It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.
My father was always looking for his wallet, or worried he had lost it. Most times, he had given it to my mother to hold and had forgotten, or had left it in his car, or in a jacket pocket or so on. But it always turned up, and, really, I never remember my father ever actually losing his wallet.
Now, I have it. The last wallet he owned. It sits in my bedside cabinet. Because of his attachment to his wallet, and his angst whenever he didn’t know where it was, my family and I gave much consideration to burying it with him after his passing. But in the end, I think it was right for me to hold onto it. And I have a feeling my father would agree.
My father’s last wallet is not fancy, and it’s well worn. It holds some credit cards, several driver’s licenses (for some reason, he kept the ones that expired), a shellfish permit (from his native East Hampton) and a miniaturized prayer book dedicated to the Virgin Mary. There was also one dollar in the folded crease. I thought perhaps of buying a lottery ticket with it, that it might be a lucky bill, but it means more to me to keep, and so there it sits.
I was talking to my mother about this the other day, my father’s wallet, and she reminded me she bought him a new wallet about a year or so before he passed, much nicer than the one I have, but he didn’t want to change. That was typical of my father, and something I’ve written about before in this column. He was infinitely more comfortable with used items, be it clothing, or in this case, a wallet, than something new.
But this personality trait also showed up in other ways. For instance, he loved to drink wine, but he never fancied a fancy vintage. He favored box wine, if anything, and whenever he and my mother had guests or a party and someone gifted them with an expensive white or red or in-between, my father would be profoundly impressed, and appreciative, but would never drink it, stowing it away back in his liquor cabinet, saying it was “too good for him to drink and to save it for others.”
Now I don’t think my father had low self-esteem. Just the opposite, in fact. I think he was a confident person who knew and liked who he was. But he was a product of the Depression era, of a family that was worked hard to survive, a home where purchases were only made for necessity, and never for luxury or personal pleasure.
In this way, I prefer to think my father more frugal than cheap. He was a saver, and he was careful with his money, but he was generous when it counted, and our family was always more than well provided…in fact, as I might admit about myself, maybe even spoiled.
But he would not spend money the same way on himself. I asked Jason Kurtz, my go-to-guy when it comes to understanding human behavior, what he thought the difference is between frugality and cheapness. Jason, a leading psychoanalyst in New York City, an EMDR specialist, author of the memoir Follow the Joy, and an award-winning playwright, explained it this way:
Money is a complicated emotional subject. For some people it means security. For others, it’s a physical representation of their own value. Whether we save it or spend it, and how we spend it when we do make purchases, offers a great deal of insight into our psyche and our sense of the world. Many people who have been through deprivation as a child, learn to horde their money. They know all too well how much suffering a scarcity of funds can bring to a family. However, if they maintained a sense of their own worthiness, they will spend when necessary. They simply will take the time to make sure that what they buy is of good quality and therefore worth the expenditure. We call this kind of person frugal. A cheap person, on the other hand, not only tries to be careful with their money, but they generally believe that they don’t deserve (or others don’t deserve) the things money can buy. For these people, it’s not only about being careful with their money, but it’s about avoiding spending at all costs (pun intended — sorry). A cheap person won’t buy even necessary things if they can help it, and will always lean towards buying the cheapest thing whenever they have to spend money. They never enjoy what their money has bought, and resent the necessity of drawing down their bank account, even if by objective standards they would appear to have plenty of money.
Cheap or frugal, whatever you think, my father would give his last penny to me, my sister, his relatives, if they needed it. He was a giving man, and not just with money, but his time. He was a caring man. And, in all the ways that counted, a generous one.
So in keeping with my father’s spirit, I will continue to hold onto and cherish that last dollar in his wallet. But if someone I love needs it, it’s theirs. All they have to do is ask. And maybe bring over some box wine to share.