My wife’s a real dream when it comes to giving our money away, and she gives a lot.
Through the early years of our marriage, I used to pay all the bills for the house. At the end of every month, I listed the bills on the back of an envelope and put the totals of the cost of those bills in a column next to them. Then, I wrote the checks to mail them and put the receipts in the envelope. At the end of paying bills, I would write a couple of checks to charities I favored.
At the time, Virginia’s spending upset me. I figured she had no idea how much money she was laying out every month for groceries, household necessities, and myriad other things she bought on whim. We had a couple of good rows about it. Finally, I thought I hit on a solution. Why don’t you pay bills for a few months so you can get acquainted with just how much money you’re are devoting to the purchase of food, clothing, and other items that we really don’t need?
At the time, she did a lot of shopping at Costco. She would go to the store and spend upwards of $200 every week, or so it seemed, for food that would only last us a couple of days. Add what I considered unneeded items—key racks, filing boxes, new pots and pans, etc.—I really thought she was putting us in an awkward situation.
We come from two different place when it comes to finances. Things for the house, high-end and bulk food, new items to replace those we have are important to her. I am less of a material guy. I shop at the Aldi and go to the grocery store to fill in produce. When I go to the store, we get ten or twelve days’ worth of food for just a fraction of the cost of the big-bulk items from the Costco. My attitude is that if it still works, we ought not by a new one. If putting on a sweater will work, why buy a space heater?
I admit to contradictory impulses. I am not a spendthrift and will give my money away to whomever asks. My donations of our money showed my generosity. But when it came to material goods, I see our retirement flying out the door. Less stuff, more money for when we don’t want to work anymore.
In other words, Virginia loves things. She likes to have a house well-stocked with blankets, afghans, furniture, lamps, and decorations. I would prefer an empty room with a simple stand for the television and a futon to sit on. My idea of a beautiful house borders on the Spartan. I could live in Philip Johnson’s Glass House, where Virginia would prefer the Biltmore mansion.
Costco’s gotcha. They sell large amounts of lots of stuff. When you get 48 rolls of toilet paper cheap, you have the feeling that you have all this toilet paper and it doesn’t cost much. You use it twice as fast, after all, there’s enough to go around and around. In the end, you spend as much on toilet paper at the Costco as you would buying it at the grocery store because your use of it justifies the amount. When you buy little bits, you use little bits. You are more economical. The illusion of Costco is that you’re saving money, but that is only the case if you are judicious and frugal. Buying at the grocery store just makes more sense if you’re looking to save money in the long term.
Like everyone else, we bought a Costco membership when the store opened up in Midtown. The lure of lower priced goods got us. But I noticed right away that our grocery bill climbed to what I thought was an outrageous amount after we started shopping at the Costco. I smelled the scheme right away. Buy two gallons of ice cream on the cheap and you eat ice cream like you have it on the cheap. Our midriffs were growing in proportion to the amount of shopping we did at Costco.
So, I devised a scheme. I compared shopping bills between the way I spent the money and how long it lasted us in the house and the way she bought groceries. The difference startled even me. But it wasn’t good enough for Virginia. She found all sorts of flaws in the comparisons. She justified Costco over Aldi and the grocery store.
I had to change my strategy. I thought since she didn’t know or understand how much she spent every month, I said to her after one of our scuff-ups that she should pay the bills and get a sense of how much money went out of the house. I showed her the way I did it.
She took over and never batted an eye. She didn’t modify the way she spent money or rethink her approach to material things. But I left the bills to her. Let her deal with the weight. I never asked her to see the credit card or utility bills. I thought, well, she’ll learn.
But she didn’t. She still pays the bills and hangs on to that responsibility jealously. I don’t worry about the retirement. I just accept, for the most part and almost always reluctantly, when new and seemingly unnecessary items come through the front door. Who needs a therapy light? What good is a new desktop organizer when the one we bought last year works just fine? What do we need with a five-pound jar of mixed nuts? We’ll just put them right on our thighs.
Then comes tax time, and that’s when I admire my wife most. We sit down across the table from one another with the envelopes that we’ve written down our expenditures on. We go through them together. She reads the charitable donations she made every month. The total for the year always surprises me. It’s almost always at least 15 percent of the gross. It’s never been less than ten percent. It’s much more than I would have given, since I’m so money conscious about retirement.
Last year, when we listed all the charitable donations, I started to cry. This woman, who drives me crazy with the stuff she brings home from the store, gives so much of our money away. It’s right. It makes me feel good to be married to such a generous woman.