|Posted on December 3, 2011 at 2:00 PM|
Remember that old Aesop fable about the ants and the grasshopper? (Or, for you modern, hipper readers, the Pixar retelling, A Bug’s Life.) The ants, they’re a hard working bunch; they’re out all day in the fields, sweating or whatever it is that ants do under the hot sun, harvesting and gathering and storing up food and working and bragging about who got to service the Queen more and biting the heads off of non-tribe member ants. Then there’s the grasshopper. He likes to play. He frolics hither and yon and laughs at the working ants. He lies back in a hammock, fanning himself and sipping on juleps by a clear pond while mocking the ants because they’re too busy to even stop and enjoy some spiked Country Time lemonade.
It’s easy to of envy the grasshopper because his is a life of merry leisure and fun. Why work? Why worry? It’s summer, and we’re grasshoppers, baby!
But then the inevitable happens...winter comes.
The ants, they’re cool cause they’ve loaded up on food and they are finally getting to relax for a bit – except for those screw-ups that get stuck on sentry detail and the ones that have to endlessly “service” the Queen. But it’s food for all because the pantry is stocked and the guy in charge of rationing out portions is a right bastard. But there’s no food for fun grasshopper. He lays around blaming the system, saying how it’s all someone else’s fault, telling the ants how unfair it is that they have so much while he has nothing and waiting for someone to take care of him and lend him a hand. Grasshopper eventually grows weak and while he is still barely alive, he is eaten by the ants in a large celebration thrown for the Queen’s amusement. It’s really a touching story.
Hearing about the constant financial crisis going on around the world, I think the problem can be boiled down to one simple statement: We have society mainly filled with grasshoppers.
Instead of storing and gathering and saving for that long winter – or rainy day or whatever “times are tough” catchphrase you like – people prefer to be out playing and shopping and spending and occupying. There is this instant, must-have, I need/deserve/want/am-entitled-to mentality that makes many people think little further than the decision right in front of their face. We are a society of instant gratification, impulse spenders, with a buy-now, pay-later mentality.
Bad credit, no credit, no money down, no problem. No problem today maybe. Big problem tomorrow. And today IS tomorrow.
People have become conditioned to spending more than they make, financing fanciful, luxury purchases and then just pushing things out ahead to worry about them next month and just paying small amounts to further finance their instant gratification. Grasshoppers don’t think about the time when winter will come and the food will be gone -- or the mortgage or car pament can't be made -- because that is some point waaaaaay out in the distant future. Grasshoppers think about the new car, the bigger house, the nicer TV, the better vacation, the dinners out, the $5 daily coffees the spend on anything instead of save for something because those things are fun and those things are right now and those things make grasshoppers feel good.
If you had to stay up all night to wait in a line to get a TV on sale at Black Friday because that’s the only way you could get a TV -- and also all the room you had left on your credit card -- well chances are you PROBABLY shouldn’t have bought that TV.
One of the ultimate examples of grasshopper mentality is my sometimes customer, Mr. Cooper. (You remember Mr. Cooper; he’s the guy that likes to purchase $1000 power cables and $600 HDMI cables for his PlayStation3.) I got a call from him the other day. He wants *another* $1000 1meter power cable. He says it’s the last one he needs. This call came a month after I had already tried talking him out of buying the same cable. Now he *has* to have it to go to his brand new TV; the flagship, 65-inch Panasonic Plasma.
“You finally got a new TV?”
“Yeah. Them rental payments was killin’ me on the other one. I had to get over that thing.”
“I told you that you should have never rented a TV.”
“I know, Mr. John. But I needed a new TV. What was I supposed to do?”
“How’s the job situation?”
“Oh, not good. Ain’t no one hiring around here for what I do.”
“So, how are you getting by? You don’t have any job right now?”
“I gots the unemployment coming for a few more months.”
“And you just bought a 65-inch TV? And you want to spend $1000 on a power cable?”
“I need that cable. For my new TV.”
“Don’t you think that that $1000 could maybe come in a lot more handy, say, paying rent or buying groceries or, I don’t know, anything?”
“Probably, but, Mr. John, I needs that cable.”
Because the cable is grasshopper gratification today. Rent, food, gas, maybe some education for a new job…those things can be worried about later.
Thanks to my dad, I’m proud to be an ant.
Growing up, my dad had what some would call a hard-line approach to savings. (Others might call it fanatical or Scrooge McDuck. Tomayto, tomahto...) He took a definite “penny saved is a penny earned” and “the dollar you don’t spend today will be the dollar that you have to NOT spend tomorrow!” approach to money and savings. I can’t imagine a time when my dad would EVER have so much money that he wouldn’t stop and bend down to pick up a penny and then probably proclaim his find, right before sticking it away into his pocket with the other pennies.
He drilled savings into my head to the point that I still *seriously* contemplate practically every purchasing decision I make, no matter how small. And I mean down to, “Do I really want to spend $5 at Taco Bell or can I just skip lunch and make it to dinner?” (You can imagine how much Dana loves this and how often, "Can we buy this?" is met with a, "What? Are you serious? No. We don't need that." But, on the plus side, she doesn’t have to work, never has to worry about whether we can make a house or car payment, and I keep us in a steady supply of liquor and wine so there’s that.)
I can specifically remember a couple of times growing up where dad's, “Son, son, son…are you *really* sure that you want to spend your money on that?” bits of spending shame/guilt kept me from purchasing something that I really wanted. We’re talking stuff that happened like 30 years ago, so obviously it made some kind of financial burn scar deep into my brain pathways. One time was when a bunch of my cousins were going to chip in and rent a VCR and some movies. (Show of hands: How many people remember that you could actually rent VCRs at one point?) I think my portion was going to be like $7.50 or something. I didn’t chip in and I can’t remember if that either A) kyboshed the whole thing making me the group pariah or B) they ended up renting it without me and I just had to stay in another room while they enjoyed “whoever paid can watch” movie time. Another time I *really* wanted this tie at the Polo Ralph Lauren store in Carmel, California. It was dark purple with green stripes and was covered in Polo crests. I loved that tie and I totally wanted it. (I still kinda totally want that tie and have looked in Polo stores for years ever since with no luck.) It was like $60. My dad once again hit me with the, “Son! Sixty dollars for a tie?! That’s just crazy! Save your money! You’ll find something else you like better, and then you’ll have the money.”
While it often felt restricting at the time, I know now that what my dad was trying to do was instill in me a sense of value for money; for saving versus impulse spending and for being careful and really-really sure over what I spent my money on. Money is rarely easy-come and it should never be easy-go. A penny saved might not actually be a penny earned, but it IS a penny saved, and those pennies can eventually add up.
And it worked.
When it came time to buy a car, I had the money. When I wanted to outfit that car with a sick stereo system, I had the money. (I'm sure to the total and utter disappointment of my dad. “Son! The car already has a radio! Why do you need to put in ALL those extra speakers?!") And when I wanted to move out, get married, buy a house, have a baby, etc. I had the money.
My dad has definitely given me a REAL and STRONG sense of fiscal responsibility; I am now a terrific and chronic saver. My paychecks immediately and unfailingly go straight into the bank. I still have a $2 bill in my wallet that I found back in the early 80s. Though, in all honesty, at times I feel like the mental view of savings that my dad hammered into me is a pendulum that has swung a bit too far; it is now incredibly difficult for me to buy and enjoy purchasing things that I want and can even afford and I'm not nearly as generous as I could be.
I’m hoping that I can instill a more balanced sense of ant-like thinking into Lauryn; where she will be able to budget and save and make smart purchases, yet still be able to enjoy splurging and treating herself when she is able and be kind and generous a freely giving to others. However I can already see that being an ant is contrary to her nature; the instant she gets “a money” she is in a hurry to spend it on something, on *anything* (preferably something stuffed and cuddly).
Times are tough right now for a lot of people and I have been very fortunate in the way that things have worked out for me and my family. Some of it has been dumb chance, right place at right time kinds of stuff (thank you once again, Rob Sabin!) and some has been through actual smarts and hard work. But a lot has just been good decision making, or rather, avoiding DUMB decisions. And for that, I say, "Thanks, dad!" Being an ant has turned out to be a pretty good thing after all.