Science has spoken. It’s not my fault that money flows through my hands like, well, money. I can blame my ancestors. According to a study, Genetic Effects on Judgment and Choice, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, spending habits aren’t just learned. They are genetic.

I don’t need to contact Henry Louis Gates to do genealogical research to see the patterns in my family tree. My grandfather was a gregarious, fun-loving fellow who worked hard but liked to live large. He enjoyed going to the racetrack, slipping ten-dollar bills into maitre d’s hands and indulging his grandchildren (i.e., me) in whatever frivolity their little hearts desired. “Sweetheart, it’s only money,” he used to say, peeling off crisp bills.

His wife, on the other hand, was frugal to an extreme. The Depression, or, for that matter, the deprivations of life in Czarist Russia, never ended for her. She saved used tea bags and was loath to buy new clothes or, god forbid, go to a beauty salon. She stopped shopping in 1939. In the late 1960s, she still had flapper dresses tucked in her closet, and she showed up to work at her Center City pharmacy attired like a silent-film star. Her penny-pinching had nothing to do with her finances. By all standards, Grandma was loaded.

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If my grandmother seemed to be in mortal agony when it came to spending, science backs this up. In another study, Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction: Tightwads and Spendthrifts in Marriage, conducted at the University of Michigan, brain imaging revealed that frugal people literally feel “pain” at the thought of spending. I could see it in my grandmother’s eyes. When I’d walk into the pharmacy in a new dress, she’d ask, “How much did you pay for that?” Whatever I replied would be met with a cluck and an eye roll. There was a condescending smugness to her interrogations, as if there was moral high ground to her frugality.

My father took after my grandmother. Money was for making and saving. Not for spending. He bought everything–including houses and cars–with cash. The idea of buying something on credit made him turn green. He took no pleasure in material possessions, and spent most of his time running around the house turning off lights. As a teenager, I remember asking if I could purchase an apple from a vending machine in 30th Street Station. “Twenty-five cents for an apple?” he cried. “Absolutely not!” READ MORE

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  • Sally Wiener Grotta January 26, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    I don’t know if frugality is in my gene pool, but the endorphin high of finding a gorgeous designer blouse in a consignment shop for a fraction of the original price definitely is.

  • Wally Hayman January 23, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    Well, you can’t take it with you.

  • A.Rey January 22, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Your parents sound EXACTLY like my parents. Except with the opposite gender exhibiting the behavior. My Dad loved spoiling us girls, giving us everything his orphaned childhood didn’t give him. My mom, on the other hand, found herself the head of her parents household after college and (as a close family friend likes to say) she can make $1 buy $1.25 worth of stuff. I hope that I fall in the middle.

  • Beth Havey January 22, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    YES! Great post. I think many of us have a little bit of both–I do like spending and when we weren’t retired, I did more of it then I do now. My mom was a widow raising 3 children so we were always on a budget. My husband has always been good about spending. And the couple thing? I do have a set of friends who both love to spend money. It’s been very hard for them over the years, though now I think they’re okay. Thanks, Beth

  • Liz Bales January 22, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    We have both in my extended family. We seem to be one or the other. I know which one I am! You may not be a psychologist, but you hit this nail on the head.

    “I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me that the spenders in my family tended to be extroverted, fun loving and optimistic. By comparison, my frugal relatives were introverted, anti-social and prone to worry. They worried because they never had “enough.” Someone else always had “more.”

  • Barbara January 22, 2016 at 9:37 am

    Interesting research. I fit into the T/W category, but perhaps not to the extreme. I hesitate to spend money on non-necessities.