Not too long ago, I asked a random sample of male friends how much they spent on their haircuts and learned the average was between $20 and $30 a month. This was interesting to me because I haven’t paid for a haircut in 15 years. I started cutting my own hair when I graduated high school and haven’t looked back since. That’s about $5,000 worth of haircuts.
The first time, it was summer and I just buzzed my head. It was easy; and I wondered why anyone ever went to a barber to do it. I became bolder, and the next year I started using scissors to shape my hair a bit more and keep it longer. I’d like to say I grew better at it, but I’m not really sure that’s been the case. A few years after I started cutting my own hair I moved to a dusty border town in Nicaragua to teach English. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and my accommodations were basic, but sufficient. I rented a small room above a family-owned restaurant near the bus station. There weren’t any mirrors in my room or in the community bathroom. I also didn’t have proper scissors—just the safety ones I used in class to help children cut paper. It was hot though, so I figured a haircut was in order.
I tried to guess the length of hair and where to cut by touch. It felt like I did a good job—but not everyone agreed. Nicaraguans could be very honest and all day people made comments.
“You know it’s only 20 Cordoba’s for a haircut here, right? That’s like fifty cents USD.”
“So you’re saying you don’t like my haircut?”
“No, it looks really bad. You can go to a barber shop right now though and they will fix it for you.”
“I can try again tonight at home.”
“Don’t worry about the money, just go now. I’ll pay for it.”
All day people offered to pay for me to go to a barber. Many were friends, but a couple of strangers also offered when they overheard these conversations. That night I did my best to fix it myself. It wasn’t great, but at least people stopped trying to push money in my hand insisting I go to a barber.
When I started cutting my own hair it was because I wasn’t very concerned with its appearance. I wanted it shorter when the days grew warmer and buzzing everything off was easy. Using scissors was more of a challenge, but kind of fun as well. Strangers only ever offered to pay for me to get a “proper” haircut that one time in Nicaragua, but it was always a multi-day process and part of me enjoyed watching the evolution of each cut. Saving money was a bonus.
When someone told me about charities that take human hair donations it changed my motivations a bit. It gave me a purpose. The charities use the donations to make wigs for children who have lost their hair due to medical reasons. Each organization’s requirements vary, but growing the length needed takes me about two years. I know how far down my face my hair has to fall before it can be donated and it’s a slow race I get to watch every day. There’s an awkward phase in there, when it’s not quite long and not quite short that I’m not very fond of but there’s no way around that. Ironically, when people begin to make comments that I need a haircut is around when I consider the awkward phase to be ending.
I’m growing my third wig right now. Somewhere in the United States a child is wearing a wig of my hair. Somewhere in England another wig sits atop another child’s head. It’s an odd thought, but one I’m very fond of.
At the start I was simply proud of being self-sufficient. In retrospect, that $5,000 saved has completely funded multiple trips abroad—which is a pretty great perk all by itself. Now, I can also directly help others. By just letting my hair grow, some child in a shitty situation will have one less thing to worry about. In a strange way, this long journey of not caring about my hair has made me begin to value it more than I ever would had I kept paying someone to cut it.
first published in The Billfold