Money

The Values of a Dollar: A Lifetime of Saving and Giving

A look at our very personal relationships with money

Laura Laing, 45, is a Baltimore-based author and math expert. Despite always making a healthy income, Laing has lived a thrifty life devoted to budgeting and giving back. Laing, the author of "Math for Grownups," shares with Emma Johnson her early experiences that shaped her personal finance philosophies — and how she and her wife pass those on to their tween daughter.

My whole life, I have had more money than people around me. But I also live very frugally and believe in giving back to those around me. Philanthropy is a really big deal to my family.

I grew up in a poor community in Appalachia. My mom was a school teacher and my dad was an administrator at the community college. By most U.S. standards, our income placed us solidly in the middle class. But in my small town, we definitely had more money than most.

We belonged to a church and I was expected to tithe from a very young age. Ours was a small and modest church, but the message was: You belong to a community, so you support that community and 10 percent is not very much to give for all you get. I grew up seeing families in need helped by our church. This message also came from my parents. One Sunday, as we left church, we passed a Hispanic family crammed in a truck, and the father was trying in vain to start it. Some of the kids spoke English, but the parents didn’t. That night, the family slept at our house and on Monday morning, my father took them to the mechanic. To this day, I don’t know how much money my father gave them, but I know he helped them out. And this was just a normal thing that happened.

Even though we had plenty of money, my parents were extremely humble. My dad looooved his budget. He would refer to it when I wanted a car in high school or other extras. Whenever my mom got a raise, they would put the new earnings in savings, so we only lived on my father’s salary plus the $30,000 salary my mom earned in the mid-1970s. The same frugality applied to us kids. Every fall, my sister and I each got $100 for new school clothes. We’d drive to the T.J. Maxx in the next town. It became a fun challenge to see how many sweaters I could get for that sum.

That said, the class issues did come into play. My sister and I had a neighborhood friend who we hung out with all the time — kindergarten all through high school. We’d spend time at each other’s homes and walking through the stores downtown. At the time, the difference between our enormous house and her family’s extremely humble three-room apartment was striking to me. In most ways, that disparity did not matter — yet we never, ever hung out at school. I made friends with the kids who also had professional parents, while she hung out with the kids whose parents had jobs at places like Arby’s, which is where her mom worked. I still feel terrible about that.

I met my wife when we were 19 years old in college. Her dad was a colonel in the Army and her mom was wildly successful saleswoman for American Greetings. Her family seemed extremely wealthy to me. Her parents did things like buy new cars for their children and new homes in subdivisions — whereas my parents bought an old house and spent decades fixing it up.

I chose a career in teaching, in part because I knew there was good job security and retirement benefits. When Gina and I graduated, we were making less than $50,000 total, but our expenses were so low — we each had great benefits with our jobs (she was career Army at the time), and I insisted on living in a roach-infested apartment. I just couldn’t bring myself to spend a lot of money on rent. We had more money than we knew what to do with.

Even when Gina was stationed in Somalia and earned extra “danger pay,” we took a note from my parents’ frugal ways and socked that extra check away. Even though we could afford to buy a house, we just kept on saving. It was a revelation that we could buy luxuries. One day, on my commute to work, I got a speeding ticket. I was so mad all day I decided to treat myself to a restaurant meal — including a glass of wine! That was a huge splurge.

We’ve been together 27 years now and our similar sense of money is one of the main things we share. Our daughter is 13, and she is a complete and utter miser. She gets an allowance of $10 every two weeks and is required to pay a $1 tax towards the family fund, which is for general household and food expenses. The remaining $9 must be divided between charity, long-term savings and short-term spending — on whatever she wants. She is by nature very risk-adverse, so spending at all is very difficult for her. Five years ago, she asked Santa for a safe — she has several thousands of dollars in cash saved from allowance and babysitting.

Philanthropy is a big deal for our family. We give a set amount each month to our church, the Human Rights Campaign, public radio and each Christmas, we adopt a family at a local woman’s shelter where we provide gifts and clothes. We also give to local charities and make an annual donation to a scholarship fund at the community college where my father worked.

Gina is the primary breadwinner in our family and owns a small business. I'm a freelance writer. She recently bought a new company, so her income was down significantly; mine has dropped a bit this year, too. That said, our income is certainly in the upper-middle class and we live in a large house. But when our income dropped, we sat down and figured out ways to cut expenses: we dropped cable, stopped eating at restaurants as often and cook primarily vegetarian. Gina makes coffee in her office, instead of buying lattes at the café.

These are small changes that add up — but more than that, they are a mindset. When you are in a certain income bracket, mindless spending can be so easy. But I’m grateful for my upbringing, where money was so easily talked about and we learned to appreciate what we have.

Emma Johnson blogs at WealthySingleMommy. She is a freelance business and personal finance journalist and mom of two. Send her your questions at emma@emma-johnson.net.