Next Avenue Logo

Unlearning My Father's Lessons in Frugality

But appreciating the wisdom that contributed to the success I enjoy today

By Keturah Kendrick

If there is one conversation that encapsulates who my father was, it's him explaining to me why it would be fiscally irresponsible to give me a dollar so I could get in line at the ice cream man's truck on a summer day in New Orleans.

A woman and her father smiling together. Next Avenue
The author, Keturah Kendrick, and her father, Gerald.  |  Credit: Courtesy of Keturah Kendrick

"But 'Turah . . . that don't make no sense," he'd reasoned. "We got a whole gallon of cherry vanilla in the freezer. I just bought it, too. So, it's fresh."

I was nine. I struggled to make the connection between the ice cream man's multiplicity of choices and the one old-people flavor in our freezer that my siblings and I ate only when every other snack in the house was gone.

My father's lifelong refusal to spend money on foolery served me well.

I tried to explain to my father that his rationale didn't align with my valid reason for needing him to be loose with his money — just this once. "But I don't want the ice cream we have here," I said. "I want what the ice cream man has."

I didn't get my dollar. What I did get was a reminder that my father believed there was no greater lesson to teach his children than how to save money; he believed the surest path to saving money was to never spend it in the first place.

Living My Father’s Lessons

Though resentful of his lessons as a child, I benefited from them as a young adult. At 26 years old, I left New Orleans for New York City with $3,000 in my bank account. After signing a lease on an apartment in Harlem and buying groceries and a subway pass, I was left with $313.57.

My father's lifelong refusal to spend money on foolery served me well. Though I had a roommate those first few years and freelance work facilitating creative writing workshops in public schools, trying to get my footing up North forced me to remind myself that I had cherry vanilla in the freezer.

I took full advantage of the many free activities the city offered, but became quite discerning about when and where I'd spend the little disposable income I had after paying my bills.

Friends would marvel at how easily I passed on popular night clubs, exclusive restaurants and quick get-aways to D.C. I was always tickled by their awe. "Clearly, y'all didn't have Gerald Kendrick for a father," I'd laugh.

Questioning the "Never Spend" Mentality

Now at midlife, I'm starting to find my father's lessons more burdensome than beneficial. He's been gone for a decade now, but his influence on how I view money is alive and well. For the last 20 years, Gerald Kendrick has whispered in my ear, "But 'Turah . . . that don't make no sense."

When I lived overseas, my job paid for an annual flight home. They debited an extra $1,500 into my bank account right before summer break and left me up to my own devices.

The moments when my father's frugal ideology won't let me be great have become comical, if not completely ridiculous.

While I was searching for the most convenient flight from Shanghai back to New York City, I heard Gerald's voice: But this 26-hour flight with a 10-hour layover in Doha costs only $1,000. That's $500 extra bucks you can keep in your pocket!

To this day, I have no idea what I did with that extra windfall of money. I do remember thinking around my third hour sitting in the fancy Doha airport, "This was stupid. Why didn't I just book the saner flight?"

The moments when my father's frugal ideology won't let me be great have become comical, if not completely ridiculous. For instance, I backed out of a friend's birthday dinner because I knew the women gathered would split the bill and the birthday girl would be shut down when she fake-offered to pay. In New York City restaurant math, that meant I'd dole out approximately $125 on one meal.


Sure, I'd known the woman we were celebrating for over 20 years. Her birthday happened only once a year and spending that amount of money at group dinners occurred just as often as my friend's celebration of living another year.

And what made my choosing to sit at home while my friends laughed together at dinner the most ridiculous? I had the damn money. It wasn't like I had to choose between going to the birthday dinner and paying my electricity bill. It really was the difference between splurging on this celebratory meal or buying a new dress.

Learning to Silence My Father's Voice

As I reach my late forties, I'm beginning to unpack what underlay my father's rigid commitment to only spending money when it was absolutely necessary. This hesitancy to use money for the exact purpose it was printed gives the currency much more power than it deserves.

When I was in my 20s in a new, expensive city with no family to feed me, the power money had over my daily life did keep me in a chokehold. Like many young adults, I still was trying to find a career instead of just working jobs. I had a college degree, but no clear vision for how to turn my school learning into a comfortable, middle class life.

A woman standing in an airport with two yellow suitcases. Next Avenue
Keturah and the luggage she bought over her father's objection.  |  Credit: Courtesy of Keturah Kendrick

Now, on the cusp of 50, however, I've owned my apartment for years, have established myself as a writer and consultant and have faithfully contributed to long-term savings plans for much of my adult life. Engaging in strategic frivolous spending won't likely result in my having to stand in line at the food pantry or fight foreclosure on my condo.

I have begun resisting my father's miserly ways. Recently, I was killing some time in Century 21, a department store in the lower Manhattan section of New York City. Though I had no intention of buying anything, my eyes fell on a luggage set that some thoughtful designer had made just for me. The most resplendent shade of gold, the carryon roller back with matching tote bag fit into my overall fashion aesthetic and my general rule as a traveler: TEAM CARRY ON, WHEN POSSIBLE.

The set cost $300. As I was imagining all my casual, nonchalant posing in airports across the world with my adorable tote bag in hand and rollerback by my side, Gerald Kendrick stood over my luggage suggesting that I could get a set just as sturdy and attractive from Marshalls. "Bigger sizes and half the prices," he reasoned.

And for the first time in almost 50 years, I told my father to mind his business and treated 9-year-old me to a large snow cone right off the ice cream man's truck.

Keturah Kendrick
Keturah Kendrick Author of "And You Know This: Lessons on Living From Young Folx," Keturah Kendrick writes personal narratives and op-eds that center the interior lives of Black women. Her essays have appeared in The HuffPost, NBC news, Insider, Newsweek and numerous other publications. To read more of her work, visit Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2024 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo