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We Need to Have Better Conversations About Money

10/09/2013 10:22 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

I can still remember the smell of cheap plastic wafting from BiWay as I stood outside the store on the mall promenade.

"Come on," my mom said to me. "I think they have those sandals here that you wanted."

We are in search of Teva sandals. It's 1993, I'm 11-years old, and Tevas are the TOMS of the day - every girl has a pair.

My mom, of course, is being sensible. She knows the sandals in BiWay aren't Tevas, but she also knows that the pile of sandals in the BiWay bin look almost identical, for a fraction of the cost.

What she doesn't understand, however, is that I am mortified. Mortified to be going into a discount store to buy a pair of knockoff shoes that everyone will know aren't the real deal. She doesn't know I'm mortified because I haven't told her. The fraudulent shoes are purchased and, when possible, I carefully tuck my feet out of sight around my friends so they don't notice my shoes' Velcro straps are missing the "Teva" tag.

It's a situation that will play out again and again over my adolescence. My mom and I go shopping at Zellers, Frenchy's, BiWay and I always scan behind me before following her inside, making sure no classmates are watching. Probably because, like most adolescents, I am embarrassed by everything - not just my mom's sensible shopping habits.

But at the years pass I mature and eventually realize my mom has imparted some the wisdom and know-how I hold dearest today - the gift of the thrift.

That's right. I love thrift shopping and being frugal. And I'm not ashamed of it... anymore.

It took a while for me to get to this point where I can embrace my penchant for all things thrifty. But sometimes I'm still that embarrassed girl wearing fake Tevas.

I often feel judged by others, especially living in Calgary, where it seems like so many embrace the bigger-is-better lifestyle, afforded to them by the high salaries found in the oil and gas capital.

The shame strikes when I least expect it. At a recent social gathering, a sartorially smart acquaintance commented on my thrifted, vintage blazer.

"Your blazer is super cute. Where did you get it?" she asked, channeling Regina George in Mean Girls.

I told her I picked it up at the Salvation Army. Instantly her nose turned up, almost as if she smelled something funny.

"Oh," she said flatly. "Aren't you worried about lice?"

Having shopped in thrift stores since a child, I have never been worried about lice. Probably because I have never seen lice on secondhand clothing. And, besides, I wash the clothes before I wear them -- shopping secondhand does not make me an animal.

This sense of being judged comes with the territory of my thrifty lifestyle, I suppose. People fear what they don't know or don't understand so they instantly jump to conclusions, or judgments, to try to make sense of it.

A perfect example comes in the comment section of a story I wrote last week about two Calgarians trying to go for one year without buying anything.

It's pretty simple; Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz are phasing out what they purchase over the next year in an experiment coined "Buy Nothing Year." They are doing the project in stages to ensure they stick with it, and hope to better understand their relationship with money and the consumer culture they're immersed in.

Sure, their experiment is a foreign concept to many, but some of the comments left by people were surprising and frustrating.

"So more of 'just buy a few things and spread it out but make it sound more difficult than it really is in order to be showered with praise for a year' project," one person wrote.

"A REAL challenge would be toughing it out in the woods with nothing but what you can fit in a backpack, for a year, with no access to electricity. Live off of the land - can they do it?" said another.

When telling friends and acquaintances about "But Nothing Year," Szuszkiewicz said some people retorted with, "If you are doing 'Buy Nothing Year' I am going to do 'Buy Everything Year.'"

This mentality - one where we make each other feel bad and mock decisions about money - is foolish and irresponsible.

We should be applauding people like Phillips and Szuszkiewicz for having the guts to undertake a project of such scope and depth. We should talk more about our money and how we spend it and whether our decisions are prudent. We should encourage conversations about money management. Instead of immediately jumping to conclusions, or being a smart-aleck, we should be asking more questions about our culture of excess and how money affects our happiness.

Most importantly, we should quit judging how much money others make and how those people spend their money, and instead consider what we could change to make a positive difference in our lives and the lives of others.

Sure, Phillips' and Szuszkiewicz's project is unlikely to curb them from ever spending another dollar. And hopefully they'll see the project through to the end - but maybe not. The fact that they are talking openly about money, however, is gutsy and something our society could use more of.

Because whether we decide to curb our spending for a year, or buy fake Tevas to save some cash, how much money we make and what we decide to do with it does not determine our self-worth.

As for myself, I will continue to wear my 'thrifty girl' badge for all to see. I will talk openly about the amazing savings I know are out there in discount stores and estate sales and thrift shops and auctions. I will encourage my friends and family to think closely about their relationship with money and how they spend it.

There are conversations about money that go beyond where we got our blazers, how much money is on our paychecks, or how big a house we can buy.

If you want to chat about it, I'll be at Value Village.

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