Updated on 01.24.09

Finding Your Way Home

Trent Hamm

small town america 2 by are you my rik? on Flickr!When I was young, I was surrounded by frugality. My parents did everything they could to shave a few dollars off of their monthly budget, from growing a large garden and wearing clothes until they were almost falling apart to driving used cars and hitting yard sales for many of our purchases.

One would expect, coming from such an environment, that frugality would come naturally to me and I would simply adopt such behaviors almost automatically in my early adult life. Unfortunately (for me), that wasn’t the case – I spent most of my twenties spending money as fast as I could earn it (and sometimes faster – I built up some serious credit card debt along the way).

Fortunately, I figured things out before the wheels completely fell off. I took serious action to right my financial ship, selling off a lot of my frivolous purchases and focusing hard on eliminating debts.

But, perhaps most of all, I began to slowly adopt most of those frugal practices I learned in my childhood.

Three years ago, my wife and I ate out almost every meal. Now, we eat at home almost every meal.
Three years ago, I’d not even bother looking for a used solution to fill my needs – I’d just buy new without thinking about it. Now, I check for used versions of almost everything I buy for myself, using services like PaperBackSwap and hitting things like yard sales and consignment shops as a natural matter of course.
Three years ago, I was already window shopping for a brand new vehicle. Now, I’m pretty happy driving my twelve year old truck until it gives up the ghost – and then I’ll start shopping for a late model used replacement (probably a minivan).
Three years ago, I dabbled in gardening, viewing it only as an amusing hobby. Now, I’m already planning ahead for the most productive vegetable garden that I can possibly plant.

Obviously, something changed. I went from being a complete spendthrift to being a fairly frugal person (I’m far from a frugal zealot, though). I now find myself regularly doing things that I would have considered ludicrous three years ago. Making my own laundry detergent? Swapping used books? Fixing a cheap dinner at home when a nice restaurant is open?

Those weren’t things that I did. Those were things that my parents did.

Over the last few years, though, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the way my parents did things – and still do things. My perception of their frugal ways has changed drastically. When I was younger, I viewed their frugality as somehow trapped in the past – it wasn’t something that I would be doing today. I also viewed it as parochial, as though their choices somehow represented the way people lived in small towns, not in larger towns and cities.

What I’ve come to realize, though, is that frugality is not just a way to save money – it’s also a way that I can connect my own life to the traditions of my family. Today, my father and I have conversations about vegetable gardening – and I’m gradually learning many of his secrets for getting huge production from tomato plants. My mother and I actually swap coupons – if we see really good ones that we’re quite sure the other will use, we’ll simply swap them.

Not only do these things save me money, they provide a vital connection to my roots. It’s opened new avenues of communication with my parents and given us several things in common that we simply didn’t have a few years ago. That’s not only been a personal reward for me, but my wife and my children have been rewarded with a stronger family connection as well.

For me, going back to my hometown isn’t just an opportunity to visit people and reconnect. It’s also an opportunity to learn and grow as a person – and take away some things that I can use in my own life.

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  1. Kate says:

    Great post, Trent. And it goes a long way to proving that although kids may stray for awhile most of them eventually come back to the way that they were raised.

  2. Betsy says:

    Trent, you ARE going to share those tomato harvest tricks, right?

    I found myself nodding along to every point you made; I find myself connecting with my parents and grandparents (and sister) on these things, and asking them how to do things more frugally/intelligently/thoughtfully rather than reaching for a pre-packaged, disposable solution.

  3. Gabriel says:

    What a sweet post. I find it an interesting contrast to my own situation: my mother came from a very poor family, and the restrictions on her life chafed her a good deal. Practicing frugality tends to upset her, so she doesn’t always approve of my interest in buying used, etc.

    When I’m with my mom, I try to keep the conversational focus on earning, rather than saving, money. My blog is quite useful for that :) http://www.alternativelivings.blogspot.com

    No matter what, though, it is always important to find things in common! I love my parents dearly, and your message of connecting is so vital. Great post, Trent!

  4. Avdi says:

    I love it! This kind of rooted approach to frugal (yet abundant) family life is precisely the spirit I’ve been trying to capture in writing and in practice. I have the blessing of having a very close relationship with my (very frugal) mom, and she’s definitely an inspiration to me.

  5. gsb says:

    I think a lot of times as children grow and leave the house they tend to want to prove their independence by being totally different than the way they were brought up. After a few years, they usually realize they didn’t have it so bad and begin to reevaluate their priorities and lifestyles. I think more than not they end up with many of the traits that their parents taught them growing up. I speak from experience!!

  6. Studenomics says:

    It’s funny because 3 years ago I was in my first year of college with the mindset that you only live once so no point to save every penny. I used to eat out always and buy the newest gadgets. When someone told me about measures they took to save money I thought they were “cheap.” Now I am fairly frugal, I still travel and try to enjoy myself but I focus on saving money in any way I can. Now when someone tells me about foolishly spending money I just shake my head.

    Also I wish my parents were as frugal as yours. My father is but my mother is not. She’s not a big spender either, she just isn’t good at saving money. I feel like the parent because I am always reminding her not to buy things that we don’t really need.

  7. Dave says:

    One of the best things I’ve found for “getting back to my roots” is BBQ. I recommend it for anyone who loves cooking and relaxing. You’re basically taking some of the worst (and therefore cheapest) cuts of meat, and through time and patience, turning them into some of the best tasting stuff you can eat.

    It takes me 12 hours to cook a brisket to perfection, but when I’m done, I’ve got enough food for days. Plus, it really brings you back to the “this is the way the pioneers had to do it” mentality. I even buy in bulk and cook up to 50 lbs. of meat at once, vacuum sealing it and freezing. When I cut open those bags in the winter, it tastes like it just came off the smoker.

  8. STL Mom says:

    As Mark Twain put it:
    “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

  9. Kathy says:

    Please Please Please – tell us about the tomatos! We were just discussing that this morning – growing a vegetable garden. It’s something I need to learn.

  10. dougis says:

    Great post Trent,
    I can’t help but recall a conversation my father and I had many years ago (I was about 13 or 14 at the time and am in my early 40s now).

    He said “Son, your mom and I are going to get progressively more stupid over the next few years, then suddenly one day down the line we will make one heck of a comeback”

    I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in hindsight I can tell how prophetic he was.

  11. jana says:

    hehe, this is spot on. i do the same thing, ie talking about these things with my family more now (i give them advice on price comparisons on the internet, they give me cooking advice, etc.). i have not viewed it as a way of connecting to my roots but it is exactly it!

  12. Sue says:

    What a neat post, Trent. Your parents must be proud of what you are doing with your life and feel good about what you gained from their example.

  13. Susan says:

    How about a post written with your dad on those gardening tips for big production in the garden? We would love to hear some of his advice. Thanks.

  14. Cathy says:

    I hear ya, Trent. Despite my dad’s best efforts to teach me to avoid debt, I strayed from the path in my late twenties. I found out how smart he is, and have been a much more willing student in my early thirties.

  15. jan says:

    Very worthwhile post. Since I am addicted to reading, I find the public library the best bargain around. Besides the free books, newspapers and magazines, it is a great place to write and do quiet work. Ours even has a coffee shop (not free), but great ambiance.

    My other trick is to allow myself only so much money (cash) a week. It has been an amazing experience. I think twice before buying an expensive latte or eating out. At the end of the week, if I have any left, I put it aside for something special.

  16. I think we’ve all got to go through that phase where we break away before we can come back to the habits we grew up with. I’ve always had a healthy respect for my parents’ collective wisdom, but it’s nice to be able to put in action now that I’m an adult. (Adults still get to have fun, right?)

    It’s also been interesting to find out ways in which I’m frugal like my parents and in other ways, like my grandparents. The differences are surprising and unexpected!

  17. getagrip says:

    Of course, all this assumes the habits our parents had while we grew up were frugal and were smart. Sometimes you do have to step away and find your own path.

  18. Carrie says:

    How about those gardening techniques? I would love to hear your father’s tips about the tomatoes! ….and any advice for other prolific crops!

  19. CPA Kevin says:

    Like gsb and Sara said above, I think it’s only natural for children to rebel and “try something different” than their parents are doing. I certainly did, but quickly realized that my free spending ways of my early 20s were not sustainable. Luckily, I had their example to fall back on.

  20. partgypsy says:

    There are some things that I admire about my parents, but financial advice unfortunately is not one of them. For me it is going back to how my grandmother and grandparents lived to draw inspiration for living a quality life in a frugal manner.

  21. Karen says:

    I would also appreciate the tomato hints along with some other gardening tips. Last year we did a potted tomato plant and some peppers and herbs. Going to try to do more this year.

  22. Great post…

    Good reminder of how my own actions with money affects my children, perhaps in an indirect way. We are pretty frugal and pay close attention to our finances, so I hope my daughters see the value of how their parents handle money.

  23. Great post Trent! It made me think of yesterday when I called my mom to go shopping with me – (“Shoppers is doing triple coupons, wanna go?”). It seems from your post and many of the comments that age/maturity also has a lot to do with being frugal or not.

  24. Cory says:

    When I was in my late teens it was clear that my father was living in the past and squandering his time. He just didn’t get it. It was a rare event if I ever asked his advice.

    It’s amazing how smart he has become in the 20 years since and I fear the day he passes away and I no longer have his wisdom to draw on the way I do now almost daily.

  25. LauraGrace says:

    This is a fantastic post — I’ve been feeling the same way. My parents had a huge garden, bought meat from a rancher once a year, made everything from scratch, and cut corners whenever possible. They were both raised by folks who had lived through the agonizing privations of the Depression, and they (thankfully) were diligent in passing along the skills they learned during those times to my parents, who in turn passed them down to me.

    Unfortunately, it’s taken me almost eight years of living on my own to figure out how to apply those lessons! This recession is just the kick in the pants I needed to get going with frugality.

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