MONEY WAS ALWAYS tight when I was growing up. When my brother was age 10 and I was 12, my parents boosted our modest allowance. The difference almost doubled what we were getting—but there was a catch.
Our parents felt we drank too many sodas. It was the late ’80s, so I doubt the extra sugar was their concern. Rather, it was the extra items on the grocery receipts. We were inflating the family grocery bill with our beverage consumption. Our parents upped our allowance, with the understanding that we would be responsible for buying our own soft drinks. They would still provide us with 2% milk, generic juice concentrate, sweet tea and all the tap water we could drink. But if we wanted brand-name carbonated sugar water, we’d have to buy it ourselves.
I credit this scheme with teaching me the basics of budgeting.
I learned that you could get a two-liter soda bottle on sale for 99 cents. Not only did I get to pick my poison, but also one bottle could last me all week, so I could pocket the difference if I bought just one. I started paying attention to the newspaper circulars. A trip to the grocery story was suddenly a more interesting experience.
Sales were frequent but didn’t happen every week. I learned to put aside the cash and buy in bulk when the price was best. We lived in the Midwest, with plenty of space, so I could easily store the extra. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized that space costs money, but that’s another story.
I also discovered that sometimes cheap is no substitute. While a generic version was just fine in some cases—the aforementioned cylinder of orange juice, for example—I found that a generic cola just wouldn’t do. I liked Dr. Pepper and there wasn’t a satisfying store-brand alternative. Sometimes, I learned, it’s worth paying more for what makes you happy.
I didn’t yet know the terms “cost-benefit analysis” or “opportunity cost.” But within a few months, I realized I could live without my Dr. Pepper and my allowance could be used for other things—like the clothes I coveted as I entered my teens. I gave up sugary drinks, instead adopting a lifelong habit that has not only saved me money, but also made me healthier. I learned to like ice water.
Today, when I visit my parents, they always offer me a can of Dr. Pepper. Sometimes, I take one—and they don’t even charge me.
Tracy Bee is a higher education administrator in the Midwest. She’s an erstwhile freelance writer and a member of Gen X, with a lifelong interest in living a good life on a lean budget.