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'Ancient' customs can teach us something

Published August 21. 2010 09:00AM

Once upon a time in this vast land of ours, there were many tribes all over the country with strange customs.

Although there were wonderful, well-built things in all the stores, men and women waited a long time before they gave in to the urge to buy something. Meanwhile, they did a lot of what they called "window shopping." They looked, maybe they yearned, but they didn't buy.

Whenever a couple decided to buy something, they refused to make a snap decision. Instead, they carefully considered the purchase, talked about it, came to a mutual agreement, then did some serious comparison shopping before making a purchase.

These tribes were so primitive that when they did decide to buy something, they reached into a pouch and pulled out green stuff. The pouches were called wallets or purses and the green stuff was called "cash" or "money."

Now, here's the really strange part about that ancient tribe. If they didn't have that green stuff, they wouldn't buy anything. Often, not having the green stuff meant they sat home instead of going to a movie or entertainment center.

This strange tribe divided expenditures into two categories: Necessity and not necessary. Very few things fell into the necessity category.

Believe it or not, if a couple had an empty room that was supposed to function as a dining room or living room, it stayed empty until the couple could accumulate enough of the green stuff they called cash.

I'm old enough to have been alive back then so I can report first-hand on the deprivation that took place all over the land.

For instance, couples lived in places called apartments. Sometimes they had to live there years longer than they wanted, all because of that awful stuff called money.

Back in those ancient times, couples were forced to make many sacrifices, just so they could put money in a bank. All they got out of their personal sacrifices was the pleasure of watching a bank teller write an amount in a book.

The book was called a savings account and couples were anxious to put in as much as they could because it meant that some day they could reach the American dream - they could buy their own home. But first, they had to do a lot of saving and a lot of math.

The math involved calculating 20 percent of the price of a home. Banks demanded 20 percent down before they would give a couple something called a mortgage. That sounds mean, but actually, people who worked in the banks were pretty nice. They would do the calculations for you and make sure you had enough income to support the home you were buying.

What a happy day it was when a couple could move into their first home. Now, wouldn't you think they would be anxious to fix up the home and buy furniture?

They couldn't do it right away because of their strange customs I told you about - they had to have that green stuff.

Before they could get enough green stuff, they had babies and green stuff became even harder to accumulate.

Now, here's something you should know about the strange customs of those tribes. They were mean to their children, at least according to today's standards.

There were wonderful amusement parks that were so much fun and there were also some of those restaurants with golden arches that kids love. But families didn't get to go there very often, and, when they did, it was called a special occasion.

Parents were not nearly as nice as today's parents. They said "no" a lot. If a child lusted for a bike, they had to wait for Christmas, or maybe they had to wait longer than that. There was a fancy term for that. It was called delayed gratification. Some might not know what that is today because that tribal custom faded away.

I thought about those customs of long ago when I went to an introductory session of Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University. Ramsey claims the average person who takes his 13-week course and lives by the principles can pay off $5,300 in debt and save $2,700 in just 91 days.

"It's not magic. It's just hard," says Ramsey, noting that a major premise behind his course is not using credit cards. Participants learn to budget, relying on cash instead of plastic.

I interviewed a couple who went through the course after they were forced to file bankruptcy. They once had a lovely home filled with nifty furniture in a nice section of town. But they lost the home when the husband lost his job.

"Even when I was bringing home a good salary we were living paycheck to paycheck," he said, admitting that when he and his wife wanted something, they bought it immediately, using one of six credit cards.

"We lived a grand lifestyle and we had fun," said his wife. The fun stopped when they had accumulated more debt than they could pay back in a lifetime.

When I visited them, they proudly showed me their tiny apartment that was empty of all but a few pieces of furniture. But they said they were happier than ever because they found something they never had before - financial peace.

"Now, when we have saved enough to buy something, we are excited," said the wife. "It's a better way to live."

Maybe we can learn something from the past by remembering that "ancient tribe" that knew the meaning of delayed gratification.

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