Unexpected Lessons in Frugality

by Joanna Harness


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My grandmother set an incredible example for me in frugality, conservation, and reuse. She grew up as the only sister to nine boys on a farm, struggled through The Depression working in a munitions plant, and then bought a small fabric store in a very poor town. She grew and picked her own fruits and vegetables, canned and baked, cooked and served only what she knew would definitely be eaten, made all her own clothes, sewed gifts from fabric remnants, and never owned a pair of shoes that cost more than $15. She was a simple, honest woman who didn't believe in excess. Her only splurge was an occasional Tuesday morning breakfast, with her Sunday School class, at McDonald's, where she would pay for her coffee and biscuit with a stash of change she stored in an old brown sock at the back of her top dresser drawer.

My grandmother passed away not too long ago, and she just may have taught me the most important lessons in frugality after her death. As I cleaned out and sorted her belongings, I stumbled into a surprising world of hidden treasures. I unearthed yards of fabric stored in boxes, with patterns and matching trims tucked delicately into them. Skincare, toiletry, and cosmetic samples were stashed neatly in clean Cool Whip containers and carefully folded squares of wrapping paper and rolled ribbon were in a small, solid box. There was outdated furniture she always meant to use again stacked into a tight corner in her store room. I also discovered a curious collection of pearl earrings and other charming jewelry she never wore, nearly full bottles of good perfume, beautiful handmade soaps, delicate silver and china, exquisite frames, and handcrafted dresses and blouses. All of them were folded, boxed, packed, and stored quite efficiently away in closets and cabinets.

I was initially impressed by the fact that she had kept these things so neatly organized, and that she intended to use them some day. Unfortunately, most of these things had yellowed, deteriorated, or simply aged past the point of being useful.

I realized that these were things my grandmother simply could not bring herself to indulge frivolously in. These were things that were not "essentials" in her mind. These could only have been gifts she had received or items she was saving for a "special occasion." Then, sadly, I began to wonder: What "occasion" could possibly be more "special" than her own life?

This realization after my grandmother's death has taught me two unexpected, but profoundly valuable lessons in frugality--lessons that have prompted me to seriously reconsider some of my own frugal habits. I learned that frugal actions are not always as frugal as they might seem:

  1. Sometimes, the best way to "conserve" something is to ensure that it is used. An item sitting on a shelf in a closet, waiting to be used is sometimes just another item sitting in your closet. If you cannot use it now, maybe you will never use it. In that case, sell it or give it away to someone who will use it.

  2. You can be frugal without denying yourself. Being frugal does not necessarily mean doing without; it means getting the most out of what you have. Learn to revel more in the wonderful gifts you receive, rather than automatically storing them or giving them away.

My grandmother died at a relatively young age, and I often wonder if the hardships she had endured wore her down more quickly than they should have. I wondered whether taking the time to pamper herself on occasion might have given her the joy to hang on to her life just a little longer.

Perhaps we cannot always measure an item's utility by its practical, material, or economic functions, alone. Perhaps there is a mental or emotional utility that should also be considered.

I realize now that I need to pamper myself occasionally with those small frivolous indulgences. If I receive a splendid bottle of perfume, a sumptuous soap, a scented candle, or a silk scarf as a gift, I will not automatically think about it as a "regift" or an unnecessary extravagance. I will revel in its luxury, even if only for a few moments.


Joanna Melise Harness lives in Colorado and is mother to two dogs. She writes a monthly fashion column and is the author of A Thousand Twisted Threads (a book of her collected poetry).

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