ONCE UPON A TIME, I thought it was a little unseemly to pay a lot of attention to costs. My father grew up in a farm family with little money. He was the first to attend college and, indeed, went on to law school from there. He did well in his profession and, when I was growing up, we lived a comfortable—though far from luxurious—life.
Maybe because he’d spent his youth worried about money, my father didn’t want to be preoccupied with it after he established himself. One result: Being cost conscious wasn’t instilled in me at an early age. When I finished school and established myself in my own profession, I was pretty oblivious to costs.
As a carefree young bachelor, I thought nothing of buying suits costing several hundred dollars—a lot of money in the 1980s. Restaurants and nightclubs were a regular indulgence.
But my outlook undertook a dramatic change in 1987 when I met a beautiful young woman, with two equally beautiful young daughters, and ultimately convinced them to marry me. We wasted no time and soon had two more kids. I’d gone from carefree bachelor to father of four in a couple of years.
As I began to read up on the projected cost of college for our little tribe, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I needed to change my thinking and fast. I soon became a dedicated cheapskate, studying the long-term effects of saving vs. spending and starting us on a path—I hoped—to getting four kids through college. The guy who would pay hundreds for a Hickey Freeman suit started clipping grocery store coupons.
More important than these new frugal habits was the underlying change in my mindset. Perhaps still nagged by the feeling that there was something a little vulgar about prioritizing costs, I decided the best approach was to meet this attitude head on and embrace its opposite. I realized that there was no virtue in being a spendthrift, and instead I would take pride in being a budget hawk and driving a hard bargain in all my financial endeavors.
Around this same time, I assumed sole responsibility for managing our investments. I wasted no time in starting college accounts for those four costly educations we were anticipating. In the course of educating myself on finances, I learned the crucial importance of saving and investing in a disciplined manner over a long period of time.
I realized that spending was, of course, just the flipside of saving. I tried to ingrain in myself the habit of getting the most bang for the buck with our expenditures, so that the beneficial effect on our finances would compound over time, just as it did with our investments. It’s a philosophy that has served our family well over the years, although—when I looked over my shoulder—I’d often catch a few eye rolls from other members of the tribe.
It’s funny how the progression of generations works. Just as I eventually adopted an attitude quite different from that of my parents, our four children have learned one of the true benefits of adulthood: You get to do things differently than your parents. Our kids place more value on present gratification and don’t deny so much to themselves or their kids.
But they all work hard and make good salaries, have fewer kids—or none at all—and are probably in a better position to spend than we were. Still, I hope they understand the fundamental lesson of compounding: that any extra they manage to save and invest now, while they’re young, is actually much more important than what they put away once they’ve attained the sober outlook of middle age.
In any event, our kids all enjoy a good giggle about old Dad and his skinflint ways, even while acknowledging that it was nice to graduate from college without a penny of debt. What about the grandkids? It’ll be interesting to see what financial philosophy they end up with.
Andrew Forsythe retired in 2017 after almost four decades of practicing criminal law, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. Along with his wonderful wife, kids and grandkids, he loves dogs and collecting pocketknives. His previous articles were Slim Pickings, The Path Not Taken and Saved by a Crash.