Updated on 04.27.09

Five Frugal Lessons from My Parents

Trent Hamm

Over the last few weeks (since the passing of my grandmother), I’ve spent a ton of time with my parents, who live about four hours away. Because of these regular visits, I’ve been able to see lots of little details about how they’ve come to live their life since my father has retired.

Here’s a recap: my parents have never earned a huge income. While I was growing up, they taught me a lot of lessons about how to live frugally and conserve one’s income (lessons that I didn’t pick up on as well as I should have at the time), particularly with children. Now that my father is retired, the two of them live on a fixed income, but they’re still creative with the ways they save money. Here are five nifty little ideas I’ve witnessed over the last month.

Every day is a swap meet. My parents are constantly giving things away: food, interesting little items they’ve collected, and so on. Giving things away? That seems like the opposite of being careful with your money.

The reason, though, is simple. If my parents have something they don’t really need for themselves, they’re willing to give it away without hesitation to friends. The friends see this generosity and know it, and are willing to be generous in return. Thus, quite often, when my parents need something – their recent need for a crib for the upstairs bedroom is a great example – they just ask the people they know instead of hitting the store.

Sure, most of the exchanges they do aren’t exact, perfect exchanges in value. I think they tend to give a lot more than they get. But when you consider that they have no real need for most of the things they give away, it all makes a lot more sense – they get something of real value to them in return when they need it.

These exchanges help fuel their social network and saves them a ton of money over time. It sounds like a good deal tome, and it’s one that I try to emulate in my own life when I find good opportunities to do so.

They always cook far more food than they need. Again, I wondered how this could possibly be frugal. They cook so much that I often wonder how it doesn’t go to waste.

It’s actually very simple. Almost every day for lunch and every other night or so for dinner, they simply have a leftover smorgasbord. They take the things they each like, make a plate out of them, and there’s the meal.

It goes further than that, though. Let’s say my parents are out and about in the middle of the day. Lunchtime arrives and they’re both hungry, but the temptation to eat out is much less because they always know there’s something to eat at home that’s very quick to prepare. So, the flexibility of their leftovers reduces their spending on eating out.

It also helps them to be flexible in impromptu social situations. If one of their grandchildren happens to be there for a meal, it’s never a problem – there’s always something on hand.

Often, they’ll “edit” the original food – turning leftover turkey or chicken or pork into salad for sandwiches, using a soup or stew as the basis for a simple casserole, or re-spicing a bland food to make it taste substantially different.

In the end, though, isn’t there still food that goes to waste? Very rarely. My mother does a very good job keeping leftovers appropriately rotated, sticking strongly to the “three days and out” rule. If the food starts to get close to this line, she essentially requires that it be eaten, at the expense of other leftovers.

In other words, they don’t fear the leftovers. They embrace them, over and over again, and by embracing them, they find all sorts of ways to make them tasty and interesting.

Who cares what others think? To put it simply, my parents have long passed the point where they worry very much about what others think of them. If someone looks down on them because of their life choices … to put it frankly, they just don’t care.

This isn’t an excuse for rudeness to others – that’s just not part of their nature. Instead, it’s a freedom to avoid keeping up with the Joneses in any way at all.

For example, every neighbor of theirs owns an ATV – and spends quite a bit of time driving them around, seeming to have quite a bit of fun. Many of their friends have ATVs as well. You might think that my father would be interested in having one so that he could drive around with them.

You’d be wrong. It doesn’t interest him that much (or my mother, for that matter), so, even though many of his friends and neighbors all have nice ATVs to drive around on, they don’t. And they don’t mind at all.

If everyone around me has a shiny new gadget, all I have to do is think about my parents shaking their head at the ATV usage around them, and then simply ask myself if I want one. In the end, when you’re falling asleep at night, it’s not the conscience of your peers that rattles around inside of you.

Invest the windfalls in your life. My grandmother left behind a life insurance policy with my mother as the beneficiary. Instead of looking at this windfall as an opportunity to spend, their thoughts immediately look towards investing it in the infrastructure in their life.

The first step is to replace their seriously ailing car with a newer model of the same type, giving them a stable vehicle for their purposes. Their second step is to pay off a bit of additional debt. The rest? Right in the bank to serve as an emergency fund.

There are no special purchases in the mix at all, aside from an already-scheduled summer vacation with us.

This is actually quite a bit different than how things were when I was growing up. When I was younger, my parents had a much stronger tendency to just spend any windfalls that came their way. We went on at least a couple vacations funded by windfalls, and I remember lots of video games and other things purchased by windfalls, too.

What changed? I think my parents realized at some point that a stable and healthy day-to-day financial state is better than having a rush of fun when a windfall comes in, followed by worries about personal finances. Perhaps it coincided with my father’s retirement, or maybe my perspective as a child was skewed.

Regardless, my parents have provided a living, breathing example of how to maturely use a windfall.

Prepare for the moments you care the most about. My mother seems to almost live for visits from her grandchildren. She plans all kinds of little things for my own kids, doing things like bringing out bowls of M&Ms (my son’s favorite little treat) and producing all kinds of little fun things to do.

My mom does this so well because she thinks about it in advance. She keeps her eyes open for big sales on specific items – M&Ms, bubble solution, and other such things – and picks them up whenever they’re on sale. Then she keeps them in her bedroom and waits for moments when the grandchildren are there, bringing them out for a great, enthusiastic surprise.

As busy as my wife and I are – as busy as we all seem to be – it’s often really easy to just go with the moment. Unfortunately, doing that often results in a lot of extra expense – and you’re often lacking the item you wish you had when you need it.

Instead, I’ve started to look for a handful of specific items myself when they’re on sale – drawing paper, washable crayons, my son’s favorite granola bars, V8 Fusion – and simply stock up when the price is really low on those items, without worrying whether or not we already have some on hand.

Why? So that on a lazy Saturday afternoon, I can get out a granola bar and a cup of my son’s favorite juice, spread drawing paper all over the kitchen table, and draw to our heart’s content. Those are the moments that I want to share with my children – and by knowing this and preparing in advance, I can save quite a bit of money and also make the moment itself easier.

Here’s the real message: your life provides you with plenty of great examples for how to live a stable, healthy, and happy financial life. Look around, keep your eyes open, and listen – and you may discover many, many great ways to live.

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  1. Thanks for this glimpse into your family. It’s amazing how much I learn from my parents even though I’ve been married for almost 12 years! I hope to be just as generous with my children as my parents still are with me.

  2. i’m a big fan of cooking more than you need. i live alone so most of the time i’m cooking just for myself. i cook 3 nights a week and prepare 4 portions each of those nights. then i have meals for the whole week in a lot less time than daily cooking.

  3. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    I also enjoy cooking much more than needed, but it presents another problem in my life.

    I tend to eat much more. I’ve had to get to the point where I cook more and before I even make plates, I box over the “extra” amount and wash what I cooked with.

    It keeps me from eating the extras and also makes clean-up that much easier! It’s simple tricks like this and the others that you have mentioned that really add up.

  4. Gabriel says:

    Great, inspirational piece. I’m going to miss my parents when I take an out of state job this summer.

  5. Alternative Livings says:

    Fantastic advice. I particularly enjoyed the bit about who cares what others think. I explore non traditional ways to earn money or find a job, so this is something near and dear to my heart. Thanks for sharing, Trent!

  6. Bill in Houston says:

    We’ve also been cooking a lot more than we need for one meal lately. Sandwiches have gotten boring so we’ve been taking in leftovers. A lot of other folks in our offices do the same thing. The only problem: the line that forms at the microwaves at noon.

    My wife made a gallon of a chicken tortilla soup the other night. It has been part of dinner and part of our lunch for three days. We’ll finish it off tonight.

    Cooking more than you need saves on subsequent meal cleanups, too.

    Speaking of the “who cares what other people think,” I live in a nice neighborhood. Most of the cars are in the 5 Series Beemer/Mercedes CLK class, with a lot of SUVs thrown in. I occasionally get a “look” from the snooty housewife as I pull into the subdivision ahead of her. The difference is, to paraphrase that commercial, “I’m not in debt up to my eyeballs!”

  7. Ah yes. The Jones’s. I knew them well. It’s really quite pitiful, isn’t it? Spending your money to impress others or to beat those near you to feel superior in some way. I don’t know if people look down on me for my lifestyle, because I know I’m doing things right. To heck with ’em!

  8. @Bill in Houston – I’d give dirty looks to the people with SUVs who are contributing to excess pollution instead of buying a more fuel efficient car. If they can afford something expensive, why aren’t they all driving hybrids and at least contributing to something other than smog?

    I’ve been through that as well. Our peers all had brand new cars, went out all the time, shopped like crazy, went to salons constantly to get expensive hair cuts, coloring, nails, etc… I thought we were just more broke than them, until they all started drowning in debt and freaked out when the economy took a dive. We didn’t freak out at all. We were exactly where we were before, actually, better off than we were before.

  9. Ryan Loos says:

    My wife is really into the making a lot of food for a meal and then freezing it or saving it for lunches over the course of our week. It saves time and money as we always know that something is waiting for us in the fridge

  10. shirl says:

    I have a greeting card framed and hanging by my computer. It is a simple statement, but oh so powerful. Contentment lies not in great wealth but in few wants. It has served us well to follow that advice.

  11. Tyler says:

    The problem with more food than you need – three straight meals of the same leftover leaves me burned out.

    Re: the ATVs – I understand the point you are making about your parents not buying one just to fit in, but is it a known fact that others DID buy an ATV to fit in, and don’t actually enjoy it? Your brief description makes me believe that the others ARE getting their money’s worth out of the purchase (i.e. enjoyment), which would lend the ideal of the bullet point more towards the thought “to each their own” versus “keeping up with the Jones’.”

  12. Vickey says:

    Hey Trent, how about a guest post from your parents on other thrifty ways they delight in indulging their grand kids?

    Looking ahead a few years,

  13. One less I can agree with is the “who care what others think”..its something my parents raised me on and honestly speaking, never understood when we were growing up (dirt poor in government housing). My mom would always tell me to be greatful of what I had as things could always have been worse..i used to wish I had Nike shoes, or even more than two pants when I was a kid, but now looking back, this was a lesson in finding inner pride and humility. Fast fwd now, with money coming in and life being better, I have the same mentality. I live my life in a humble way and don’t let the infusion of income interfere with my thought process.

  14. Marie says:

    Thanks for another awesome article. I’ve always tried to focus on what I do have instead of what I don’t have.

    I enjoy all of your help, ideas and suggestions. I also included your web site in one of my articles.

    Thanks – again.


  15. Kelly says:

    great post trent!

  16. Kathy says:

    This is the type of article I love-some good down to earth advice about life. Thank you for writing it.

  17. Frugal Dad says:

    Funny you mentioned your mother hunting little treats for the grand kids. My mom has always done the same, and since her stroke earlier this year, my wife and I have been her scout – quietly stashing items in the shopping cart for grandma to give out when the kids come by. We wanted things to stay the same between the kids and grandma, so we’re happy to do it, and the joy on both of their faces is so much fun to watch!

    When my wife and I discussed the financial implications of this new routine, we both agreed it was well worth it!

  18. Coupon Artist says:

    Bartering/swapping is such a good way of life. Not only does it help keep your own costs down and help you get rid of unwanted clutter, but it is better for the planet for things to be traded/used instead of to go to a landfill.

    Cooking in large quantities is great too- it saves time and money. You can always throw leftovers in the freezer too, if you get sick of something, so you’ll have a little stockpile for days when you rally don’t feel like cooking.

  19. spidermonkey says:

    Great post! I am 62 and no longer feel I must keep up with others. It took me a long time to feel this way…probably started in my 50’s. I honestly do not care what others have and am proud not to make silly purchases, just because others have them. I am crazy about my grandkids and try to set a good example for them. Everyone needs to live their wage…whatever that wage is! Try to do and buy things that make you happy…whatever that might be! I have noticed my friends feel the same way I do. When I get pressured in a store to make a big purchase…I just think of the small wage most store clerks make and refuse to let them influence me. I actually have a savings account which an awful lot of people don’t have. Keep up the good work!

  20. Randi says:

    My grandfather – a depression era raised man – practiced these same lessons. I am glad to say, I too, follow these (except the making an abundance of food – lived in Tokyo, Japan old habits die hard) life lessons.

    I saw first hand the results of these lessons, my grandfather, a fire fighter, and a small business construction owner….died a millionaire – both in bank account, and by the number of people who adored him.

  21. LK says:

    I noticed when I went to visit my parents this year that the things they’d always done- much like your parents, Trent,were very cool, very frugal, and also- big surprise to me- Green! For example, we had stopped using paper towels so often and had our “bag of rags” instead. I was reeeeeaaal proud of myself and almost busted out the lecture (to them, can you believe it?) and then I realized they’d ALWAYS done that. I need to pay better attention! LOL.

  22. Kevin says:

    My wife and I struggled with the “meals” issue for a while. We cooked larger meals and lived off the leftovers for a few days, but we found that we always seemed to be throwing out food that we hadn’t eaten in time. For whatever reason, some food always went to waste.

    The solution we found was to portion the leftovers into single-serving ZipLoc containers and freeze them. Now, we make huge batches of food and freeze them immediately. This has completely eliminated wasted food in our house, and has even allowed us to save even MORE money. I regularly buy meat that’s just a couple of days away from it’s “Best Before” date, and thus heavily discounted. I make a huge batch of rice, pasta, stir-fry, or whatever with it, and freeze the leftovers in single-serving containers, the same day. By cooking and freezing the meat right away, it will remain frozen until we microwave it to eat.

    In fact, just this past weekend, my wife and I made a huge pot of penne and mixed in peas, carrots, 6 sliced up (cooked) chicken breasts, partially evaporated milk (a low-fat alfredo-style sauce substitute). We each had a plate for supper, and froze the rest in 22 ZipLoc containers for lunches.

    This strategy has had numerous positive side effects. If we both get home late from work and don’t feel like cooking, instead of giving in to the tempation of hitting a fast-food joint, we just grab a couple ZipLoc containers from the freezer. Furthermore, the meals are much, much cheaper (less than $2/meal), and by making them ourselves, we can control how healthy they are.

  23. KC says:

    I’m sure my parents wasted money on lots of things, but I remember going to the grocery store with Dad. He taught me about unit pricing. He also taught me a lot about money management in general. But the thing I picked up most from them was to live within your means. They came of age in a time that didn’t involve easy credit. They’ve told me stories about getting their first home loan in 76 (compared with the giveaway loans I got in 2000 and again in 2008). They didn’t have credit cards until they were in their 40s. So my parents learned to live on what they made. The end result is now they have a comfortable semi-retirement on their own terms while they are still young enough to enjoy it.

  24. Neil says:


    A post that made me feel quite emotional, given that my father passed away recently and my mother has dementia so couldn’t continue living in the family home alone.

    I also failed to pick up on the lessons my parents tried to teach me about money (in fact I think I rebelled against them for a time). I remember that they always stuck to there budget, and if the money for the month ran out – that was it. We always ate well, but there would be no money for treats etc. until the next month.

    I think that this is the important thing about budgeting that is often overlooked. There are any number of programs that will work out a budget for you, but sticking to it is the hard part.


  25. One of the lessons that Trent did not mention was the garden. Even a small garden with just a few types of vegetables can save big money. Even when tomatoes are on sale for $2/lb, they are way more expensive than the ones you would pick from your own garden. And there is no comparison in taste between grocery store and fresh garden tomatoes. I can’t wait for my garden veggies!

  26. MB says:

    I wouldn’t say my parents taught me very many frugal lessons, although I have only recently noticed that my Dad is very frugal and doesn’t throw anything away that he can reuse in some way. We even have a trash can that he’s had for over 30 years that he uses in his workshop! I couldn’t believe it when I saw it last year!

    My Mom is not a naturally frugal person, although through watching my sister and I she now shops and buys really great toys/books for her grandkids at consignment sales and off ebay. She gets amazing deals! She even gives them for gifts. I’m proud of her for that, because we love it!

    The best thing my Mom did though was to teach me about money management. She taught me how to do my taxes, balance my checkbook/account, and live within a fixed budget.

    I’m very grateful for all my parents taught me and have done for me over the years.

  27. psychsarah says:

    You really got me thinking with this post Trent! It seems that although I don’t remember a lot of talk about money, I learned a lot through osmosis from my parents.

    I think my Dad sees wasting food as the worst possible sin, so I plan carefully to shop and cook for what we need, freezing leftovers as Kevin described above.

    I always received a lot of praise and reinforcement for my saving efforts, from the first little toy I saved up for with my allowance (an outfit for my My Little Pony-very exciting when you’re 7 years old!) to money for university, and then a down payment for a home.

    I think I also learned to value financial stability, but I didn’t realize it until later-I had friends who’s parents made it no secret to the kids when mortgage payments were difficult to make, and this stressed these young people immensely. I never had any clue if things were tight (we always had money for food and shelter, sometimes not much else, but hey, I didn’t know the difference)and this meant that I didn’t worry about money as a kid. I adore NOT worrying about money to this day, and take active steps to avoid situations that would make me worry about my finances.

    I also learned that spending time with people you love is worth a lot more than money. I recall visiting a family friend who was a nanny for a very wealthy couple with two small children. As I played in the children’s fancy playroom and in their huge yard with a swing set and trampoline, I thought how great their life must be. I made a comment to this effect to my mom on the way home. She explained that these kids don’t get to see or play with their parents much, because their parents are so busy working-that’s why our friend took care of them. I thought this was horrible, and felt sorry for these very “priveleged” children immediately! I loved playing catch and going on bike rides with my dad, reading stories and doing crafts with my mom, (stuff that now I realize cost practically nothing) and thought that these kids were missing out big time. Funny how that’s stuck with me over 20 years later…

    I guess I should thank my parents for helping me learn these important lessons, even if I didn’t realize it at the time!

  28. cendare says:

    @Trent: I bet one reason your parents are more long-term thinkers now is simply that their kids are grown up. I think there’s a temptation to make sure your kids have “the best of everything”, so it’s easy to splurge on video games, etc. with windfalls like you described them doing.

  29. Evangeline says:

    Classic advice brought forth by the older generation. Learning these lessons can help stave off the wolf at the door. Do the best you can with the tools you’ve got.

  30. Nick says:

    Don’t forget that giving things away to others reduces clutter in your home! Clutter is always wasted money! And it is much better to give something away if you aren’t using it so that at least someone else is getting use out of it!

    For example, in college I often brewed myself some coffee before my 8 am classes and labs (usually a couple times a week). I bought a decent coffee maker in order to do this. I have used it maybe 5 times since I graduated and since I moved over a year ago it has been in the box I moved it in!

    Last weekend at lunch my friend (currently in grad school) mentioned buying a coffee pot in order to save money on coffee every day. I told her she could have the one I have. Sure, I could probably get a few bucks for it on Craigslist, but I think having a friend get use out of it is just as good of a value for me.

    Great post!

  31. BJD says:

    Trent – I bet the biggest difference in how your parents are able to use the windfall now (verses when you were little) is that they no longer have you and your bothers living with them and requesting/begging for new stuff.

  32. Wilhelm says:

    Aw, this is a really lovely post. There’s not other word to describe it, really. Could you maybe blog more about how your mother pre-prepares for visits from her grandchildren?

  33. Ilah says:

    Good post Trent! I am closer in age to your parents than to you, so I feel that I have lived both sides.

    When my husband and I were first married, we were very poor–two babies and he was going to school. I chose to work only part time and stay home with the children as much as possible, so money remained tight pretty much until they left home. I’d go shopping with friends and family and want SO much to buy things. Then with the children on their own and with me working a good, full time job, we suddenly had excess money. I could pretty much afford to buy whatever I wanted when I went shopping; but, I found that I really didn’t want it. It’s much more fun to shop for good sales. Some of my favorite things have been from yard sales or from when JC Penney has their $2.97 to $4.97 clearance sales.

  34. Great post! I love leftovers– they make good lunches and second dinners.

    I have often said many leftovers taste better the next day . . .

  35. Sharon says:

    Has anyone besides me noticed that the unit prices at the grocery and other stores are done in such a way that you can’t compare products? At Sam’s I looked at two different dish detergents, and one gave price in ounce and the other in price per something else.

  36. Lenore says:

    As I write this, my 77-year-old father is in the hospital with an undiagnosed illness. Yesterday morning he was in terrible pain with labored breathing and seemed on the brink of death. Now he has thankfully stabilized, but he’s very weak and may not be released for days to come.

    My family has spent the last 72 hours on the road and in hospitals. Everyone’s nerves were taut, but we united to demand the best care and help each other cope with love and humor. It’s a testament to both my parents that we pulled together instead of falling apart.

    In the past, as a shopping addict, I would have reacted to the pain and uncertainty by splurging to distract myself. I’d have bought useless trinkets at the gift shop that Dad didn’t need or want in a pointless attempt to prove that I’m a caring daughter. (These would inevitably be sold at yard sales for pennies on the dollar because my parents have to clear out clutter sometimes.) My boyfriend and I would have stayed in a hotel with pricey amenities to relieve stress and dined at expensive restaurants to further numb ourselves. I might have wandered into an antique shop and picked up some nostalgic trinkets or bought new clothes, shoes or toiletries instead of planning ahead and packing well.

    Instead, we gave Dad more important things like vigilance and undivided attention. We drove an extra hour to save $50 a night by staying with our relatives, not Paris Hilton’s. All of our meals were cheap fast food except one dinner that will be remembered because we shared it with the rest of the family. If I yearn for a keepsake, I can snag a hospital notepad, take pictures of my loved ones or buy something cheap but useful that will remind me of the experience.

    As I made these decisions, the voices of my parents, both children of the Great Depression, were spurring me on. They have always lived within their means and been practical people. “Might as well” and “It’ll do” are the phrases that kept ringing in my subconscious. I’m glad I’ve progressed far enough on my financial journey that I could listen to them instead of letting them be drowned out by the temporary wants of an anxious situation.

  37. Georgia says:

    My dad often worked 3 jobs and mom took in washings and ironings. We never felt poor. We couldn’t have a lot of stuff, but we always got enough. They taught us the value of a dollar. I did not learn it immediately, but eventually it came through. I think parents love to see those times when you realize they were right.

    Mom kept us busy and out of trouble (6 of us kids) by having us pick fruit at the neighbors for half; having a garden in the backyard, next door and 25 miles away; raising rabbits; and working early (I started babysitting at 12 and as a carhop at 14). The 3 gardens were canned to help us eat well all year round. The garden 25 miles away was where my grandparents lived. We could visit them every weekend and till the 5 acre patch Mom & Dad rented. Boy – we hated the work, but loved the results of it.

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