifestyle and can’t stand to waste resources. We get a huge sense of satisfaction from our DIY handyman skills.
During one meal in Bangkok, the hotel restaurant had a problem with their buffet equipment. We watched a cluster of kitchen staff and waiters struggle with it. The maître d’ got involved, and then an exec was summoned. Eventually, a maintenance guy in coveralls and gear belt showed up, tweaked a few things with his tools, and all was well again. As the crowd dispersed, I realized that the person I really identified with wasn’t the service staff or the management or the leadership– it was the guy in coveralls who could fix things. I bet he has a really cool workshop, too.
In our luxurious Sukhumvit serviced apartment, we realized that big-city high-rise living in a rented air-conditioned box is not for us. We enjoy owning a home that blends with the environment, where we can feel closer to nature. We like ground-floor lanai doors that open to a yard full of wildlife. We like composting and vermiposting and fruit trees and flower gardens. We enjoy having solar water heating and a photovoltaic array to make our electricity. We like living lightly without wasting energy or water.
These days our guilty pleasure is hiring a housecleaner to do the dusting and vacuuming that we despise, but we even make ourselves work for that indulgence. While the house is being cleaned we’re tackling a home-improvement project or fixing a car or pruning & mowing the yard. We have the assets to do whatever we want, but we still feel compelled to earn it. Housecleaning may be a luxury, but we use that time to do the jobs which cost a lot more than cleaning a house. We’re working at least as hard as the housecleaner.
Our feelings about lifestyle and spending came to a head in Bangkok when we met a couple of other American visitors for drinks. They own a business and they’ve been financially independent for years. We proposed meeting at a local coffee shop, and they suggested the opulent lanai bar of a five-star hotel. We took the Skytrain and walked to the lobby, while they had a car & driver.
Along the way we passed a street vendor selling fresh-squeezed fruit juice for 20 baht. The hotel bar’s mango smoothie was 350 baht(!), and their featured drink was the bartender’s performance art in an insulated glass with dry ice. We wore walking shorts & t-shirts, while the other couple was dressed for a formal dinner. We chatted about everything we’d seen and done, while they described the thousands of dollars of fine art and silks that they’d bought for their luxury home. After our farewells, we dined on 100-baht street food on the walk back to our apartment. They spent hours (and tens of thousands of baht) on a multi-course meal in the hotel dining room.
We all had a good time in our own ways, but their life is not for us. We each have more than enough wealth to live the way we want for the rest of our lives, and we all enjoyed ourselves with our activities and purchases. My spouse and I could learn to be more comfortable with spending money. However, we seem to have aligned our spending with our values, and we enjoy the small challenges of living a frugal, green life.
What about you? Do you feel comfortable spending money? How do you align your spending with your values?
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