Budgeting and Culture

Religion and culture and our Social Circles (I am going to use these interchangeably- I know they are different!) affect every part of our lives. What we do, what we wear, how we live, the decisions we make, and especially what we spend our money on. Culture defines what is important to us. To be able to discuss personal finance, we have to understand how our culture defines our choices.

How Culture Affects Our Budgeting

Importance of Our Culture in Our Lives

Humans crave connection. Everyone wants to be part of some social group. Everyone wants to belong somewhere and to somebody. So we need a social group. These groups are often based on different things: our religion, our location, our stage in life, our family, our ideologies, our work, etc.

Even people who embrace “alternative lifestyles” often do so in a group. They find other people who see life the same way as them and connect with them, creating their own social group. Each social group comes with its own set of expectations, norms, traditions, and practices. All those make a difference to what we consider IMPORTANT.

Any discussion of personal finance, budgeting, and money has to include understanding what is IMPORTANT. A pretty basic rule that most agree on is: Spend money on important things and don’t waste money on things that are not. Pretty simple, right? Well, who decides what is important and what is not? Why is one thing important and one thing not?

Some things are pretty universal: Food, Water, Shelter, Medical Care. These are considered pretty basic needs. Most of us are pretty lucky that these are not things that we are grappling with (besides for the medical care! It’s a fortune, but we all agree that we have to spend the money). It’s everything else that gets more complicated.

So What Is Important?

The answer is: I can’t tell you. No one can tell you. Only you know what is important and what is not.

No More Gifts!

This is why I came to this moment of clarity and introspection:

I am Jewish, and I sent my kids to Jewish schools. I always celebrated Hanukkah with latkes, doughnuts, games of dreidels, and a gift. In the community (social group, whatever you want to call it) where I grew up and where I now raise my kids, most kids receive a gift for Hanukkah. That’s right: A GIFT. One gift. It was a nice gift- maybe a bike, a fun toy, a small piece of jewelry.

My parents would wake up early on Black Friday, and we would usually get something nice. I remember when Razor Scooters were all the rage, and my sister, brother, and I all got one for Hanukkah that year thanks to a Walmart 5 am visit from my mother.

This year, I managed with some referral credits and a coupon to get a building toy and a set of walkies-talkies for my boys for a total of $10 (from Zulily- if you want to sign up, message me, and I’ll be you a referral code). That’s it for me- Hanukkah gift shopping is done!

I was feeling proud of myself- and I started down the rabbit hole of being slightly holier-than-thou. After all, I can get my kids 2 gifts for under $10. Why do all these people stress out about giving gifts for the Holidays? I only give my kids, and I don’t get them a lot. One toy each is more than enough.

Think of the MATERIALISM. All kids want is LOVE. Stand up to consumerism and stop SPENDING MONEY YOU DON’T HAVE. Sounds great, right? Nice soapbox. I built myself there.

And super insufferable, especially considering that I am not breaking the mold with my holiday giving. I am giving what is socially acceptable in my circles. My kids will not be going to school and hearing that other kids got more than them. They will be receiving pretty much the same as most kids in their class, most kids that they hang out with.

I will not be showing up empty-handed to a place where I am expected to bring something. And most crucially, I AM NOT GIVING UP SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO ME.

What Is Important to You?

For many people, holiday gift-giving is IMPORTANT. It’s what they know; it’s what they do; it’s what is socially acceptable in their situations. So if it is important to THEM, it doesn’t really matter if it’s important to ME.

Other things are important to me that I am sure other people would laugh at. For example, we spend a nice amount of money on the Four Species for Sukkot. That may seem like a laughable waste of money to most of you reading this. But, to me, it’s as important as anything else, and I would go into debt (if I had to) for that.

Don’t Throw Out the Baby With the Bathwater.

When reading and learning about Personal Finance and Budgeting- remember that not everyone has the same worldview as you. Not everything important to you is as important to them. So, of course, they don’t get it. Of course, they don’t understand. And yes, there may be some things that you can “take a stand on,” but it’s easier said than done.

Most people, myself included, can’t go against everyone we know and do things so drastically different from what our culture dictates. (I think you will find that those who do are often part of a culture or sub-cultures that encourages doing differently, so in fact, they are not really doing differently.

They are just acting in accordance with what their culture prizes or values).

Please don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Don’t disregard advice from people who value different things than you, who think that different things are important. Many great people are giving great advice- as long as you tailor it to your specific circumstances.

So whether it is holiday gifts, religious items, private school, Quinceañera, Bar Mitzvahs, or anything else I can’t even think of:

Spend money on what is IMPORTANT and don’t waste money on what is NOT IMPORTANT… to YOU!

Hi! I am a millennial mom with a passion for personal finance. I have always been “into” personal finance but got inspired to start my blog after a period of extended unemployment. That experience really changed the way I viewed my relationship with money and the importance of accessible personal finance education.

8 thoughts on “Budgeting and Culture”

  1. Great article to make people reflect on what’s important to me isn’t necessarily what’s important to you.

    I was recently at leadership training with the work and had another empathetic revelation: I’m always right about what I feel. You are always right about what you feel. You can’t tell me what I experience and what I feel is _wrong_. It’s a similar point about people’s importance scale.

    I will say some people think things are important to them when they are really just stuck in habitual, dopamine driven behaviour. The consumerist gift-giving example you give is spot on. You call out what’s really important about gift giving – and that’s the love and belonging of people around you.

    • That’s exactly right. Sometimes we do things not for “the thing” but because we want to fit into the society and culture to which we associate- which is not a bad thing. Its very important for people to belong and with that comes sets of prescribed behaviors and values

  2. I’m so glad you shared this from the Jewish perspective. I think it’s a cultural gift go be frugal and thrifty, we’ve all got to let go sometimes and splurge a little. Great advice in the end about spending in what makes you happy. Save for it, budget for it and spend on it…

    • We need all the perspectives we can get! What is important to one person is not important to someone else- we need to understand that in order to help people actually get a handle on their personal finance.

  3. This was an interesting read. You’re right about how a lot of people change how they live and ditch what is important to them just to save more money especially in the FIRE community. I would have a difficult time getting rid of or not purchasing things for amateur astronomy which has been my hobby since I was 10 yrs old. I get just enough supplies to let me experience my passion comfortably so I can be happy. I don’t have kids yet though and I might end up getting rid of some of my gear after that 🤣. Great article!


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