Five Frugal Lessons from My Parents

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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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