We lived away from the Philippines for about eleven years, during most of our childhood. Preschool and elementary days were spent in Hong Kong, with all of us enrolled in the ESF school system; middle and high school found us in Singapore, where we also went to British international schools.
These days, when people find out about our background, they declare, “Wow, how fortunate for you,” or think that we were rolling in dollars, traveling here and there. Sure, my dad’s job was comfortable and he had perks which we benefited from. However, Papa always remained prudent and frugal, and imparted the same lessons to us.
Looking back, I can think of four lifelong lessons I learned from my parents about living more simply:
1. Save up for things you want but don’t need. My dad’s always about the essentials: food, clothing, shelter, education, transportation. Period. He’s a “live with less” type of guy, and early on, he taught us to save our allowance if we wanted to buy anything aside from these basic necessities. My most significant memory of this was during the 1980′s, when Toys ‘R’ Us opened in Hong Kong. My dad could have willingly bought us our pick of action figures, Barbies and G.I. Joes, but instead, he gave us an allowance of $10 each. We’d go to the huge toy store, scan the toys and take down prices of our desired finds. It would take us each between two to three weeks to save up enough money to buy the toys we wanted. And each time we’d return to Toys ‘R’ Us to purchase them, we’d feel an amazing sense of accomplishment.
Lessons learned: Responsibility and prudence. Simple lessons, all lifelong. We learned the value of the dollar, and that it took hard work and discipline to save up for things we wanted. Now that I’m a parent myself, I’m going to teach my own son to save his money and earn his keep!
2. There are many things we can do without. Unlike many of our friends, classmates, even cousins here in Manila, we didn’t have video game consoles like the then-popular Nintendo, Atari, etc. Our parents instead bought us bikes, swimming goggles and kickboards, and Lego. They encouraged us to play outdoors, to go swimming, to sweat it out on the playground.
Lessons learned: Moderation, and basically, active play: to play more instead of just get more toys. As a kid, I remember being busy with drama club, choir, after-school sports, play dates with the kids in our neighborhood, and so many things other than computer games or TV. We had toys, but just enough, not too many that we would take pride in our possessions. As a parent myself today, I see the wisdom in their decision to do without certain things like trendy gadgets or the latest video games. I am trying to instill the same values early on in my own son, who’s still small, but ready to learn.
3. Treats and splurges are for special occasions. As a kid, the only time my mom would really shop for us was when we’d come home here during the summer months. We’d hit up SM Makati because stuff was cheaper here than in Hong Kong. I also remember only eating out during special occasions, such as when we had guests or when it was someone’s birthday, or during Christmas and New Year’s.
Even today, our family hardly eats out. My mom and dad prefer to prepare meals at home for us “kids,” who are all married now. During our weekly Sunday lunches, everything is cooked either by my mom or whomever she has recently trained in kitchen staff, and it’s always something that hearkens back to our childhood: homemade Hainanese chicken rice, glazed spare ribs, my mom’s legendary stew or meat loaf, or whatever.
Lessons learned: Frugality, basically. Even today, in our marriage, my husband and I see eating out as something special. We have once a week dates, sometimes at a snazzy resto, sometimes at the food court in the mall. The point is, I’ve learned that eating at home over a meal prepared with love trumps eating out for no special reason.
4. Money is a tool, nothing more. For my parents, money was never to be anything more than a transaction tool, and eventually, a seed for investments. Even when my dad gave us all our first credit cards, he maintained a very strict code of use: “Your credit card is just a transaction tool. Never charge what you can’t already pay for.” It was common sense because he didn’t want us to go into debt, to pay overdue fees, or to become dependent on charging everything all the time. Today, I still carry over this habit in my own spending.
Lessons learned: Good stewardship. My dad’s been an investment banker for the longest time, and has always had a knack for helping people invest their money wisely. In fact, he’s our fund manager for our mutual fund! He often gives us snippets of advice on how to be more conscientious about money and savings, and how to be more thrifty in our spending. I’m not yet where I want to be in terms of financial success, but I’m getting there one small step at a time, and that’s what’s important.
In the end, my parents just wanted us to learn this one all-important lesson:
I think, more than anything, we were taught how to live with just enough so that we could set a principle in motion: When you want what you have, you won’t need or want for more. Growing up with these basic guidelines on simple living was all about approaching money, food, family time and other aspects of life with intention, not excess. My dad and mom wanted this for us so that we’d form a life perspective that wasn’t just about amassing wealth and satiating wants, but rather valuing what was truly important: God, family, relationships.
And so, for me, living simply is more than just maintaining Zen-like surroundings, to-do lists, and organizing systems. It’s really about imbibing a sense of purposeful, intentional living so that we only live with the essentials. And by living with the essentials, we have time and space for more important things, such as building character and solidifying relationships.
What’s your definition of simple living?