Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
On a generosity scale from one to ten—one meaning “painfully cheap” and ten meaning “delightfully generous”—my kids think I’m a one. For years I thought all the “You’re Number One” cards, trophies, and plaques my children gave me on Father’s Day celebrated my best-ness. It turns out it was code. They were mocking my cheapness. In fact, they think my entire generation is cheap.
Now, before you Gen Xers, Millennials, and other Post-Boomers join forces with my children in condemning my generation for being inordinately thrifty, take a walk in our slippers. See what life was like growing up as a teenager in the 60s. One look at a typical school day and you might replace your contempt for my generation’s penny-pinching with an appreciation for our financial conservatism. Stranger things have happened.
When I was in high school, I would get up every weekday morning and face the same question: Should I pack a lunch? My parents were unwilling to give me money to “throw away on fast food,” so if I wanted a noon meal I would have to make my own lunch—and it had to be sandwiches. This would have been fine, were it not for the fact that in order to save money, Mom generally purchased tongue, heart, liver, and other internal organs to be used as lunchmeats.
So here was my typical school day. I would peer into the fridge and immediately reject tongue. Whenever I ate tongue, I couldn’t figure out who was tasting whom. Heart and liver were also out of the question because the mere sight of them freaked out my lunch mates. If I went so far as to take a bite of, say, boiled heart on raisin bread, it caused an epidemic of shiver-gags. I don’t even want to talk about the scene a tripe sandwich could cause.
Later on as lunchtime rolled around, I’d be famished and, for reasons you now understand, without a sandwich. This presented me with the second question of the day. Should I take the quarter my parents had given me to ride the bus home and use it to purchase fast food? Or should I save my quarter for the bus and avert the hike home? If I sprang for fast food, my quarter would buy either a see-through milkshake or a tiny, pretend hamburger that contained no actual organic materials.
Given these options, I typically skipped lunch, but to no advantage. At the end of the school day, I would again face the “eat vs. ride” decision. Only now, a bakery that sat next to the city bus stop made the choice even more difficult. It sold (and this was just plain cruel) twenty-five-cent cream puffs.
While waiting for the bus I’d stare longingly through the bakery window at the delectable treats—fiercely gripping my quarter as if it were the key to Donald Trump’s safe deposit box. Eventually I would step out from under the bakery’s awning to see how hard it was raining. If it wasn’t raining too hard, and if the cream puffs looked particularly scrumptious, I would surrender my quarter, wolf down a cream puff, and walk home.
Oh yes, one more detail. I didn’t merely walk home. I walked home while lugging a stack of textbooks. I completed this feat (as did all teenage boys in the 60s) by cocking my right arm unnaturally high and tucking my books into my armpit as if to say, “Look at me and my many muscles that can easily hold aloft these heavy books.” This ridiculous balancing act was extremely difficult to maintain and made me think twice about walking anywhere.
So, if it was raining hard and I had a lot of books to carry, I’d have to be a nitwit to give up my bus fare—which, I’m ashamed to admit I did regularly because I adored cream puffs and possessed not a trace of willpower.
But not without consequences.
Once I had given into the allure of French pastry, I’d grudgingly hoist my books to their unnaturally high position in my armpit and trudge a mile and a half up the hill to my house. Within a few minutes a city bus would mockingly cruise by while the kids inside pointed and laughed at the self-indulgent sap lugging books up the hill in the rain. All of this took place because I couldn’t stand tasting a sandwich only to have it return the favor.
Now, keep in mind, this drama was about a quarter. Two bits. Twenty-five cents. You can only imagine what it took for me to spend a lot of money. I did earn money through various jobs, but every cent of that went to buying clothes. When it came to the frills, I had to skip lunch and walk home—sans the high-octane fuel of French pastry—often for days on end. For instance, during my senior year when I elected to go to the prom, for over six months I hungrily walked home in the rain, lugging my books like a stevedore. And while I did, here’s what I’d be thinking:
“Let’s see, my date wants a purple orchid to match her dress—five bucks (or 20 quarters). The prom tickets cost four dollars (16 quarters). Photos are another four. Dinner—please don’t let her order steak!—fifteen bucks (a whopping 60 quarters). Plus there’s the tuxedo and. . .”
I hadn’t thought about that prom until one day over thirty years later when my mother produced a piece of paper she had set aside the day after the dance. It was an itemized list I’d made of what I had spent. At the bottom of the list I had calculated the total dollar figure and divided it by the number of hours the date had lasted—revealing that the prom had cost me six dollars an hour.
I know, I know. The fact that I calculated how much the prom cost per hour brands me a hopeless cheapskate. Nevertheless, having just walked in my slippers, I hope you now understand my cautious ways. You know that as a young man I rarely had any money or a chance to get any. That is, unless I walked a mile and a half uphill in the rain carrying a stack of books jammed under my armpit.
So, dear friends, forgive me my frugality. Show patience as I—and others from my generation—ask the restaurant cashier for change for a quarter and then return to the table to leave an exact 15 percent tip. Smile knowingly when we refuse to turn on the air conditioning, buy discounted label-less cans, and wash and reuse the plasticware that comes with fast food. Take pity on us old codgers who, on occasion, can appear to be a tad cheap.
We have our reasons.