Hubris

Wearing the Condom of Financial Responsibility: Thrift

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“Shortly after my first book was published, I received a small royalty check and promptly squandered it on some books that were available at the local libraries. Said my frugal wife, ‘Skip, if you continue to spend like that, we will never land on a green twig.’ Forty years later, retired on a fixed income, I find myself with one foot on a green twig, the other on a brown one, but all in all, the beneficiary of German financial wisdom.”—Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Dr. Skip Eisiminger

“Jesus,” by James Charles. (Image by James Charles, via deMilked.com).
“Jesus,” by James Charles. (Image: James Charles/Via deMilked.com.)

I “Thrift’s a virtue/I admired in our folks—/fancy we came of age/and found ourselves broke.”—The Wordspinner

Sterling (Skip) Eisiminger

CLEMSON, South Carolina—(Hubris)—January 2024—Several months after Eckehard’s wife died, Ecki, who, let’s say, lived well within his means, settled on a supper party at his sister’s urging to thank the local German-American community who’d brought food and flowers to the house for weeks.

The day before the party, Ecki phoned Frieda, whose husband managed one of Eckehard’s hosiery mills, and asked if she’d drive to Anderson (about 30 miles round trip), buy some frozen raspberry squares at Sam’s Discount Grocery Club, and bring them with her on Friday evening. This was not an idle question, for Ecki had long read the menu from right to left.

When Frieda arrived, Ecki asked for the receipt, then counted out $10.99 (though he had another bill) with three quarters, two dimes, and four pennies secured from a “purse big as a bear’s scrotum,” as they say out West, “but harder to pinch.” With no mention of her gas, oil, and time, he set the squares unwrapped beside a pile of paper napkins.

After the party, to which several had quietly brought home-made desserts, Ecki noticed that no one had slit the cellophane wrap on the squares, so he motioned for Frieda to follow him to the kitchen. “Hosting,” he said, “is such a thankless chore. Would you return these to Sam’s and give me my money back?”

But Frieda was ready. “Stick them up . . . in your freezer, Eckehard: they’ll keep just fine.”

“Jimi Hendrix,” by James Charles. (Image by James Charles, via deMilked.com).
“Jimi Hendrix,” by James Charles. (Image: James Charles/Via deMilked.com.)

II “A penny saved is 2.5 grams of zinc alloy.”—Anonymous

Our middle-class mother attempted to teach her three children financial prudence via “careful budgeting”; today, I recognize it as “niggard restraint.” The earliest example I can recall involved Kem, my younger sister, who wanted to write some thank-you notes to the people who’d come to her birthday party. Though it wasn’t at home, Kem had learned that acknowledging a gift or favor was the polite thing to do. But when Kem went to the stamp and stationery drawer, Mother, who was sitting at the desk, slammed it shut, and said, “Those stamps cost me a nickel each! I can’t go to the post office every day!”

Thirty years later, on a visit to my parents’ mountain cabin, I was reminded of that ugly refrain when my wife Ingrid said to Mother, who was eating some yogurt, “Mmm, that looks good, may I have some?”

Snapped Mother, “I can’t go to the grocery every day, you know,” a reply that instantly congealed the stereotype of a mother-in-law in Ingrid’s brain. To his credit, my father, who’d overheard this, went quietly to the refrigerator, and gave the mother of his two grandchildren a 75-cent, six-ounce container of yogurt.

Mother and Dad both grew up during the Great Depression, but so did many others who were not emotionally abridged the way my mother was. The first paying job I had was mowing a widow’s lawn with a push mower. I’ve forgotten how much she paid me, but Mother soon urged me to invest in a United States Treasury Defense Bond. As soon as I had a few quarters saved, she told me I could ride my bike to the post office and buy the equivalent number of $0.25 stamps. When I had something over $18 pasted in my savings book, she told me that, thanks to the government, it would one day be worth $25. I thought this was terrific until I learned that her “one day” was ten years. I lost the only bond I ever purchased when we moved, but to this day, when I spend money, not save it, my consumer confidence rises.

When my grandfather died, he left Mother about $10,000 at a time when Kem, her recently divorced and unemployed daughter, had no health insurance. Faced with the decision of what to do with this windfall, Mother bought herself some over-priced jewelry.

“Frida Kahlo,” by James Charles. (Image by James Charles, via deMilked.com).
“Frida Kahlo,” by James Charles. (Image: James Charles/Via deMilked.com.)

III “A penny saved is one-tenth a stick of gum.”—The Wordspinner

Ingrid grew up with her own set of thrift influencers. In 1921, her grandparents were often paid twice a day, so they could afford to buy a loaf of Pumpernickel on their lunch break before hyper-inflation made it unaffordable at quitting time. In 1923, Ingrid’s mother was sent to buy bread with a laundry basket full of million-mark bank notes, two of which she saved and gave me. And during World War Two, going and coming around her village, Ingrid collected cigarette butts for her grandfather and father to repurpose, using onion-skin pages torn from the illustrated novels of Karl May.

Schooled by the war’s deprivations, my mother-in-law had her 20-year-old umbrella recovered, and my wife to this day turns the water on briefly to soap her hands and then quickly turns it off as she works the lather in and quickly rinses. But thanks to her parsimony, she paid off our 30-year home loan in 25 years, saving us $20,000, and she has never paid the interest on any of our credit cards.

Shortly after my first book was published, I received a small royalty check and promptly squandered it on some books that were available at the local libraries. Said my frugal wife, “Skip, if you continue to spend like that, we will never land on a green twig.” Forty years later, retired on a fixed income, I find myself with one foot on a green twig, the other on a brown one, but all in all, the beneficiary of German financial wisdom.

“Princess Leia,” by James Charles. (Image by James Charles, via deMilked.com).
“Princess Leia,” by James Charles. (Image: James Charles/Via deMilked.com.)

IV “In 1995, Clemson University issued free ‘credit-card condoms’ to every student ‘for safer spending.’”—The Wordspinner

Some falcons are known to stun their prey, clip their flight feathers, and wedge the living animal into a rocky crevice for later dining. Hamsters, squirrels, rooks, and the western scrub jay all have developed a talent for curbing their appetites. Biologists call this hoarding; I call it prudence.

Taking a cue from nature and the hard lessons learned from privation, every culture has a storehouse of prudential wisdom. Here are a few examples:

  • “Use it up, wear it out, or do without.” This was the Roosevelt administration’s advice to Americans during World War Two.
  • “Study and work hard” is what much economic theory boils down to according to Clemson economist Dr. Bruce Yandle, who preached this scripture to his students for 40 years.
  • One piggybank I recall seeing had four slots marked, “Spend, Save, Donate, Invest.” How the young owners divided their spoils was smartly left up to them.
  • “Stay small, nimble, and solvent,” said billionaire Warren Buffet.
  • “If outgo exceeds your income, your upkeep will be your downfall” comes from that prolific author, Anonymous.
  • If you’re not a high-school STEM student, take Business Math instead of Algebra II if the authorities allow it. SE
  • “To thrive, practice thrift.” SE

My ideal is my paternal grandfather who in about 1920 spent a month’s salary on a pearl-handled, stainless-steel straight razor and strop. When I questioned him about his extravagance, he asked me how much I’d spent on disposable razors. The estimated amount was over $1,000, and that was 30 years ago.

Financial cynics warn that two can live as cheaply as one for half as long, but in our six decades of marriage, Ingrid and I have found that a prudent couple can live as cheaply as one for twice as long.

“Albert Einstein,” by James Charles. (Image by James Charles, via deMilked.com).
“Albert Einstein,” by James Charles. (Image: James Charles/Via deMilked.com.)

V In 2023, the American personal-savings rate is a meager 3.9 percent. Historically, it’s been closer to 9 percent.—Various sources

Prudence run amuck is greed, and I think I’ve found a non-scientific way to spot the tipping point. Play a few games of poker with some novices using chips of nominal value, and the conversation is usually casual and playful. But introduce some filthy lucre and watch the knuckles turn white as the pot grows and losses mount. It’s only natural that as humans strive to save themselves, they strive to save their savings.

It’s often been noted that on a per capita basis the poor give more of their treasure and time than the rich. It’s a paradox I don’t fully understand, but many doctors I’ve observed with six- or seven-figure incomes have some of our planet’s tightest fists. Our former general practitioner turned off the hot water in the patients’ bathroom to save a few simoleons and millions of germ cells who tolerate cold water. Another charged us $50 to transfer my wife’s 20-page file from his office to the hospital which was only half a mile away. And a doctor in Egypt, who was treating an American friend’s asthma, gave himself an injection of her costly medicine, which could not be stored, because he could not bear to throw the remainder away. He was gravely ill for several days.

One problem with accumulating wealth is hiding the hoard. My Uncle Ted, whose estate was worth a rumored $50 million, is a case in point. When on the job, Ted usually wore long-sleeved shirts or a sports coat because he feared he’d be mugged if he wore his $10,000 Rolex on his wrist. His solution was to wear a $30 Timex on his wrist and his Rolex above the elbow. As far as I know, he was never mugged, but he was often late to his business meetings because his Timex was not the chronometer his Rolex was.

Each must locate the point on the spend-or-save scale where he or she is most comfortable. At one end of the scale for me is a colleague who earned about $800 a week as an Educational Testing Service, Advanced Placement reader. The trouble was, he spent every dollar he earned before he left Princeton by eating his meals in his hotel room instead of the dining room. At the other extreme is Eckehard, the “raspberry square” of my opening paragraphs. Between the prodigal and the tight-fisted lies the answer.

Editor’s Note: The illustrations for this essay derive from the work of James Charles, a “portfolio” of whose work appears here on Trendline.com: “Artist James Charles has been engrossed in an interesting new project; small in scale . . . but large in depth. He began drawing on dollar bills, for the sake of his own amusement; crudely altering the presidents’ faces to become monsters, celebrities, etc. After accidentally spending a few of his early pieces, James decided to stop carrying them in his wallet, and started putting them inside a magazine for safe-keeping. The magazine folder eventually became a large scrapbook, showcasing bills of all denominations. He found ink and materials to match perfectly what the US Mint uses on the banknotes and began to experiment with ways to alter the font and script along the bottom of the bills. It became the perfect way for James to inject an additional layer of wit. . . . . Altering currency in this way also poses questions regarding the true value of paper bills, something made with seemingly insignificant materialsthat somehow fuels our country’s ever-shifting economy, and ultimately impacts living conditions around the globe. James has put a wrench in the recirculation process by claiming his role as an artist, and declaring these specific bills are not currency, but art objects.” For more of James’s iconic banknote art, see “American Iconomics: US Dollars Turned Into Portraits Of American Icons” here on deMilked.com.

To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.

Skip Eisiminger's Letters to the Grandchildren

Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)

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