My maternal grandparents were married and started their family during the middle of the Great Depression. Having come from a large family herself, Grandma never was afforded the opportunity to complete much public schooling. Grandpa, an only child, completed the eighth grade. He was needed as a teenager to help out on his family's farm, and later he became a skilled auto mechanic. Yet somehow, this couple managed, quite well, to live, pay all the bills on time, and raise two beautiful daughters. By the time I came along as the youngest of many grandchildren, I knew my grandparents as retirees who lived simple, meaningful lives. Some of their daily habits seemed odd to me when I was growing up. Yet, in this time when my own family is living paycheck to paycheck like so many others, I realize that my grandparents’ seemingly odd habits were practical, even progressive. Please allow me to share them with you.
Save Up And Pay Cash – After my grandparents’ deaths, their adult children discovered hundreds of dollars that my grandmother had been carrying around in her pocketbook for who-knows-how-long! These days I feel lucky to have $20 cash to spare in my wallet. Who these days feels the need to carry much of the green stuff when we can so easily use the convenience of plastic? Oh, but it is so easy to swipe my credit card and not worry about the amount. Not so, when I have to count out dollar after dollar and hand it over. I am sure my grandparents did not use credit cards. I recall how they always paid cash for their cars, trading up whenever they felt they could get the best value for their trade-in. If they ever had a mortgage on their house, it had been long paid off when they got into retirement. They enjoyed modest living, with the comfort of knowing that everything they needed, they owned outright.
Maintain What You Have – Clean and simple could easily have described my grandparents’ house. You walked in the front door onto a lovely honey-colored hardwood floor in the living room. This opened into the dining room/kitchen combo. Finish off the floor plan with two bedrooms and a bath, plus a handy utility room in the back. The floors were always spotless, just as Grandma was determined to keep the rest of the place. Grandpa was very handy about fixing just about anything around the house, especially if it involved anything mechanical. I remember Grandpa’s well-stocked tool bench built into the garage. Gutters always cleaned out, lawn meticulously mowed. You have to admit that these days, we’re often too busy to remember to clean out the gutters. One thing leads to another, then we have a water damage problem that we have to pay someone else to repair. How mundane this all sounds: my grandparents spent a lot of time taking pride in their home and vehicles. So simple, yet a great way to save money by not letting things get out of good working order.
Recycle – I am pretty sure my grandparents had never heard of going green or saving the planet. Yet, how progressive their habits seem to me now. I never understood my grandmother's way of washing and reusing every piece of aluminum foil. Now, I do the same thing. I believe she introduced the idea into our family of wearing plastic bread bags onto your feet in place of galoshes. Funny looking, yes; but it works! Grandpa saved every piece of scrap metal he could find to re-make into something else. He bent beautiful spoon rings for the women in the family, created wind chimes from bits of metal and glass, and repaired numerous items with found materials.
Shop Secondhand – I used to cringe at the sight of yet another stack of rummage sale bargains that my grandma had found just for me. She would bring pair upon pair of jeans, skirts and tops that Grandma described as, “good,” or “nothing wrong with them.” As I was entering my teenage years, my mother tactfully kept the peace between the generations by allowing me to choose a few items and return the rest to Grandma. We lived on a working family farm, so it made perfect sense to at least use secondhand clothes for doing chores or playing outdoors. Grandma did not have the luxury we do of shopping the many boutique-style secondhand clothing stores around these days, or of buying bargain items through on-line swap sites. I think she would be thrilled at the clothing selections we have at secondhand prices today.
Stock Up – Grandma didn’t have a discount supercenter where she could buy packages of items in bulk. But she did know a bargain on canned peas when she saw it, and she stocked up. After my grandparents had passed away, my family found enough canned goods stored in their garage to feed the typical family for about a year! Grandma also canned freshly grown vegetables from the garden. A huge freezer held the meat from an entire butchered hog or beef cow, and then some. I recall many times helping to choose packages of meat from the freezer, checking the dates written in marker on the white freezer paper to be sure and use the oldest meat first. In the 1930s days of soup lines, those like my grandparents who lived in rural America and knew a bit about agriculture seemed able to fill the cupboards so there would be no chance of anyone going hungry.
Do It Yourself – My grandparents probably had no choice early on. Yet, even when they could have afforded to hire help, they preferred the do-it-yourself approach to just about anything because of the money they could save. I recall Grandma unpacking the heavy duty razor and cape in preparation to give Grandpa a real barbershop-style haircut at home. She colored her own hair at home, too. Grandma was a proficient seamstress, putting together the most adorable matching dresses for my mother and aunt when they were young girls. They cut their own lawn, even purchased their own fertilizers to put on the lawn instead of hiring the lawn services so many homeowners use these days. Of course, Grandma cooked mostly from scratch so the family could have hot meals at home. The only do-it-yourself item that doesn’t seem to save our family money these days is the sewing one, and only because clothing is made so cheaply in factories. For special occasions, I still prefer sewing for my children anyway, because the memories of these handmade outfits are priceless.
Conserve – During the excessive 1980s, my grandparents were considered especially frugal people. They heated, with propane, and cooled, with a window air unit, their little two-bedroom house just the amount they needed. When visiting mid-day, I saw that the light was switched off in the front room with its big picture window, so that only natural sunlight filled the space. I recall helping Grandma unclip the clothespins from the fresh smelling white sheets she had hung on the backyard clothesline to dry. Grandpa kept a tiny notebook inside the car, where he would figure and record the exact gas mileage each time they filled up. I even remember little triangular windows in their old car, designed for an easy way to keep the breeze blowing through on a hot day, without that wasteful convenience we now call air conditioning.
Live In Community – My grandparents’ community consisted of people they attended church with, children’s school friends, neighbors just across the fence, business people in the small towns nearby, and friends they enjoyed chatting with during old-fashioned get-togethers, plus traditional extended family ties. They and their neighbors helped each other out without asking for anything but good neighborliness in return. They traded cars with the local guy who had the postage-stamp sized car lot in the closest town. They and many other working class people knew the local bank president. They supported others and got the support back many times over. Those of us who’ve considered ourselves successful, career-oriented, busy people during these past few years have probably chosen to skip some of these traditional ways of connecting with a community. We’ve chosen mega-discount store shopping even though, in the long run, it’s not always the value we get by supporting our local small business owner. We’ve failed to familiarize ourselves with people who live right next door, preferring to create an artificial sense of familiarity with newfound “friends” on the internet. Living as part of a local community not only kept the cost of living relatively low for my grandparents, but it more importantly created a safety net so that if they had needed urgent financial help, it would have been there.
Use Common Sense – If you’ve read this far, there’s a chance you may think I’ve shared nothing new with you. If so, congratulations: you have plenty of common sense! Obviously not everyone does, or our country would not be in the financial mess it’s in right now. Overall, you could say that my grandparents had a lot of common sense. They knew how to save, they knew how to spend wisely, and they certainly did not spend a penny that they didn’t have! They did not become millionaires, but they also did not leave their heirs with any burdensome debt. They felt a sense of personal responsibility to be good stewards of the resources they’d been blessed with. They did not see any sense in taking unreasonable financial risks. I recall being at my grandparents’ house one day when a traveling salesman of some sort was trying to convince my grandpa to invest in something. My otherwise mild mannered grandpa had to forcefully show the suited man the door. He’d keep his money in the local bank and under the mattress, thank you very much. I have to admit that until the nation’s recent financial crisis, I scoffed at the very idea that someone would prefer saving old-fashioned cash to the thrill of stocks or sophisticated high-end insurance investments. Common sense may not make any of us rich this time around, either – but it will hopefully help us survive.
Labels: frugal, grandparents, green, recycling, thrifty