I'll never forget my first "real" vacation.
Most of our family vacations were camping trips where we slept together in a tent or a pop-up trailer and my mom cooked for my 4 siblings and me at the campsite. But the summer after fifth grade, my father decided to take me, my mom, and my 2 older sisters with him on a business trip to California.
That trip really stood out. I remember relaxing by the pool in sunny San Diego, sipping Shirley Temples with my sisters. We were fascinated by the elevators in our big hotel and rode them up and down until we were sternly told to stop. Simply put, it was paradise.
This trip was an unusual extravagance for my parents, too. You can't raise 5 children on a limited income without being very frugal. And my parents, who were both first-generation Americans, were used to getting by on very little. Excess was not an option. At Christmas, my mom would save nice wrapping paper and reuse—boxes were also recycled for many holidays to come. Folding a little piece of wrapping paper in half, writing a note inside, and taping it to a gift worked just as well as buying a greeting card. She reused everything from tin foil to plastic baggies. Her approach to money and possessions was pretty consistent: "Make do with what you have."
These habits and quirks used to make us laugh. Today, I appreciate the example my parents set. I resist spending money on big-ticket items. My car, for instance, is a 2010 model and has 150,000 miles on it. And most of the furniture in our house is at least a decade old (if not a few decades). I’m not about spending a lot on furniture—with a teenage son, our couch becomes a dumping ground for lacrosse equipment more often than not. I even save nice wrapping paper from time to time, much to the amusement of my kids. And because of the warm memories from that long-ago California trip, I’d much rather spend money on experiences my family can enjoy, like vacations, than on stuff.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I like to believe that my parents’ mindful approach to spending lives on in my kids, who seem to appreciate the value of a dollar on some days at least. My college-age daughter takes pride in her 5-star rating on a ride-hailing app because it entitles her to discounts and coupons. My son, a high school senior, is already savvy about mutual funds and 401(k)s—thanks to conversations he tunes into at home and an intro to business class he takes at school. Both kids know that they need to budget for indulgences beyond the basics and that they’ll have to pay for them with money earned from their jobs.
Both of my parents are gone now, but their frugal approach to working diligently and saving money allowed them to raise 5 kids. And not only that: They put enough away to build a nest egg that funded some retirement travel to Europe, Russia, and Alaska in their golden years. By then my father came around to reasoning: “You can’t take it with you.”
They still managed to leave something behind. The lessons they taught us about money—about not spending more than we have, saving what we can, and splurging occasionally and mindfully—are with all of us. And those occasional splurges they encouraged us to enjoy are as sweet as those long-ago Shirley Temples under the warm California sun.