More With Less: Abundance Through Thrift

(This piece was first published in the December 2019 issue of Praxis Englisch.)

“Cut your coat according to your cloth.” I remember this English proverb from my childhood days, and it has stayed with me ever since, because my parents have repeatedly emphasized the significance of making sure that my expenses do not exceed my earnings. When my peers are taking loans to buy homes and vehicles, my parents actively discourage me from buying anything on credit. What do you think about this approach? It makes sense to me.

Living within your means is, most certainly, a skill worth learning if you do not wish to go bankrupt or be buried in debt when financial anxiety is on the rise almost everywhere in the world. Are there similar proverbs in any of the languages you speak? It might be a good idea to confer with your loved ones, and come up with such a list. Since language and culture are intimately linked, proverbs often provide insights into values that are regarded as important in a community.

“It is better to eat a simple meal at home than to borrow from someone else for a fancy meal at a restaurant,” my mother used to tell me when I was a wide-eyed teenager eager to have what other people of my age had but unaware of the labour that went into making a living and providing for the family. To this day, my parents hardly ever go to restaurants. They dislike the idea of splurging on what they see as an indulgence.

“Come on, I can make the same thing at home. You can have as much as you want,” my mother says. If my parents do agree to eat out, it is because I persuade them to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary with a dinner. Ordering online, and having food delivered at their doorstep, is a concept that is completely alien to the lifestyle they have created for themselves. They might seem like dinosaurs to people who are hyper-connected.

“It is a good idea to save a little for the future. You never know when you might need those savings,” my father used to advise me, when I got adamant about buying toys, clothes or books that I did not really need at the time. I have always seen him being mindful about the use of money. “You will not realize the value of what I am saying right now but, someday, you will thank me for what I am telling you now,” he used to say.

Apart from the fact that my father had to save up while studying, and support his family on the financial front, I think his thriftiness comes from a cultural disposition. His father spent a large part of his life in Rajasthan in the western part of India, and so did his paternal and maternal grandparents. Living in a region with vast tracts of desert land where rainfall is scarce, and so is farm produce, the terrain itself trains people to accomplish more with less. They cultivate habits that enable subsistence in keeping with the resources they have.

I began to appreciate the wisdom of my parents only when I grew into adulthood, got a job, and woke up to the idea of managing my finances. Until then, I mistook their frugality for miserliness. I used to feel upset when a video game I had my eyes on, or an encyclopaedia I craved, was not purchased for me. They had the same question each time: “Are you sure that you are going to use this?”

It used to make me deeply uncomfortable because I felt they were doubting me, or just did not care enough about fulfilling my wishes. My reaction was to make a grumpy face, or throw a tantrum. Did you have similar conversations with your parents when you were a child or a teenager? My understanding of those interactions have changed over time. I have come to realize that my parents intuitively knew when I truly liked something, and when I wanted it simply because my friends possessed it.

When I got a job, and did not need any pocket money from my parents, they continued to encourage me to save. I used to resent their unsolicited advice because I wanted full control over how I spent what I had earned for myself. I wanted to give myself everything I did not have earlier. While I knew that they had my best interests at heart, I was averse to hearing what they had to say about saving.

I used shut them down quite frequently because I was young and immature. Growing up meant taking charge, and not being held accountable. My impatient self was utterly convinced that seeking the counsel of my parents would jeopardize my autonomy. This is an experience many young people have when they desire independence, which is articulated in terms of their relationship with money. I will not be surprised if you have similar experiences to narrate.

When I observe my parents, I am often stunned by how creative they are with their use of resources. Clothes are always mended when they tear. Gadgets are repaired when they stop being efficient. Leftovers from the refrigerator are used to conjure up delicious meals. Footwear is fixed in order to extend its life. Throwing away, and getting an immediate replacement, is not a habit they endorse. They roll their eyes in horror when I recommend getting rid of something that occupies space in the house.

The sarees, kurtas, trousers, bed covers and shirts that cannot be mended any further are turned into cloth bags, pillow covers, rugs or table cloths. I think this is partly due to the fact that my parents were raised in large families, and it was common to wear hand-me-downs. Theirs was a simpler world with fewer choices. Money was in short supply, so people managed to make the most of what they had. Even if they had access to enough, they chose to save. They have tried passing on that sensibility to me as well.

Though I live in a hyper-capitalist setting, with a mind-boggling range of options available thanks to the Internet, I cherish what I have learnt from my parents. Their ability to live without any lavish spending has taught me to recognize how consumption has turned into an addiction for many people of my generation. I do not absolve myself from this trend. Money can help one buy innumerable distractions, which seem essential given the high levels of stress people are required to negotiate each day. However, it cannot buy fulfillment.

I know several people who are never satisfied with what they have. There is always a better phone, laptop, car or something else that they find missing in their lives. It is a hole they try to fill but it only grows wider every time. They become more restless as they discover that emotional turbulence cannot be suppressed through shopping, which is ironically referred to as retail therapy. They might have a lot of money but they do not feel a sense of abundance. That feeling cannot be found on a shelf in the supermarket or in the cart of an online store. It can only come from within.

Writer, educator and researcher

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