Saying "No" Like Grandma: Living Within Your Means


We're an entitled generation.

Everyone is supposed to have their own car at sixteen. Everyone is supposed to go to college. Everyone is supposed to find love and a sparkly ring. Everyone is supposed to have an expensive, Pinterest-worthy wedding and reception.

We focus on attaining impressive-sounding careers. Pretty new clothes each season. Big houses. Mani/pedis. New cars. Disney vacations.

This equates the modern American dream. This is the new standard. We say we deserve these things; they're normal and expected. Not having them, we say, is deprivation.

But that's not really true.

Consider how your grandparents or, quite likely even your own parents, lived only a few short decades ago. Both of my parents grew up in rural Alabama on very meager incomes. Both my mom and my dad had only one working parent; both of my grandmothers were in charge of running their households and caring for their children.

My mom's clothes were mostly handsewn by her mom. She's told me many times (and I do mean many, many times) that when my grandmother was a girl, she owned two dresses. A yellow dress and a blue dress. That was it. And that was pretty standard for her time.

My grandparents didn't go to college. In fact, it was a pretty huge deal when my dad, one of four boys, decided to attend Auburn University in the 1970's. He was the only one out of the four who had this dream, and he worked multiple jobs and saved up cash to put himself through school, because that's what you did if you were one of the rare people who would go on to obtain higher education. Likewise, in 1976, when my mom enrolled in Jacksonville State University to become a registered nurse, she was the first in her family to attend college. Her education was funded by Pell Grants and her own cash savings from work.

When my parents were married in 1980, they had a simple church wedding. My mom borrowed her dress and veil from one of her best friends. Her co-workers and church friends provided the food at her reception- cake, mixed nuts, and pastel butter mints. Neither sets of my grandparents had formal weddings; there aren't even photos from my dad's parents' nuptials.

Maternal grandparents' wedding day, 1930's; Parents wedding day, 1980

My parents drove paid-for cars until they fell apart (my mom loves to tell stories about her pitiful old Ford Pinto). They paid cash for everything and didn't even have credit cards until the late 1990's.

Okay. Back to 2017.

Everyone goes to college. Next to no one can afford it. Hence, student loans.

Everyone has extravagant barn weddings in dresses that cost hundreds (maybe even thousands) of dollars, with lavish, fully catered, multi-course receptions. These events cost more than most brides and grooms make in a year, so obviously, they can't afford them. Hello, credit cards.

Everyone drives the newest, safest, most reliable cars they can convince the financiers they can afford. But again, a brand new car, even a smaller or more economical model, typically costs more than most young people's yearly take home pay. Enter car loans. And leases.

Everyone feels pressured to keep up with the constantly changing fashion trends. I mean, the fashion industry used to have two seasons; now it has 52. To keep up, you're supposed to update your wardrobe weekly. No millenial can afford this ridiculousness. Thank goodness Forever 21 offers their own credit card.

What. The. Heck. Happened. To. America??? None of my grandparents are around to witness our current consumerism, but I believe they would be upset by it. They would likely be sickened by the way we younguns proclaim our own entitlement when it comes to these things.

Because we're not actually entitled to any of this stuff. Shiny new cars, college degrees, fancy weddings, the latest fashions...these are luxuriesAnd for almost all of us, these luxuries are entirely unattainable without a little something called DEBT.

It makes me wonder. What if we completely removed credit as an option? How different would our lives be if we lived according to our actual income, if we truly lived within our means, just like our parents and grandparents did?

Forget that "everyone else" has a new car. Forget about leasing and loan options. Look at your check stubs. Look at your bank account. Now. If that's all you have to go on, what kind of car can you afford? 

I bet the answer is pretty painful. It sure is for me. But that's what it means to live within your means.

It sounds so weird, doesn't it? So abnormal. But it's just common sense, the common sense our predecessors lived by: if you can't afford something, you go without it. Plain and simple.

If you want to buy something you can't afford, you work more and you save up until you can afford that thing. It's not that hard. Really, it's not.

It just seems that way to an entitled generation that isn't used to hearing "no."

For goodness' sake, let's have some self-control. Let's tell ourselves "no" when the credit card companies say "yes." And when everyone else is saying "yes", ignore them. Stop comparing your life to other people on social media. It's hard to say "no" when it seems that all your Facebook friends are livin' large, when they're blowing up your feed boasting about their new #blessings. Unfollow people that spark jealousy. Comparison will only create problems.

If you want to compare yourself to someone, try the rest of the world. 50% of the world's population lives on $2.50/day. 22% live on just $1.25/day.  According to Forbes, "a typical person in the bottom 5% of the American income distribution is still richer than 68% of the world's inhabitants." With those statistics, I'd say we're all doing pretty darn fine in the United States.

Truly, this seems like more of a moral issue than a financial issue. Our rampant consumerism and reckless debt-piling, all the while complaining about our lot in life, is downright disturbing and wrong in the global context. Continually saying "yes" to things we don't even need that we can't actually pay for with cash? This is ludicrous. It's sickening. And it must end.

We must learn to say "no", we must learn to live within our means, just like our grandmothers once did.

3 comments

Jessica A. Walsh said...

I hear ya! I keep trying to live within my means and it's not easy since credit is so readily available. But I definitely feel like an outcast, like I'm the only one in my immediate circle who even thinks about money and debt and finances in this way.

Lacey said...

Totally agree! I recently read an article about how "poor" American's still live better than the majority of the rest of the world. It's completely ridiculous how blind we are to the sustainability issues our country is contributing to.

Heather Erickson said...

This is so right on. The only way to be debt free is to live with your means. Don't buy it unless you have the money and you need it. When our 18-year-old was choosing a college we looked at the bottom line. What would this mean for her debt when she graduated and the interest began adding up? It turned out that a private university gave her a scholarship that meant almost no debt. She lives at home and commutes on the bus. Her commute takes up 3 hours/day, but she's living rent free. It's all of these things that add up.