In this monthly column, George Miller, TUJ’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs (ADAA), shares what’s going on at Temple University, Japan Campus (TUJ) and with his life in Tokyo. For this edition, he writes about the realities of finances and the importance of budgeting for the things that really matter.

I often tell people I grew up poor, which is an exaggeration. We weren’t poor. We got by.

My parents divorced when I was around 7 years old. My mother, who had only been in the United States for about 8 years, found a job as a waitress. My father, who met my mother while he was in the Navy stationed in her hometown of Sasebo in Kyushu, worked as a car salesman.

It didn’t occur to me then how much we didn’t have. I never knew what could be, so I made due with what we had.

But when I entered junior high school, I started seeing the differences. My classmates wore fresh new Air Jordans and other brand name clothes. I rocked the bargain brands that had logos similar to the real brands but were slightly off – a gray hippo instead of the green Izod crocodile, a guy walking his horse instead of the Ralph Lauren polo player.

When I asked for the real things, my parents shot me down.

Back then, Members Only jackets – the ones with the epaulettes – were super cool and I wanted one badly. My mom picked up a knockoff brand for me. While the real ones had a label on the chest pocket that read “Members Only,” mine had a label that read “Exclusive Club.”

And it was. I was the only one in the club.

That era, when my parents were always saying no to all my requests, has stuck with me all these years. It made me think very carefully about spending every penny, and appreciate the things I’ve been able to do. It made me recognize the value of money.

George during his college years, with his father and grandfather.

When I taught on Temple’s main campus in Philadelphia, I always thought about the cost of education for our students. Earning a college degree is wicked expensive these days. And the sad reality is that college is almost a necessity for finding a decent job that will offer a decent salary, which will allow for a decent life.

I tried to find ways to minimize their costs. Rather than asking students to buy the newest edition of textbooks for my class, for example, I established a system where former students would sell their books to incoming students. I pushed students to attend free events around Philadelphia rather than paying for tickets to high-priced shows. Like in Tokyo, there’s so much that you can enjoy at no cost.

The 8th and Poplar baseball players, a group of people who hung out all day on Saturdays and played baseball in Philadelphia … for free.

I thought about the price of education every year when it was time to apply for a merit raise. So, I never applied for a raise. The money to pay me more would have to come from somewhere. And that somewhere was from students’ tuition.

When I started doing administrative work, I thought about ways to generate outside funding for students and their projects rather than the university relying solely upon student tuition dollars.

Right now, as the associate dean for academic affairs at the Tokyo Campus, I’m working on the budget for the next fiscal year for the undergraduate programs here. There’s so much I want to do. But it all comes down to money.

So many decisions start and end with discussions about finances. It’s awful. It seems like the older I get, the more I find that life revolves around money.

People looking at the blooming trees at Yushima Tenman-gū.

Here is a short list of things I’d rather think about than money:

  • I wonder what it would be like to be a 47-year-old rookie playing third base for the Yakult Swallows.
  • Does gentrification exist in Tokyo? Or, is gentrification something that happens only in cities where there are extremely different populations of people?
  • Puppies.
  • The value of literature, and why novels matter.
  • Can you try to make a difference in the world and enjoy life at the same time?
  • Hoagies.
  • Literally anything other than money.

My grandparents in the United States were born in 1923 and they spent their formative years during the Great Depression. They were actually poor. Their experiences during those years, when there was barely money for food and the toilet was an outhouse in the backyard, stayed with them forever.

I spent my weekends with my grandparents when I was a kid. They’d split a can of soup for lunch and eat a sandwich each. Their sandwiches were one slice of cheese, one slice of bologna, a leaf of lettuce and sometimes a thin slice of tomato. Even forty or fifty years after the Depression, they lived frugally.

Both of my grandparents worked, and after their children became adults, they had sufficient money to do things. They took trips here and there but they didn’t do much. With every paycheck, my grandmother would take money and hide it around the house. After she passed, my grandfather did the same thing. When he moved into a nursing home, my father found thousands of dollars under seat cushions, in the pantry closet, in drawers and cabinets.

George’s grandparents on the Ride-The-Ducks boat in the Delaware River.

I lived similarly until a few years ago (minus the money-hiding). I scrimped, constantly worrying about paying bills. Even though I was earning a decent living, I declined to do some things because I needed to save for a rainy day.

Then, I got lucky. The magazine business I was running on the side developed a lucrative partnership and my money issues all but went away. It was liberating. All of the sudden, I was actually comfortable.

Dancers from the Koenji Awa-odori performing at Tokyo Dome City.
Followed by the crowd dancing along.

That lasted only a few years. But during those lush years, I really enjoyed life. I took friends out to dinner and bought drinks for people. I traveled, donated money to good causes and generally tried not to let money be the ultimate factor behind every little thing.

I didn’t spend freely, as I’ll always be that guy who grew up modestly. But I found that you could balance thinking about tomorrow while being fulfilled today.

I wish I had been doing that all along.

I hope our students are finding the same.