Passing On Frugal Thinking

We as a family have just finished watching the BBC documentary ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend‘. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth having a look at, as it documents many of the PR tricks of the trade that encourage or trick people into buying and spending.

This is something we have been aware of for a long time through reading consumer advocacy magazines like CHOICE or watching comedy shows like ‘The Checkout‘. For us, they were a great ways to raise our awareness of the psychological enticements and tricks used by almost all businesses.

And that got me to thinking about the ways I have trained my brain to try and reduce the influence of these techniques. This is something that was taught to me by my mum, and it is knowledge that I try as much as possible to pass on to my children.

One of my strongest memories as a child was the game my mum used to play with us whenever we went to the supermarket. My mum would make it a game to add up how much everything we bought would cost before we got to the checkout. The goal was to get as close to the exact total as possible while not under-estimating. Now, it’s not very easy to add up prices if you try to use the exact price, but mum taught us how to round numbers to the nearest dollar – almost always rounding up rather than down, so that our estimated bill would be more than what you had to pay. As a kid, I thought that was enormous fun. But it had a practical aspect as well – it meant that we started to get a feel for what items in the fridge cost, we knew that the house had a budget, and money didn’t feel quite like a magic-box of infinite resources.

Reading Nutrition
Information Panels

Mum also taught us how to read labels on food – and how to figure out the unit price of an item (per kg or per 100g), something that (thankfully) we no longer need to do. But with a bit of judicious rounding, you could get a good feel for whether one product was actually better value or not.

But she didn’t stop there – she also taught us how to read the complicated nutrition information and ingredients list – and we had a list of ingredients that she considered harmful to our health, and showed us how to identify if they were in a product. Whether they were or were not really dangerous was moot – the important thing that I learned was to actually pay attention to the contents of foods that we bought. A lesson that I have never forgotten.

We also used to figure out the fat, salt and sugar content of a product (which is actually pretty fun – ‘Mummy! This fruit bar has 80% sugar!!). This is something I have started doing with C. We’ve also started to look at what vitamins and minerals a product might contain, and started to talk about what %RDI means (Percentage of Recommended Daily Intake, if you’re interested).

These decoding skills have been essential for my ability to step back and evaluate whether a product is a good idea to buy or not (often this is done after the product is bought, where we talk about its nutritional value and yes, it does change the way my son in particular chooses to eat).

Craft supplies from old cereal boxes,
left over party supplies and used wrapping paper.

These decoding skills can also be applied to more than just food. One useful way I have found to curb my own desire for wanting to buy things immediately is to think about how much that amount of money would buy me if I bought something else I valued – like books. Is it a 3-book purchase? 10? 50? Will it give me the same satisfaction as buying a book that I can read and read again?** It helps me to put that purchase in perspective – and it’s a technique I have started to teach to my children. When they decide they have to have a certain item, I usually point out how much of something else that they could buy instead. It short-circuits the immediate desire and gets them thinking, ‘Is this what I really want?’.

**Of course, my book technique does break down when it comes to book purchases – but then the secondary tactic steps in – is this book available at the library? The act of checking if it’s available to borrow can often short-circuit the immediate desire to buy. And if the book is available at a local library, I can ‘try before I buy’. Usually after I’ve borrowed a book at least 3 times, I find it’s easier to buy it than to borrow it again, but by then it’s far from a spontaneous purchase, and I know it is something that I will value and use.

Our ‘repaired’ washing machine

Another technique that I use quite a bit I also learned from my mum – sometimes it’s actually better to make it myself. My mum is a real handy-women. Even though she’s a grandma, she still is just as likely to be out lopping down trees, or building her own vanity on the weekend as she was when I was a child. She taught me that DIY was something that was valuable and worthwhile – and often cheaper than buying stuff. My DH and I are real DIYers – when our lounge chair became unusable, instead of buying a new one, we ripped apart the old, and with the purchase of a large piece of foam, some glue and a few bolts, remade it into a better lounge. When our washing machine broke, my DH duct-taped it back together(!) The kids though that was hilarious. I have been known to whip up a kids jumper with scraps of fabric when necessary.

Scarf I made for C with left-over wool and button

Pulling things apart to see how they are put together is something we treat as an essential part of our children’s education.  When we started pulling things apart and having a look at how they are made, we started to realise that it might actually be easier, and usually a lot cheaper to make something ourselves. And the results were usually better as well. So when I see large items that I love (or even baked goods!- extreme family allergies do kind of kick the spontaneity out of eating-out.), my first thought is no longer ‘I must buy that’, but ‘I could make that.’

I love encouraging the kids to make things – though I’m not always fond of the mess. Although this is really DH’s specialty – he loves to make things with C, and encourages both our kids to follow him around and pitch in with his projects. The kids love a trip to the hardware store with Daddy.

Deconstructing old electronics
to better understand how they work.

And really, making and thinking about how things are made and how they work is an awful lot of fun.

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