I grew up poor and I appreciate it now.

I have a different perspective on life than some. For those of you that have met me in the last few years, you might have seen material possessions and made certain assumptions about my “financial” life. Chris and I are minimalists, and we select each and every purchase we make with care. We want to love each item, we want it to have a purpose, and it be something that inspires us (whether from its beauty, or how it fits together with everything else).

I did not always have the option to be so selective… or selective at all. Chris and I have worked very hard for each thing we have brought into our lives, whether it meant saving for something for years or just deciding to not have something until we could afford what we really wanted. I can remember when we first moved to Portland we did not have the money to buy furniture. Chris was looking for a job and the work I was doing was just paying our rent. We could have gone to Goodwill, or looked for something used on Craigslist, instead we purchased inflatable chairs (yes, you read that right). We used them until a family visiting us in the winter got them to close to our heat vent and bye-bye went the chairs. We finally decided to purchase a couch, but even then it was the one we felt was the most “us” and within the means we had at the time.

How did we become so frugal and so aware of our choices? I grew up poor. I watched my parents struggle to have enough cash to put food on the table. It was before credit cards (and even when they did exist my parents did not have the credit to have their own credit cards). What did you do to survive without credit cards? You had to be able to have enough liquid cash in the bank, or put things on layaway. My mom started Christmas shopping for the few items we did receive (which got smaller and smaller as we got older) in July. She would purchase the items and put them on layaway until they were paid off. The hard part? You cannot purchase food on a layaway plan. You cannot pay the electric or water bills via layaway.

Growing up poor taught me to focus on what matters and what is important and once that is handled you can then think about the perks and pleasures. Until then, we should not be splurging and spending when we do not have the means to handle the necessities. I often wonder what individuals would do these days with out access to credit cards. Imagine living for one year paying with what you have in the bank — no plastic. Everything is paid off each month, or paid up front with cash. What percentage of our country could do it?

Overall, being poor taught me to appreciate everything I have, to remember what it takes to keep it, and how easy it is to make bad choices and live way beyond our means. The funny thing is, even though we have been so selective and love everything we have, if it all disappeared today we’d be just fine without it. We’d just start over tomorrow. Together.

Service, service, service

It is a topic that comes up often at work, but never mind that right now. I want to talk about service in my backyard. In my living room, on the phone, and wherever I might be. We all want it right? When we go into the store we want the person working in the store to not bug us too much, but be extremely helpful when we are ready for their help. We want to know when we call our bank or credit card company that they will help us with their questions, and make us feel good about the choices we have made to be a patron of their company. They make money off us right? So why should we be made to feel like we owe them?

Here are a couple of recent examples — and by recent, I mean in the last week. There is not enough time in my day to even list out all from the past month. Yes, I am a service addict and I tend to never forget how I was treated by companies. Really, if you think about it, service levels leave a permanent, laser-etched mark in your mind about their brand. You never forget a horrible service experience and you rarely forget an amazing one — if you ever have one.

Anyway, on to the examples:

Redbox: Over the weekend we reserved a movie on the Redbox app. When Chris went to pick it up, the machine did not work, so he went to another kiosk and rented from there – but since we weren’t able to pick up the movie at the kiosk we reserved it at, we needed to let them know so they would not charge us and so they could be alerted to the problem. Now, I do not care about the $1.50 I was charged, but I do care about principle. If everyone that reserved a movie at that machine did not contact them, how much are they making on their customers, and how many customers would they frustrate?

Their response to our email? They’ll give us a “credit” for another movie to use in the next 30 days. Sorry, but I actually paid for two movies, not one. So credit my account for the amount I was charged in error for your faulty machine. I rarely use Redbox and most likely I am not going to remember to use my “credit.” Plus, I might not even have the chance to use it in the next 30 days. Their solution is better for them, but not for the customer.

Contractors: Dating back to last May we have contacted over 30 contractors to do work on our house. Out of the 30+, maybe 5 have actually followed through with the appointment, and 2 of the 5 have given us bids. I know it is a booming housing market and they have all the business they can possibly handle, but do they realize how brand damaging it is? Service = following through with appointments, calling customers back, and providing bids so homeowners can make educated decisions. We cannot do any of that without contractors providing a very easy service. If you are one of the 30 you will never have our business – your brand has already been damaged.

Why oh why is it so hard for companies to see that one of the most important parts of how they communicate with their customers is how they serve them? With there being more and more options available from many different companies, if you can move or change companies or providers and find one that actually understands how to take care of customers, then those are the companies that are going to make it. It is all in the little things and in the details. Follow through, be accountable for problems, and fix them is the brand image customers remember.

How do you make your money decisions?

Do you talk with your spouse about money? I do, but I know it is not necessarily the norm. I am what you might call a money freak. Even so, I have relaxed over the past year. I am maybe now more of just a fiend rather than a freak. Growing up without many things has made me keenly aware of where I spend my money, and yet, that only matters if Chris and I are on the same page about money.

We were not always on the same page. It is something that has evolved over time. The evolution has happened because we talk. We talk about most purchases. Some of you might say that is a bit over the top, and yes it might be. Regardless of whether it is extreme, it works for us. There is no ill will about what either of us has purchased because we both agreed on it before dropping the credit card. You might ask, “Do you talk about every single purchase?” The answer is no. For the most part we do not talk about the normal everyday purchase, like grocery items, but we do talk about most purchases over $100. It means there is no resentment, and it is easy. It is as simple as sending each other a text if we want to make a larger purchase. If the other is not sure, we wait until we can have a regular conversation.

Why does it work? It works because we have a few rules, and it is grounded on a sense of respect for the other individual and their opinion. We have shared finances, so we believe that we have a shared stake in the decisions on how we spend that shared money. One of the first rules we have is that we do not spend outside our means. If we cannot afford it, we do not make the purchase. It would have to be an emergency for us to spend outside our means. I strongly believe that if you buy only what you can afford, you will have a lot less stress in your life, and if you take that stand you will feel more like you, then living outside of who you are. The result of living within what we can afford, means not living off of our credit cards. Whatever we charge must be paid in full when the bill arrives. It feels more honest and true to who we are, when you can actually pay for your purchase.

This is what works for us. It is in no way a judgement for how others make their money decisions. I found this older LearnVest post about how a couple handles their money decisions. I liked this line:

“Because of our open running dialogue about our finances, we never argue about money, unlike most couples.”

It is true. Honesty with open communication means little to no arguments about money. It does not mean that the conversations are always easy, but it does mean you are connected about how you want to live your life, spend your money, and engage in the world together.

What works for you?

*UPDATE* Wow. I am in a bit of shock. In full transparency, everything I just wrote about apparently happens only 99% of the time. In the time it took me to write this post, my husband strayed from our agreed-upon protocol for the first time in over 10 years and made a large purchase without discussing the final details together first. Although the purchase was made with the best of intentions, he knew better and got an earful from me. No, not because I’m a hard-ass and felt the urge to raise my voice, but because he should have had a simple, open dialogue about it first, come to an agreement, and then dropped the cash. #stilllearningtogether #patienceplease