Lessons in Frugality

Back then they really knew how to pinch a penny …

New Hampshire thrift and ingenuity are in style during this latest era of economic hardship. Financial gurus argue that penny-pinching is counter-productive to an under-stimulated economy, but who wants to be the last spendthrift standing when his friends are home, sitting on their nest egg?

My North Sutton coffee club is having fun making frugality fashionable. We challenge one another to devise outrageous methods that best exemplify the motto: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without!” Because we search the Internet for ideas, we’re known as the Frugal-er Google-ers. Wrapping baking potatoes in the greasy side of emptied margarine foil and crafting creations from dryer lint have earned us names like Waste Not, Want Not Wendy, Darlin’ Darnin’ Diane and Make Do and Mend Maria.
I’m rejoicing that parsimony is no longer passé because I’m a little on the miserly side. When I send my kids on errands, I demand exact change and receipts. My husband and I hope to instill in them lessons we learned as kids. Our parents grew up during the Great Depression, so we were raised on stories of thrift and sacrifice.

“When I found an orange in my Christmas stocking,” my dad would say, “I peeled it carefully, ate it, stuffed the peel, stitched it and used it for a baseball.”

My husband’s father told tales of penury like: “Mom sent us kids to bed with hot potatoes. They kept us warm all night and then we ate them for breakfast.”

They joked about it as adults, but being kids during the Depression was no laughing matter. And I’ve often thought of the challenges my grandparents faced. My dad’s father, a carpenter, built his house and lost it to a bank foreclosure. He and Grandma tenant-farmed, and didn’t own a home until well into their 60s. To earn a few dollars a day, my mother’s dad took a train to work on Monday and didn’t return home until Friday night. Grandma lived with her in-laws and raised the kids.

Through lifetimes of austerity, my grandparents saved enough to live in comfortable retirement. Grandpa Smith made a wise investment, and ended up with what he considered pretty near a fortune. My brother and I were on a summer visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s the day that Grandpa came home from the bank. We watched him swagger into his living room. With a flourish, he sat squarely on a straight chair and planted his long legs in front of him. His slender fingers delved into his hip pocket and produced a bent and tattered wallet. He reached into the folds and grasped a wad of 50 dollar bills. A smile lit his face as he held the money high above his head and flung the bills into the air. While my brother and I scrambled for whirly-gigging fifties, Grandpa shouted “I sold the farm!”

Maybe someday we’ll be tossing money to our grandchildren. For now, we’ll continue preaching fiscal responsibility to our children. We warn our son against get-rich-quick schemes with the adage, “To double your money, fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.” And when our daughter grimaces over her prom dress budget, we remind her that “the cheapest way to improve your appearance is with a smile.” NH