My Years in Scotland: A lesson in MacMoney

A few months after I graduated from college, I moved to Scotland – and stayed there for 8 years. There was no minimum wage, so wages were minimal. Living expenses were pretty low so I could get by, but disposable income was negligible. Still, after four years as a very hard-working, impoverished student, I got along just fine.

Lesson 1:  Prioritize your Spending
Generally speaking, the Scots are more financially aware than we Americans are, sometimes to their detriment (the Brits can buy insurance for every imaginable little thing, e.g. employers can buy lottery insurance to cover their lost productivity if a consortium of employees wins the lottery and quits). Most people don’t have closet space issues – they have enough clothing for their needs and no more. I kid you not when I say that a noticeable number of my co-workers had a Monday outfit, a Tuesday outfit, etc. Their mortgages are very affordable because they’re strictly limited to borrowing no more than 3-4x their annual salary. You don’t automatically qualify for a credit card or even a checking account just by turning 18. Gas was expensive but car insurance was cheap, and I’m not sure there was a car on the road that got less than 30mpg. In Edinburgh, people were more interested in putting money into their homes and their education, while in Glasgow they preferred cars and designer clothes. What did I get from that? That you can achieve whatever financial goals you set as long as you stay focused on a small number of things. For me, that’s (1) Travel and (2) a healthy savings account.

Lesson 2: Figure out the line between MoneySmart and Tightwad
It was hard to adjust to The American Way of No Deprivation when I returned to this country in 2000. My salary doubled overnight, but I knew that by NYC standards it was barely livable – if you spent like a New Yorker. But I spent like a miserly Scot. I revelled in Macy’s Midnight Madness sales, stalked supermarkets offering double coupon days, ate at Blimpie’s when my favorite sub was the daily special ($1.50 off) – all of these things that just did not exist in the UK. Sometimes I overdid the frugality, like getting overly picky about splitting bills (totally acceptable to the point of being a social discourse phenomenon in Scotland), and I’m still retraining my brain to identify moments when it’s okay to loosen the purse strings a bit.

Lesson 3:  Don’t completely combine finances when you get married
I truly did my best to negotiate a way for us to handle our joint finances, but I’m a natural born saver and he was a natural born spender – who earned 3x what I did (a bigger pittance, but still a pittance). I had convictions but no confidence, so Mr. MacSpender trod all over Mrs. MacSaver and spent until the balance was under $50 by payday. Following a budget was not even an option because he thought it was “too much hassle” (his excuse for a lot of things). It wasn’t until we split up (for very, very non-financial reasons, but I’ll spare you the TMI deets) and I had full control of every penny that I realized how much I missed that. If I ever take another trip down the aisle, there will be three accounts: his, mine, ours. Even if he’s a kazillionaire.


One Response

  1. I think it’s funny you should mention how the Brits have every imaginable insurance products. After all, it is the home of Lloyd’s of London, right?

    The one thing that jumps out at me in this post is how your former co-workers have a Monday-Friday outfit. I actually think that’s a great idea! It’ll spare me time and money.

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