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What I Learned From My Soviet Husband About Money

Having grown up in the U.S.S.R., he knows out of necessity a lot about being frugal and spending wisely.

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Remember the Soviet Union? If you grew up in the 1980s, as I did, it’s not just something you read about in history books. You knew the U.S.S.R. as one of America’s greatest rivals. My husband, on the other hand, knew it as home. He was born in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, and lived there until his senior year in college, when he came to the U.S. as an exchange student.

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Although the Soviet Union was a superpower with nuclear weapons, its communist system of state-run industry and collective farms lead to shortages of consumer goods and food. Yes, it’s true that Soviet citizens would stand in long lines at stores that had limited supplies, my husband says. There were waiting lists to buy big-ticket items, such as furniture and cars. And, for the most part, people paid with cash, which meant saving for months or even years to make a purchase.

Although my husband has now lived in the U.S. for 20 years, he often acts as if he were in the Soviet Union when it comes to spending money – and that’s not a bad thing. As someone who grew up in a country of abundance, I’ve learned a lot from a spouse who grew up with little.

Get the most out of what you have. Because most consumer goods in the Soviet Union were expensive and hard to come by, it was important for my husband’s family to make the things they could afford to buy last as long as possible. For example, his parents spent about 25% of one month’s salary to buy a pair of Wrangler jeans for his sister (yes, even off-brand American apparel was a big deal there). Because the jeans had cost so much, they were passed down to my husband. Every time a hole appeared, they were patched until, finally, they were cut off and made into shorts. My husband still will wear things for years. When something can be worn no more, I hear what seems like the sound of defeat when he says he’s going to toss it. With our three children, clothing and toys are passed down from one to the next, though I draw the line at making my son wear his sisters’ hand-me-downs. Every winter when I contemplate replacing my decade-old dress coat, I talk myself out of it because the one I have is still in great condition.

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Fix it, don’t replace it. People who lived in the Soviet Union didn’t have much of a choice but to fix things if they broke because it was too hard and too expensive to get a replacement. My husband says his dad could fix almost anything with a pair of pliers and some wire. I don’t doubt him because I’ve seen my husband do the same. My first instinct when something broke used to be to replace it. Now I know I can save money by asking my husband to fix it, which he usually can.

Learn how to DIY. For the most part, people living in the Soviet Union didn’t hire others to do things for them because there wasn’t really a contractor market, my husband says. If you wanted to paint your walls, tile your bathroom, build a table or make curtains, you did it yourself. So when something needs to done around our house, my husband usually will figure out how to do it by searching online or watching a YouTube video. Occasionally, if something is outside the scope of his abilities or will be too time-consuming, he’ll agree to hire someone. For the most part, though, his willingness to DIY has saved us thousands of dollars over the years.

Repurpose what you can. My husband’s family didn’t need Pinterest to prompt them to turn a pallet into a coffee table. They were always repurposing things. And my husband still does. He could buy a set of matching containers for a few bucks to store miscellaneous items on his workbench in the garage. But why waste the money when a few sturdy boxes lying around from other purchases will do the trick? That repurposing mentality has rubbed off on me. When my husband cut down a dead tree in our yard recently (that DIY skill), I had him cut the trunk into equal sizes to use as rustic side tables for chairs we have around a fire pit. Yes, I can repurpose with the best of them – and save money by doing so.

Be mindful of your spending. As my husband sees it, most Americans aren’t mindful of their spending. Credit has made it easy for us to buy things without putting much thought into how much use we’ll really get out of what we buy or whether that money could be put to a better use. His family – like most families in the Soviet Union – didn’t have access to credit and had little money to spare. So every purchase that wasn’t a necessity had to be weighed carefully. He still agonizes over whether to buy things both big and small. Admittedly, his reluctance to spend money can drive me, a personal finance journalist who writes about saving money, a little crazy sometimes. But it's good to have that voice of reason reminding me to question whether I’m always making the right decision when it comes to spending money. And our kids are picking up on that mindset – at least our oldest is. We need to work a little harder with our middle child, who’s a natural spender. And our youngest is just 3, so we consider ourselves lucky when he doesn’t have a meltdown if we tell him no (which, trust me, is often).