Learning to Be Thrifty
Those of us with Depression-era parents possess important skills for navigating the current economy.
My siblings and I used to laugh at our mother’s habits. For one thing, she saved everything. Pieces of tin foil, freezer bags, jelly jars and Styrofoam cups were never discarded and often put to secondary uses. I’m fairly certain she never purchased a piece of Tupperware or similar storage product. Instead, she used various sized butter tubs and other recycled containers to store her leftovers.
Our mother insisted on making her own soap. She cooked completely from scratch and never bought processed food. She could stretch a $3 whole chicken into multiple meals. She planted a garden each year and stocked her huge freezer with home-grown vegetables, frozen berries and meats bought in bulk.
We were baffled by her frugal behavior. After all, we lived in the culture of consumption, the age of Walmart, a time in which one swipe of a Visa card could put any goods or products immediately into our hands. We enjoyed a safe and secure middle class life. In our world, parents had stable careers and pension plans. Market forces ensured that we were introduced daily to new and improved products that promised convenience and speed. Disposable stuff mattered and we had the discretionary dollars to replace consumables at will.
My mother, however, grew up in a different culture. She was a child of the Great Depression, a time during which 20 percent of the nation’s children went without proper clothing or sufficient food. In some regions, the level of malnourished children was as high as 90 percent. Three million children between the ages of 7 and 17 were unable to remain in school due to lack of clothing, the need to work or school closures.
During the Great Depression, at least 25 percent of American families had no income. Millions of families were left homeless and others lived in impoverished conditions. Families endured by living off the land and living frugally. Hoarding was a necessary behavior and resourcefulness was required to survive.
My siblings and I knew this, of course. We had great respect for how well my mother and millions of others endured what we understood to be horrific circumstances. What puzzled us was her continued thriftiness in our age of plenty.
We often teased her as she refused to throw out frayed towels, and we rolled our eyes as she got out the boiling pots and strainers to can tomatoes. She was living in the past.
Little did we know how predictably the past repeats itself.
I heard that the Great Recession, otherwise known as the late-2000’s financial crisis, was officially declared over in 2009. That declaration was no doubt made by some university-based economists using charts and graphs and stuff. For the rest of us, it’s still tough going.
I’ve lost count of my family members, friends and neighbors who remain or just became unemployed. Prices for goods and services are sky high. State and local governments are flat broke. And families are cutting back in every aspect of their lives.
My own family is no different. Indeed, our situation is exacerbated by my unexpected retirement last year, and my husband’s current battle with late-stage cancer. And all this downsizing of our income occurred just as our son was beginning college.
But I am my mother’s daughter.
I know how to cook from scratch and keep a house shining using nothing more than clean rags, a small bottle of bleach, some ammonia and olive oil (not mixed together, of course). I only buy what is on sale and I plan errands to minimize mileage and maximize fuel efficiency. I even know how to make soap.
Thanks to lessons learned from my thrifty mother, I’m well-equipped to survive and thrive while riding out the economic impact of the Great Recession and the other circumstances of our lives. And as we work together to stretch tight dollars, my husband and I find ourselves growing closer. The culture of consumption has lost its power over us.
As for our son? Right now, he rolls his eyeballs when we limit his spending. And it most likely feels unfair to him that his family is on a tighter budget than many of his friends’. After all, he cut his teeth consuming whatever he wanted. But he is trying.
He’ll get there. And he will be a better person for it. I know this from direct experience.