The Frugal Café | Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup"</a> | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com
Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com

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Our Coffee-Can Savings: Journey of a Thousand Miles

By Vicki McClure Davidson

 

My daughter and I have decided we want to save up to go on a trip to England and Ireland. With the tight budget our family is under (and it appears that it will get much tighter before it gets looser), affording such a trip is daunting. And, maybe a bit of a pipe dream to some people.

But I've always adhered to the ancient Chinese proverb of "The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." So, we've been saving in little bits. Day after day, little bits. It's our journey, made of many, tiny steps.

You must spend less than you bring in to build any kind of savings. | Photo credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net
You must spend less than you bring in to build any kind of savings. | Photo credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Slowly but steadily, it's starting to add up.

We took a large coffee can, made a rectangular slit in the plastic lid, and pasted a label on it that says "Vicki and Lacy's England and Ireland Trip." Our coffee can makes it real for us, makes our goal seem more tangible. Every so often, I like to rattle it to hear all the coins.

Teaching children to set goals and then take consistent steps, no matter how small they appear, to achieve that goal is a valuable lesson. Much of the financial distress our nation is now experiencing is due to the lack of patience, the need for instant gratification. Rather than save towards something, too many people opted to take out loans that were far too big for their incomes. They chose to whip out the plastic credit card rather than have enough cash to spend. Their impatience and lack of a financial plan has backfired in a horrifying, regrettable way. My heart goes out to them, because some years ago, we were also in a financial sinkhole.

I was taught to not spend what I didn't have. But who really listens to such wisdom the first time around? So, fresh out of college, I did what most young adults do: become over extended with credit card balances. The balances grew, but nothing catastrophic happened, so I made my payments, opened more new accounts, and saved absolutely nothing. But, boy, I sure did have a great wardrobe in those days, and I never stayed home on Friday nights or weekends.

And then, in the 1990s, when the economy went south, my husband was unemployed for a long time, and we nearly lost our house and fell behind on our bills. We sought help from a credit counselor, learned many ways to prune our expenses, renegotiated our house loan, planned a budget, and started the horrible uphill battle of paying off our credit cards.

We were able to stop the foreclosure on the house and we still live here today. Well-intentioned friends encouraged us to file for bankruptcy, but I knew that was the cowardly way out. There were many days I secretly longed to do it, but a little voice inside me just wouldn't let me give up. I prayed a lot, too, for the strength to continue.

It took years to do, and it wasn't easy, but I no longer have any credit card debt. Nor do I have any credit cards. I've been on a cash-only, frugal-minded path for many years now.

A harsh, scary lesson for us, but once it was learned, I will never go back to living like that. Having nasty collection letters fill the mailbox and creditors phoning all the time was unnerving and stressful and oppressing. We didn't sleep well for a very long time. But, the worst is now behind us.

And, as a result, I've learned to save like a focused squirrel.

I've learned that if you save just $5 per week out of your paycheck, which is a pittance, you will have $260 in cash saved in a year. Save just $10 per week and you will have $520 saved in a year. Cutting out non-essentials is imperative to build savings. Does this mean you have to do without? Have to tighten your belt? Have to evaluate what you're spending your money on and make adjustments?

You betcha it does.

You must spend LESS than you bring in to build any kind of savings. You must spend LESS than you bring in to be on the plus side in your bank account ledger. Simple math.

I've passed on this simple, but often ignored, knowledge to both our children. I'm hopeful that they are listening so that when they're adults, they won't repeat the mistakes we made.

My daughter and I aren't sure when we're going to be taking our UK trip, but we're confident that it will happen. We've not stopped adding to our coffee can, even with the massive government bailout and the Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae horrors and who-knows-what tomorrow. We are staying the course.

With doom and gloom in the news smacking Americans daily in the forehead like a baseball bat, I'm sure many families are struggling far worse than we have struggled. The mental stress is consuming, the financial impact a nightmare.

But, I'm confident—I really am—that the financial climate WILL get better. It will just take a lot of time. We need to be frugal, to be patient, to be responsible. We need to learn from this and not repeat the same mistakes once prosperity returns. We must not behave like id-driven, greedy children, buying things we want but can't afford nor need to survive. We must get a grip on our wasteful behavior.

We need to reconnect with our values and be better examples for our children, who, no doubt, are quietly watching and learning from us.

Overall, we must become better stewards of our money.

And, in the meantime, my daughter and I will faithfully add change and dollar bills to our savings coffee can, even if it is in small steps.

 

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