As told to Julie Cazzin by Susan Catto.
When my mother passed away in the fall of 2014, she had one dying wish: that the money my sister and I received from the sale of her home be spent on ourselves. Not the house, not the kids—but ourselves. My mother, who was raised during the Depression, grew up fearful of spending too much money, and I seem to have inherited her sparing ways. “I want you to lose that frugality,” Mom told me. “I want you to upgrade your wardrobe, travel the world and see friends. Do whatever will make you happy.”
Sounds easy right? Not if you’re as thrifty as I am. Over the years, I picked up my penny-pinching skills from my mom. I vividly remember her examining prices before choosing the cheapest item on the rack. She always felt she had to justify her spending and found it hard to pamper herself.
As the years went by, my mother saw that I worked in the same way. I needed to justify my purchases. Shopping for me was entirely about buying stuff on sale. It wasn’t until my mother’s imminent death that we both began to see things differently. I still remember her saying, “your sister buys herself nice clothes and travels. I’d like you do the same.” This got me thinking: If being frugal was a learned behaviour and hard for me to shake, why did I think that spending on myself was not worthwhile?
We always tell ourselves that when the house is paid off and everything is squared away, then we can spend. But the truth is, you’ll probably never feel sorted, and what happens if you lose your health, or worse? Then it’s too late.
Knowing how hard it would be for me to let go and spend the money, my mother asked my sister to watch over me. Trying to be accountable to her wishes, I tried shopping for myself, but the exercise simply produced a lot of anxiety. That’s when I was struck by the idea of a budget. I drew up a plan with a spending goal of $1,000 per month for one year. It wasn’t a ridiculous sum of money and, to my surprise, the budget worked. Before, my method to shopping was “spend as little as possible.” Now it’s, “I have $1,000 to spend on myself this month. Let’s do this.”
I started by going into a store I had always liked and buying five new things for my wardrobe—three colorful dresses, some pants and a real statement piece necklace. I simply asked myself, “Do I like it? Do I look great in it?” The answer was yes, so I bought them all. Over the next few months, I’ve gone on to buy an expensive handbag and a pair of high-heeled boots, none of which were chosen based on their price tag, and all of which truly reflect who I am.
I’ve also spent money on experiences. Last year, I took my mom’s best friend to see the musical Kinky Boots. We used to do this all the time when my mom was alive and it was like my mother was right there with us. We almost cried. This year I have a plan to visit some old friends who now live in England.
To keep myself motivated and on track to meet my spending goal, I started my own blog, shoppingforhappiness.com. I’ve also chosen to surround myself with positive people who can help me examine my frugal habits. I’ve begun to realize that many of my spending practices were counterproductive. For instance, to get to a meeting I’d often take multiple buses, leaving me tired and frustrated. Now, I’ll pay extra for a taxi, which leaves me calmer and more prepared.
But the real lesson is that we need to live life while we’re alive. We won’t remember how much we saved by not buying a sweater, but we will remember the time we spend with friends and family. I’m grateful to my mother for wanting this for me. It was her last loving act—and I don’t plan on letting her down.