Childhood Neglect or Frugality?

Last night, my boyfriend and I went to his cousin’s birthday party. He loves watching healthy families in action. While I knew his childhood wasn’t filled with much expense, I never truely understood just how his mother’s frugality led to him being neglected a child. But then he flat out said that he’d prefer his childhood to mine anyday, and I questioned how neglected he was, and where a parent crosses the line of being frugal too far.

This comes after my spending yesterday reading blogs about early retirement, like Early Retirement Extreme, and all about extreme frugality. After managing to get through Bloomingdales and make a return without shopping, I felt good about resisting consumerism (specificially, shiny things for sale.) I kept thinking about how awful stores are, especially trends and making you want to buy things that look new and stylish. So when I talked to my boyfriend last night, it just felt like such a contrast, and I understood why he’s not lured by shopping malls the same way I am.

Was my boyfriend neglected as a child? I know a lot of people grow up without money and their parents make due, but that’s not quite what his situation was. His mother has always worked, but she refuses to spend money beyond her thrift store splurges. She never left her parents house, and that is where my boyfriend grew up. The house itself is in a very nice area and the family owns a lot of land for this part of California. However, the place is a wreck. His Grandparents are hoarders of the Depression era, and often when I visit the house it seems like they live in a movie. They keep stale bread in the otherwise unusable oven, gather empty soup cans, collect broken bikes, etc.

His mother, who never married his father, lived with her parents, so my boyfriend lived with her parents (and still does, though now he at least has a separate one-room structure out back). He never had his own bedroom, in fact he slept on the floor on a mat with his mother until he was 12 or 13, as he recalls, and then eventually moved into the living room, where he slept on the couch.

As far as food and clothes go, he ate very poorly — bread and toast, most often, and occasionally fast food. His clothes were all from thrift stores, which that alone is fine, but they were not nice, which made him more of an outcast at school. Also, as an only child, he grew up like this with no one else to talk to. His dad lived nearby in an apartment when he was young, but then moved away. His parents still get along (hey, that’s better than my still-married parents who hate each other). His dad is a whole other frugal story which I’ll get to one day, but now I’m just wondering if my boyfriend was neglected as a child, or if his family is just — extreme frugal.

His mom has saved up a lot of money over the years. I don’t know how much, but it’s enough to put my boyfriend through college and grad school, and likely buy a home outright when her parents pass and the current house needs to be sold and split up among their children.

On one hand, I think it’s pretty awesome that she could save so much through the years. She takes vacations on occasion to National Parks and goes camping, she doesn’t do anything consumer except shop for groceries at discount grocers. She has saved plenty of money for retirement and then some. She hasn’t worked the best paying job, but she had a decent job that she’s held on to for years. She’s miserable, depressed, hates living with her crazy parents, hates her job, but that’s just what she does. She can’t deal with change, so that’s the way it is.

Apparently one day a long time ago the neighbors called the cops on the family for child neglect. They saw the Grandmother picking food out of a trash can at the park or something and thought she was going to feed it to the child of the house. So the cops came and looked around. I’m surprised they didn’t find evidence of neglect. My bf spoke to them and eventually they went away.

So now my boyfriend has grown up with a very, very different idea of money than me. It’s good… in that I like dating someone who doesn’t value money as the be all end all of happiness. On the other hand, that was MY life growing up. It’s hard to just switch to extreme frugality. Luckily for me, my boyfriend understands that its important to spend on some things — healthy food, decent clothes, occasional vacations, etc. I couldn’t be with someone any more frugal than that.

It just makes me sad to think of how neglected he was as a child. He was definitely an “accident” and it seems like he was treated as such growing up. Now he’s got a slew of mental issues — very unique ones — involving socialization and relationships. No shit. I love him to death. Sometimes it drives me nuts how abnormal he is but I couldn’t be with anyone normal, so I think we’re a great match for each other.

I just wish for him that he’ll get his act together and apply to grad school and get out of that house. He’s 27 now, and he still lives at home. That’s fairly normal for this area, but when you’re in an environment like that, I think it’s just unhealthy. He still has to go in the main cluttered house for the kitchen, the bathroom, etc. But maybe I’m just spoiled and have no idea what it’s like to live when it’s bad. He has electricity (though he’s not allowed to use it much) and running water and he eats when he wants. At least he has that.

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