Money is a funny thing. It’s tangled up with just about every aspect of our lives — from where we live, to what we eat and the quality of our relationships — so it’s no wonder that all of us have opinions on what we should do with it. But what shaped our approach to money in the first place? What pivotal moment forever changed the way we think about our finances? To explore these questions, we’re introducing MONEY MOMENTS — a regular series where Canadians reflect on a moment in their lives that shaped their attitudes toward money.
It was some time in spring when my best friend and I decided that we were going to make the summer of ’99 our best ever. We were in our early twenties, and to make those precious few months live up to our grand designs, we spent them seeing exciting new bands play, eating out, arguing over coffee, and cycling — me on the flashy new mountain bike I had spent a year saving for.
It seems absurd now that I spent $1,800 on a bicycle when I had to also cover university tuition and books by myself. But not only did that bike serve me well that summer, it’s continued to serve me well. In fact, I just rode it on a bike trip this fall through the brilliant foliage north of Kingston, covering 60 kilometres in a day. Sure, my bike was expensive, but 20 years later, it’s turned out to be worth every penny.
Shelling out top dollar for high-quality products hasn’t always been a way of life for me, though. My parents moved to England from India in 1970, and then moved our family to Toronto in 1989. We might have qualified as middle-income, but we always held on to money tightly. Memories of poverty in India, my parents’ frugal personalities, and a series of disastrous investments when we first arrived in Canada made the idea of splurging and indulging seem irresponsible.
Sure, my bike was expensive, but 20 years later, it’s turned out to be worth every penny
And so we did what most families like that do: we stumbled through, cutting corners, always looking for deals, and never really buying nice things. Almost everything we owned, from kitchen appliances, to clothes and shoes, to TVs and computers, was merely okay — not the worst quality, but far from the best.
That’s an understandable approach, especially for people who have lost money or never had much to begin with. But the unintended effect of my family’s thriftiness was that we acquired a lot of stuff that tended to break, be subpar, or just frustrating to use. Cheap kitchen appliances, like blenders or toaster ovens, worked okay for a while, but then broke down. Inexpensive winter clothing never lasted, nor did it really do its job of keeping us warm throughout the bitter Canadian cold. Often present was a sense of regret. Would it really have killed us to spend a couple hundred dollars more for a better TV or a roomier fridge if we were to live with them for over a decade?
That’s what my 20-year-old bike has shown me: that splurging a bit upfront on something high quality can actually save you money in the long term. This mentality has now turned into a sort of life philosophy for me: “Just buy the good thing.”
This mentality has now turned into a sort of life philosophy for me: Just buy the good thing
Of course, you need disposable income in order to do that. And for many families struggling to make ends meet, like mine was, this just isn’t possible. When you’re in such a position, the desire to save money ends up exacting an odd sort of toll. More than just regret, you inherit a steady accumulation of niggling annoyances. It sounds strange, or even a bit spoiled, but there were times when regular daily occurrences – struggling to prepare food with a dull knife after getting home soaked in a jacket that didn’t do its job – just made life feel a bit worse. This, sadly, is what poverty does to people: it adds indignity to deprivation.
That’s why, after working hard and saving up, finally indulging and buying that beautiful bike in 1999 gave me a sense of relief. It just worked, has never broken down, and is a joy to ride. Compared to most of the stuff I grew up with, it’s a pleasure every time I use it.
It’s easy, however, to mix up quality with quantity. We live in a consumerist world full of Instagram ads for the latest wares, so what starts as a focus on reliable products can quickly turn into wasteful consumption.
That said, if much of life’s enjoyment is made up of simple, everyday experiences — winter boots that keep your feet dry; the feel of soft bed sheets; or a chef’s knife that makes cooking a breeze — then if you have the spare money, why not decide what’s important to you and indulge a bit? You might spend a bit more now, but what you’ll get is a life that’s vastly less annoying – not to mention far more full of pleasure.
Illustration by Janice Wu.