Where Value Ends

James Kerr

I RECENTLY HAD a revelation about my adult children: When it comes to money, they’re a lot like me—and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

I had this revelation while dining with my 25-year-old son at a sports bar over the New Year’s holiday. The food was marginal—it was a sports bar, after all—but the plates came loaded with food. What’s more, the prices were quite reasonable, especially compared to those in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where Liam spends the bulk of his time these days. 

All of this made him quite happy. He has, he told me, three criteria for what constitutes value while eating out. The quantity of food comes first. Second is whether the cost is reasonable. The quality of the cuisine comes last on his list. 

In other words, he could get outstanding food, but it would fail his value test if he didn’t get enough of it. His meal would really be a loser, value wise, if that superb-but-stingy dish also cost too much.

Now, let it be said that Liam is currently a law student and has no money. It could be that his criteria will change when he’s a bigshot lawyer earning lots of money, and can afford the best chefs and restaurants in the land.

But I doubt financial success will change his mindset. Why? Because he’s my son, and his frugal, value-based way of looking at money happens to come from me.

I’ve always been conservative about finances. It’s something I learned early on from my thrifty parents, who never made much money but were somehow able to make ends meet for a hungry family of eight. 

Through my folks, I learned the importance of working hard, living simply and below your means, paying the bills on time, being exceedingly careful about debt, and socking away every dollar you can for a time when you might need it. While these time-honored principles will never land me on a list of the world’s richest people, I have been able to achieve a modicum of financial independence here in my early 60s.

All that’s good, I think. And I’m happy to say that my financial conservatism has been passed onto my three adult sons, who are quite responsible with their finances. 

But there’s a point where frugality and penny-pinching become excessive, and I fear I’ve spent too many years of my adult life in that realm. It’s the part of me that has hesitated to take a fancy vacation because it will set me back $5,000. Or passing on a chance to have a prime rib dinner at a three-star Michelin restaurant and opting instead for a BYOB hole-in-the-wall because it will save me a hundred bucks.

I know where our familial tendency toward excessive thriftiness comes from. Parsimony is in our blood, passed down over the generations through the Scottish lineage on my father’s side. We Kerrs do not like spending money, and we hate wasting it even more. Maximizing the value we get from our hard-earned dollars is all-important to a Scot, a mission to which we devote every ounce of our analytical minds.

I saw this with my father, who was forever bargaining with people while making purchases, as if all the world was an auction and he the sole bidder. He threw nothing away, no matter how old and obsolete it was, on the remote chance it could come in handy in the future. He was determined to squeeze every ounce of value from the things he paid for. I remember sitting in the car as he pumped gas and seeing him lift the hose at the end to get every last drop into the tank. 

I don’t go that far with my gas, and I’m also not a hoarder, preferring to keep my surroundings simple and free of clutter. Still, now that I’m older, I realize that for too many years I’ve focused too much on shaving costs and saving money over seeking experiences. 

I mean, what good is money if we don’t spend it on all the wonderful things this world has to offer? Life is short and a slavish pursuit of value can turn a pleasant walk down Easy Street into a bleak stop at the dollar store.

Alas, I’m seeing some of these same tendencies with my kids. I once witnessed another of my sons calculate the per-square-inch cost of various pizza options on the menu to figure out which offered the best value for money spent. I remember thinking at the time, “At what point does seeking value move from common sense to madness?

Like Scrooge after his nighttime visits by the ghosts, I’m determined to change my ways in whatever years I have left. I have a long “challenge list filled with both fun experiences and educational activities, and I’ve committed to pulling out my wallet to make those things come true. In March, for instance, I’m splurging on a two-bedroom beachfront condo in St. Pete Beach for Rachael and the kids, even though March is spring break time in Florida and ghastly expensive.

I’m also determined to use whatever resources I have to make a difference in the world through volunteer activities and charitable giving. I’ve joined the local Rotary Club and have dedicated to giving author proceeds from my recently published book to charity.

Hopefully, all of this will set a different example for my children and maybe even break the familial chain of Kerr parsimoniousness. It seems a father’s work is never done—even after the kids have flown the nest.

James Kerr led global communications, public relations and social media for a number of Fortune 500 technology firms before leaving the corporate world to pursue his passion for writing and storytelling. His debut book, “The Long Walk Home: How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life’s Purpose,” was published in 2022 by Blydyn Square Books. Jim blogs at Follow him on Twitter @JamesBKerr and check out his previous articles.

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