Author: Daniel, Bert

How Cheap Can YOU Be?

I have this dream that someday I'll finally retire and live the good life. I'll ride my bike more and pick more and read more and travel more and go to more Bluegrass festivals. I'll pretty much do all of the things I do now except that I won't go to work. For sure there'll be some downside to this plan. Maybe I won't appreciate the comics as much, for example. Dilbert's satirical workplace humor will go right by me because I won't relate to all the frustrations of a job anymore. Overall though, I think the positives of retirement will outweigh the negatives.

We all look forward to retirement and we all know what it is that keeps us from getting there. You can never have enough of that green stuff. But it's not actually that cut and dried. There are some paradoxes here. I once fantasized that if I earned triple my salary, I could retire three times as fast! But then I thought about it. Heck, if I got paid THAT much for what I do, I'd be really tempted to just keep raking it in for a while and live it up!

The retirement goal line depends on a lot of things. Sure, it matters how much you earn. You can look for a higher paying job. You can make stronger demands for how much you are compensated, given the value of the work that you do. You can invest more wisely. You can grab for every possible tax deduction. All of these things are important, but I submit that the MOST important thing is something that many people don't even think about.

How much do you need to spend in order to be happy? You don't need to spend very much to have soul happiness. That depends mostly on you and what you place value on. Your friends don't charge you to hang out with them. Your dog doesn't charge you to pet it. The library doesn't charge you anything for a good book unless you forget to bring it back (and then they ream you). Yes, what you spend (or don't spend) influences your retirement equation more than any other factor. The spending effect is felt even before retirement, because less money spent means more money invested. You can get used to the true retirement bliss-low spending lifestyle, and your thrift can free up more money at the same time for investments that can get you to retirement sooner!

This is where I think I've got a big advantage over the average person. I like to think I'm generous and charitable and all that, but give me a Scotchman and a penny. Throw the penny in between us and we'll make copper wire for you. I can be really cheap when I have to. And when I don't have to, I'm still pretty cheap.

Thrifty, I call it. "Cheap" has negative connotations. I still wear tee shirts that are 20 years old. Not just because I like them (some have nostalgic logos for me) but because they're still good! If there's a little hole that somebody might notice, I'll wear the tee shirt as an undershirt or under a coat in the fall. My wife is amazed when she reconciles our credit card each month because all of my charges are for food or fuel. That's it. "What more do you need?", I say. When I need something, I just go out and buy it (looking for the best deal, of course), but I don't spend any time at all looking through advertisements about what I MIGHT like to buy that the seller happens to have a "good deal" on, or a coupon for, etc.

So that brings me to the "How cheap can YOU be?" story. I'm sure many of you have one, here's mine. It concerns a certain Winner brand of athletic shoe that was made, about thirty years ago. I forget what company made it, but I probably bought the shoe at Walmart or K-Mart. I wore that shoe for such a long time and I thought it was a pretty good shoe, to be honest. Maybe it happened to fit my foot just right or maybe I was just lucky. Anyway I wore that shoe until it was just about gone. The sole started to wear out near the ball of the foot on one shoe, but I didn't think much of it at first because they still felt comfortable and it didn't matter. The shoes didn't actually leak because the weather was dry where I lived.

My older brother John, I have to say, is one of the best informed consumers that I have ever seen. He really researches every purchase carefully to make sure he gets his money's worth. He's a big fan of Consumer Reports Magazine, and he disdains product reviews from magazines that give awards to companies who just happen to also be a big part of their advertising base.

John also likes to give a good natured ribbing where it is due and when he noticed that his brother, the doctor, was wearing some rather beaten up looking sneakers, he just couldn't resist the opportunity to give me some grief. He looked up the Winner shoe on Consumer Reports and discovered that they had given it one of their most exclusive recommendations: "UNACCEPTABLE". I got no end of grief about it, but it became a point of honor for me to defend that shoe. I wore it every time I saw my brother. I had to make some minor alterations to maintain the shoe's integrity, like putting cardboard in the hole at the bottom. When my socks started getting holes in them, I got some screen door netting and made a sandwich to keep the cardboard from wearing out at the hole in the shoe. Eventually there were holes in both shoes but I kept those much maligned shoes going and going and going. I might get kidded with "Unacceptable!", but then I'd reply "How long have YOUR top rated shoes lasted?".

Eventually I realized that the game was up and I just couldn't keep those shoes going any longer. I had to get new shoes or my feet were going to be completely eroded by asphalt paving at a very young age. By this time, my brother's son Furman had gotten in on the game and enjoyed teasing his uncle Bert just as much as his dad did. We had a family trip planned to Vail over the holiday season, so I wrapped up the ancient sneakers and presented them as a gag Christmas gift to Furman. We all got a big laugh when that gift, with the fervent anticipation of a ten year old, was finally opened.

I took my own kids to Boston this summer and we stayed with Furman and his wife, who live there now. Furman had a few days off, so he had time to show us around the city. We set forth from his apartment in Cambridge the first day, bound for the Freedom Trail, a famous historical walking tour of Boston. Furman looked over and asked me what kind of shoes I was wearing. I told him quite frankly that they were Reeboks that I bought fifteen years ago. He said they looked nice, so I explained that they actually didn't have fifteen years of wear on them because I wisely bought two pairs at the same time. After the first pair wore out, I could't find the second pair for a while because we had remodeled, but I had probably been wearing this pair for a couple of years or so.

I didn't think much about it (thinking that Furman was interested in my footwear simply because we had so much walking ahead of us that day). I had forgotten about the gag Christmas gift at Vail almost twenty years before. Then Furman said' "You know, I still have that pair of Winner shoes you gave me. I've moved a few times but I never had the heart to just throw them away. I checked into bronzing them so I could give them back to you, but it was too expensive."

I have to say I was thunderstruck. That such an eccentric act by a questionably sane uncle could have this effect on my nephew really touched me. Some day I'll probably get those shoes back. If I'm so short of funds at the time due to my premature retirement, maybe I'll wear them. Hopefully I'll just put them in the truck for the next time I pass by the famous shoe tree on route 50 in the Nevada desert. Those shoes deserve a proper burial. They've taught more than one generation about the value of thrift.

Posted:  10/10/2010

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