Luxuriously Frugal

By Raajeev Aggerwhil

I had written before about instilling the Bania community values of frugality into my children. When I was living in Boston a few years ago, my oldest son, a teenager at the time refused to use a coupon for a bus that would have allowed him to get a one-way ticket from Boston to New York for $1. He said he didn't want to feel so cheap! That incident got me worried and I realized that I had to do something about it.

I grew up in a frugal environment because of necessity. I remember when I would ask my mom for money because I needed to get a suit to attend a wedding, she would say, “it will shrink." It took me a while to realize that she meant I would outgrow them. As a younger son, I was destined to wear the hand-me-downs of my older brother. The alternative was to get clothes from the flea market which was basically someone else's hand-me-downs. It wasn't that bad because generally we only had to attend one wedding every two years. In retrospect, if I had newer, fancier suits, I may have been tempted to join my friends on their wedding crashing expeditions. That would have brought a great deal of embarrassment to my parents within the community. Far worse than showing up in a second hand suit!

I have tried to inculcate some values of frugality in my life with some modifications. I feel that even the Almighty supported me in many ways. After my first son was born, He made sure I got two more of the same sex. With His plan the younger two children were destined to wear hand-me-downs saving our family a lot of money in the long run!

I consider myself luxuriously frugal. When I travel, I like to stay at fancy hotels such as a Hilton or Sheraton but I like to pay Motel 6 prices. However, even if am not able to get an amazing deal in a busy season, I do not get disappointed. I examine my room with a child-like curiosity and fascination. I examine my bed, look under the clean white sheets and bring in a feeling of gratitude that there are no bed bugs. I examine the thermostat to make sure it works and feel grateful that I don't have to sleep in my ski jacket underneath a pile of blankets. In the bathroom, when the shower works with hot water, I am grateful again that I don't have to rely on buckets the way we did back home in India. My motto is that if you expect and are prepared for the worst and you get something mediocre it is like getting the best. You save so much energy from not complaining and are always in a good mood.

My uncle is a model of frugality for me. For Halloween he doesn't give out candies. He just gives out sugar packets. Inspired by him, I don't buy Halloween costumes. I just put on a name tag that reads: Appu from Quick-E-Mart. For my kids, I buy matching red T-shirts on sale and they are Target employees. The following year I switch them to blue – now they are Best Buy employees. Sometimes when one of the kids would complain that they wanted a real fancy costume, I would wrap my wife's sari around them, color their hair with red curry powder, put a dot on their forehead and they would be Elton John. For the other two, I would just give them white sheets and ask them to wrap it around themselves to be Mother Teresa, Casper or Gandhi.

I have encouraged my children to compare their lives in the West with that in India, even in seemingly innocuous things. When we visited London, we saw so much graffiti while traveling on the train to suburbs. When we traveled through India, we hardly saw any graffiti, even though our minds got saturated with the abundance of advertisements on walls, lamp posts and vehicles. I pointed out that those advertisements were like graffiti with a purpose – they were there to make money. They argued that in the West, graffiti is a form of expression. I said, “Yes, when it is done right." The graffiti I saw seemed like cryptic messages of gang members which I could not even read and didn't benefit its creator and served no value to the general public. I'm sure it didn't make any money for anyone.

I give examples to my kids of my upbringing in India – being in a frugal environment and developing the instinct of survival in adverse conditions. My hope is that those stories will inspire them but it doesn't always work. I told my kids that in India, some of the families even resorted to eating rotis, salt and water during the COVID-19 crisis. They asked if those families were doing intermittent fasting. I would tell them stories of my uncle who used to study under a lamp in Old Delhi and later went on to get a Ph.D. from Stanford. They would ask, “Why he couldn't study during the day?"

The biggest role model for me is Mahatma Gandhi. He is the most famous Bania that India has produced. Once Gandhi received a letter from a critic that had several pages of criticism peppered with swear words in it. He smiled and threw the letter away. However, before throwing away the letter, he saved the metal paperclip. He knew the Bania principle: Take anything that comes to you for free, even if it's a swear word.

Earlier this year my youngest son, Neil, wanted to visit a friend in the Bay Area. He grew up hearing stories about his eldest brother not following the Bania way. On his own he researched the best deals and was able to get a round trip ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $10. That made me proud. It also gave me a sense of satisfaction that when he grows up, he will be able to enjoy the luxuries of life I have come to enjoy... frugally! Neil showed me that there was still a glimmer of hope and despite the constant uphill battle of raising children in a prosperous country, I could instill some basic tenets of frugality and other Bania traditions into their psyche. I just have to keep repeating my message a few hundred times like a mantra. It may be a tedious task but it is comforting to know that my legacy as a Bania will be upheld in the next generation and I won't have to waste money on a special trip to India to take a bath in the Ganges to absolve my sins!

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Los Angeles-based comedian Raajeev Aggerwhil has starred in Nickelodeon's TV show 100 Things to Do Before High School and also acted in the film based on the television series. See his videos on YouTube.