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Saturday, 11 September 2010

Can Frugality Be Learned?

This topic can be rephrased as, "Can someone learn to be frugal?" I feel that a spending-centric lifestyle, in which a person derives happiness from spending, is simply not sustainable. Feel unhappy? Spend a little. Feel depressed? Spend, spend. Are you anxious? Spend, spend, spend. Eventually, when your funds run a little low, you'll feel more depressed. The solution? Spend, spend, spend! If this is your mindset, you seriously need to change it. Spending means that you will obtain a new "thing", and achieve momentary satisfaction. But sooner or later, you'll need another "fix", and just like a drug addict, when funds run low.... this practice will become unsustainable.

I would like to recall the example of a spoilt child. If your child is crying, you may choose to give him a sweet. This accomplishes two things: (1) The child gets something in her mouth, so that he quietens down for a while, and (2) The child is momentarily satisfied, and stops crying. The problem is, the child may grow to like getting sweets from you. After a while the child figures out that by crying, he gets sweets. This forms a link in his simple mind: Crying gets me a sweet. As a result, he will cry more, and expect you to give him more and more sweets. How long can you sustain this practice?

I think that I was one of those people who subscribed to this practice, and I was warned of the dangers that it would pose. Put simply, I had tried to appease my girlfriend's desires by giving in to them. Whenever she had some comparison to make, I tried to close the gap by finding a similar substitute, which would (whenever possible) be a cheaper but viable substitute or alternative. Sometimes, when I missed some big event, I tried to keep her happy, by giving her what I thought would make her happy: holidays, trips, and such things. In fact she will be going to Taiwan this November with her friends for eleven (11) fourteen (14) days. I will do my best to sponsor her expenses for the Taiwan holiday but I cannot join, because it will be a heavy strain on my financial resources. In addition disappearing from the workplace for eleven days is simply not an option for me.

I fear that this has become an unbreakable pattern that she has come to expect. Realistically, or unrealistically, I have come to project that I will accomodate her demands for a travelling lifestyle. I have tried to make things work, by proposing to her that we should look into business opportunities where we can "link up" with foreign service providers, or provide cross-border co-operation. With my background and training, I can offer advice to people from other countries about the Malaysian legal and political framework. With my friends, I can offer business advice for foreign businessmen who are keen to set up shop in Malaysia. Through some real estate agents, I can become an intermediary for people who want to sell their real estate to foreigners. (Or, put the other way, an intermediary for foreigners who want to invest in Malaysian real estate.) When we can do this, we can go visiting, travelling, countless times. Work will take care of the expenses. But for her this proposal was not feasible. It would, if I recall her words correctly, "defeat the entire purpose of going for holiday". I could not agree; how can spending time on something productive defeat the purpose of going for holiday? When there is co-operation with overseas organizations, we can very easily build friendships and bridges; life becomes more enjoyable as a result.

I haven't given up hope just yet, despite her recent blog piece about getting bored with this relationship. I hope that frugality, or some form of it, can be taught. Is it possible to learn how to become a frugal person? I should think so! We are supposedly in the midst of a recession; how is it that during this recession, people can harbour and entertain thoughts of spending, spending, and spending? Perhaps it is due to an unimaginative mind that they are only able to find enjoyment in activities that require the splurging of huge sums of money. I think that the low-maintenance girlfriend is a myth or an unreachable ideal. The low-maintenance girlfriend is probably someone who has her finances in order and does not ventilate when the busy boyfriend is working his ass off to secure their happy-ever-after future together. On the other hand, the nagging queen bee is an everyman's nightmare, who keeps whining and repeating about how "Mrs This" and "Miss That" have got it all, thanks to their ever-generous husband/boyfriend/fiancee. The low-maintenance girlfriend will help her husband conserve his resources, and will do her best to assist in growing their joint assets.

Growing up, I attended both a Baptist church and  a Methodist church at different stages of my teens. As I entered university, I became involved in the music ministry of the Roman Catholic church. And then one day, all of a sudden, while in university, all of that just stopped. I was thrown into university with about RM450 per month, which was to pay for my petrol and my food, and my books as well. It was a tough time. But thank god that I managed to get through university. Later, my allowance was increased, to about RM600 per month. Life was tough and I lived it as pared-down as possible. The library was a favourite haunt of mine, as like-minded individuals frequently hung around the centre of knowledge. It was a great place to mix with your classmates that you never spoke to in class.

In my time at church, I was often reminded of the book of Proverbs, especially the last chapter. For the uninitiated, allow me to inform you that Proverbs chapter 31, verses 10 to 31, are the good advice given by a mother to her son about the desirable qualities of a wife. They are from a different place and time, and given in a different language, yet the wonders of the Gutenberg press and the Rosetta stone have made it possible for us to appreciate this centuries-old advice. Here they are, enclosed below, extracted from the version known as "The Message" (a more contemporary rendering of the New International Version).

 10-31 A good woman is hard to find,
   and worth far more than diamonds.
Her husband trusts her without reserve,
   and never has reason to regret it.
Never spiteful, she treats him generously
   all her life long.
She shops around for the best yarns and cottons,
   and enjoys knitting and sewing.
She's like a trading ship that sails to faraway places
   and brings back exotic surprises.
She's up before dawn, preparing breakfast
   for her family and organizing her day.
She looks over a field and buys it,
   then, with money she's put aside, plants a garden.
First thing in the morning, she dresses for work,
   rolls up her sleeves, eager to get started.
She senses the worth of her work,
   is in no hurry to call it quits for the day.
She's skilled in the crafts of home and hearth,
   diligent in homemaking.
She's quick to assist anyone in need,
   reaches out to help the poor.
She doesn't worry about her family when it snows;
   their winter clothes are all mended and ready to wear.
She makes her own clothing,
   and dresses in colorful linens and silks.
Her husband is greatly respected
   when he deliberates with the city fathers.
She designs gowns and sells them,
   brings the sweaters she knits to the dress shops.
Her clothes are well-made and elegant,
   and she always faces tomorrow with a smile.
When she speaks she has something worthwhile to say,
   and she always says it kindly.
She keeps an eye on everyone in her household,
   and keeps them all busy and productive.
Her children respect and bless her;
   her husband joins in with words of praise:
"Many women have done wonderful things,
   but you've outclassed them all!"
Charm can mislead and beauty soon fades.
   The woman to be admired and praised
   is the woman who lives in the Fear-of-God.
Give her everything she deserves!
   Festoon her life with praises! (Proverbs 31:10-31, The Message)

The good woman knows the value of work; and she will not be quick to simply spend her husband's money. Is this not the best way to conserve and grow our wealth? The road is clear for me, we must learn how to be frugal. This may not be immediately apparent from the passage cited above, and admittedly the word "frugal" appears nowhere in the passage! Let us enumerate some of the virtues of the "good wife", from the passage:

a -Can be trusted
b - Never spiteful
c - Generous to husband
d - Shops for clothes-making supplies
e - Makes and repairs clothes
f - Wakes up early
g - Cooks for household
h - Organized
i - Invests in real estate
j - Knows gardening
k - Eager to work
l - Understands worth of her work
m - Not quick to call it quits
n - Home maker with home making skills
o - Generous to help the poor
p - Mends clothes
q - Makes own clothing
r - Sells own clothing
s - Positive about the future
t - Makes sense when she talks
u - Polite
v - Watchful over household affairs.

The last few phrases in the passage are a gentle reminder for all those who would soon be married: Charm can mislead, and beauty soon fades. For me, a woman should respect her parents-in-law. She may speak the nicest words and smile the nicest smile, but if her heart is not sincere, then she is a danger for her husband and his family. They should distance themselves from such a woman as soon as possible!

In this day and age, it is not easy to find such a wife as spoken about in the passage of the Bible. How many girls living in the city can cook? Most of them would rather eat out. I suppose it would be highly unrealistic, or overly optimistic, depending on how you look at it, to expect your spouse to know how to cook. But on the whole the words in the passage ring true for me; I would like to live with a woman that I can trust wholeheartedly.

I know too, that my spouse-to-be does not fit into the description of the "good wife" above. I do not know what she will say if I were to raise it with her; perhaps she would be outraged that I would even venture to think that she is the anti-thesis of all these qualities! On the other hand she may take it in her stride and laugh it off -- if only, she were that kind! For now, my best hope is that she learn the basics of frugality. She may be imperfect (in her hot-tempered persona, and her constant yearning for the pleasures of life) but frugal habits can still be learned. Even the most tempestuous personalities can learn to be frugal (if they so desire). I think that a parallel must be drawn with times of war, when resources are scarce and money must be conserved to the utmost. When you are young and penniless (or burdened, as it were, with many obligations and instalments) then the only way is to become a guerilla of frugalism!