I am in a greenhouse surrounded by pots of gorgeous blooming flowers stacked tightly against one another such that when I look ahead of me, all I can see is one long burst of color and energy. Spring has announced itself in Pennsylvania, coaxing the growth of plants from barren soil, the opening of blooms displaying nature’s most robust colors and designs, and leaving a feeling of vibrancy and potential in the air. Blushing bride pinks, creamy peaches, velvety violets, and buttery yellows: the annuals call out to my mother and I as we make our way down the aisle, beckoning us to buy, and to buy now. We are at our most vulnerable—the long winter has just waned—when these annual plants are at their most brilliant. Even in Houston, where the seasons sort of blend in with one another such that you get a small inkling that change is in the air before being hit over the head with either cold or hot, the signs of Spring are palpable. Paul and I sensed this change about a month ago when we no longer needed to bundle up when leaving the house early in the mornings, and the robust sound of cheeping birds was replaced by smaller, shorter tweets.
My mother starts teetering through the aisles and looking for the plants she wants to purchase for her mother and mother-in-law to put in their gardens. She buys them annuals each year (they are both on fixed incomes and have no money for extras). After picking out some impatiens, delicate pansies, boastful marigolds, and stocky geraniums, we head over to the perennial section. “Your grandmother has determined that she is getting too old to plant flowers every year, so she has asked me to buy her perennials this time”, my mother explains to me. I stop dead in my tracks. The figures start conjuring in my mind. Personal finance blogs and books are always discussing the latte factor, or what the cost of purchasing five lattes a week is over a lifetime. Here is a real life example, except this time it is the annual plant factor: my grandmother has almost lived a lifetime and she has purchased annuals every year to plant in her gardens. How much money could she have saved if she had just purchased perennials in her 20s? What is the compound interest she would have earned on that? Would it be enough to pay her annual property tax bill in retirement? I come up with a number (at home, on my computer, using a compound interest calculator), and it literally makes my heart stop, the last several beats pulsing a resonating regret in the pit of my stomach: $29,559. As we gather more pots of flowers, I no longer enjoy the bright colors because I am immersed in my thoughts.
So many times we make choices based on the present, without giving much thought to the future. It is oftentimes that because of this, we find ourselves back in the same financial conundrums of yesteryear. With a little bit of perennial thinking, perhaps we can pull ahead, get on top of our bills, sock away reserves, and find the finances to do the things we have always wanted to do. I liken purchasing annuals to making impulsive fast food purchases on the way home instead of waiting to cook the homemade meal, or making that impulsive purchase at the cash register while waiting in line. The flowers are there, the promise of brilliance has been fulfilled, and they are cheap. Next to their perennial counterparts—a bit less brilliant and probably still green as they continue to harness their energy internally for a brilliant showing later in the season—annuals are the low-hanging fruit. Annuals come out strong and dry up fast, exhausting resources quickly. Perennials, on the other hand, take more patience, use up more energy, but last much longer. In the world of personal finance, perennials are retirement accounts with delayed and compounded gratification, and annuals are gift cards, which add to your enjoyment today. Spring just would not be spring if it wasn’t filled with the vibrant colors found on most annual plants, but annuals do not have tenacity or endurance to last more than a fleeting, albeit beautiful, moment. True endurance—incubating in the ground, flowering, spreading seeds, hibernating when the blistering cold winter rolls in again, and then coming back to life year after year—is left to the perennials.
On the way back to our own home in Houston, I know what we need to do. Over the last several weeks, the extra warmth and light beckoned us outside into our yard, and you could find us merrily working on sprucing the place up at all hours of the day. Over the unusually cold winter last year, our yard lost a lot of plants, and so we had many stumps, roots, and dead debris to remove. Our first project was to completely clean out the space behind the garage, where previously we stored all of the yard clippings/leaves/etc. over the last six months. We took out 36 City of Houston-approved compostable bags in all. Paul then planted grass seed, and put a pathway of beautiful red stones left from the previous owners leading to the back corner where we will one day house our composter.
Our yard was like a blank canvas, but not one I wished to fill with annual plants. Why choose plants that would die at the end of this summer, leaving us to have to repurchase the same amount of new plants next year? In other words, why make a decision that would fix things for the short term, but leave us in this exact same position—empty land, desiring plants with flowers, and spending upwards of $100 on new ones—next year? We needed to think like perennials and spend a little bit of extra money, patience, energy, and time in the short term in order to enjoy years and years of beautiful plants and bigger bank accounts for years to come.
In the next few days we made several choices for our yard. We entered a plant store, immediately drawn to the vibrancy and bursts of color from the annuals. But instead of filling up our cart, we by-pass them and head to the perennials. After all is said and done, we are the proud owners of a blackberry bush, a lemon and lime tree, and some clematis vines. The trees will bear us fruit for years to come, and the vines will provide shade for many happy days outside.