Stingy times

My mother was always stingy with herself. She grew up in the Depression and came from a large family. Her mother was a reserved, religious person, who although I didn’t know well, I am certain was stingy with herself too. My grandmother was almost 80 years older than me and lived in a phenomenally different time. Our lives would likely be unrecognizable to each other. But I totally see the continuity being passed down.

My mother generally took the crappiest thing for herself even when it wasn’t necessary. She cut corners that didn’t need to be cut. We were a smart-mouth bunch, and there were wise cracks amongst us siblings about hair shirts and ashes. As I grew up I came to challenge how my mother treated herself. I was kind of outspoken about it once I was in my late teens and early twenties.

One time several members of the family were enjoying a cook-out at my grown sister’s house. We were grilling steaks (we did that then). Once they were cooked, a platter of meat was set out. When I saw what my mother serve herself I intervened. She didn’t have to take, as I proclaimed loudly, “the smallest, ugliest piece of meat.” It was a line that went down in family lore. And I made sure my mother got a better piece.

I think about that from time to time. My mother served herself the smallest, ugliest piece of meat BY ROTE when there was no need. I think about it because, of all her daughters, I believe I picked up this trait the most. My sisters self-indulged more than I did, at least in specific ways, if not across the board. Between my mother and the religion that was such a huge part of my childhood, I learned suffering and doing without – INDEPENDENT OF ANYTHING ELSE – was laudable and the way to go.

Even after childhood, and the sea changes I experienced in my teen years, I still had the vestiges of this trait. I accepted crap. From other people and in general. I retained this belief that you could have one nice thing (which you should never actually use) and the rest had to be crummy. I allowed other people to short-shrift me. I kept quiet. I was uncertain how to self-indulge and when I did felt uneasy about it anyway. What was okay? What did I deserve?

I want to make clear that I’m not talking about negative self-indulgence. A whole lot of what people do in the name of “treating themselves well” is actually counter-productive. It’s things that harm them, whether in the short run or the long run. A person can be self-generous by treating themselves to a box of donuts or a gambling spree or a big shopping trip or a fourth beer but these are all “empty calories” that have a price. (If I may, this is usually promoted as The American Version of “Treating Yourself.”)

For a long time I waited for somebody else to come along and treat me the way I (secretly) wanted to be treated. Someone to be generous with me. And some people were. I’m not talking here about spending money per se, but about having generosity of spirit. But that’s not enough. (And the people I’m referencing weren’t necessarily good for me on whole or for the long haul let’s say.) It can’t come from elsewhere and change how you see and treat yourself. (No different from when another person wants a loved one to lose weight or stop using drugs or quit drinking. It may have some effect but somebody else’s desire or intentions alone will not significantly change how a person sees themselves or their behavior long-terrm. To Wit: I may have influenced how my mother acted sometimes but I don’t believe for a minute I ever altered how she thought about herself.)

It’s really here in middle age that I’ve made strides in this area. It’s taken this f-ing long. Sigh. I am aware of a tendency to be stingy with myself and I talk myself through it often. I certainly don’t see value in suffering and doing without in and of themselves. I am well aware suffering and lousy times come to you – why create more of them for no purpose? I don’t solve world hunger if don’t eat well. Wars don’t end if I buy myself several pairs of shoes at a yardsale (my thriftiness is a source of pride not stinginess!). Terrible things don’t happen when I am nice to myself.

I get now, unlike how I was indoctrinated, that it’s not an either/or proposition. That is, I’ve needed to shake the false belief that if I am good to myself, that is somehow wrong and I am neglecting other people (or not acknowledging all those who do with less and without, if only by suffering alongside them). In fact, I truly believe now you can’t be generous with other people until you are generous first with yourself. Otherwise the well runs dry. It’s all connected. I’ll leave it at that.

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16 thoughts on “Stingy times

  1. Kate Crimmins

    Good post. My mother was a lot like that. I never had children so I didn’t have the trait to the same extent although I would consider myself thrifty or cost conscious. My splurges do not revolve around food (mostly). A body massage is one of the my favs but for some reason I ration that to twice a year.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks. You’re right, having a lot of children made my mother all the more that way, but I am certain even if she had less, it’d have still been there. I definitely picked up my cost conscious/thrifty self from my mother; my ideas about money are from the Great Depression! And I totally understand rationing the massages.

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  2. vanbytheriver

    Even though I was young when she passed, my grandmother, Depression/depression survivor (both types) influenced me in such a profound way. I’m proud of most of that. Like you, I have honored my thrifty nature, and the family has benefited from that. But, unlike my own mother, I never took the small/inferior piece of anything. ☺ I remember cooking with family, women who noted that we could serve the guys/kids first, but save some of the best stuff for last, for ourselves. And not just with food.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Oh, you come from different stock than I do! It is so hard to take the biggeest, best piece of anything for myself (unless there’s sheet cake involved; then I angle for a corner piece with the big sugar flower). And I didn’t get into here, but in my family, MEN came first, very traditional that way. If there was extras of anything they got them. I think I’d have rather been in your kitchen!!!

      p.s. I like the play on Depression/depression survivor.

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  3. battlewagon13

    I’m the same way. I think that’s probably why we both frequent thrift stores and eBay. It’s like we don’t really deserve to buy anything new or should leave that to others. I haven’t bought a brand new car in 30 years.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Exactly Tim. My mother got in my head but good. It is about worth and what you think you deserve. Even when circumstances change, the thinking doesn’t (not without a lot of work/effort). The only reason I own a nice bicycle is because I won it in a raffle. I would have never bought it. Just like you said, I would have thought it was for other people. My progress has been slow but I DO see it.

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  4. C.E.Robinson

    Colette, so glad I got to the end of your post and saw a change in your thinking! Yikes! Even though thriftiness is a good thing…be more generous with yourself. Yep, I go for the corner piece of sheet cake with the flower, too! 💛 Elizabeth

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I love my thriftiness, Elizabeth, and how much I can accomplish with a little, in no small part because I feel strongly about waste and consumption. So being more generous with myself is more a matter of how I treat myself. (Sheet cake rocks! But of course only once in a great while…)

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  5. edgar62

    My mother was very much the same, but then in the UK an entire generation were very similar – the Roaring 20s – the Crashes and the Great Depression – WW2 – Rationing until the mid 50s, – Korea – and, of course our lot – the Baby Boomers. The generation of our parents went through much that really determined who they were and their attitude to things. As an adult .I dearly loved my mother but at times she frustrated the heck out of me.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Haha! I wonder if you’ve ever seen the Albert Brooks/Debbie Reynolds film “Mother”?

      You’re right of course that my mother was like a lot of women of her generation. What’s different for me was the significant age gap between her and I, two generations. I do try to see my parents in context but the things they believed and taught their children didn’t fit the world we grew up in.

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