Raised in the Shadow of Frugality

by Arlene Geller


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My mother loves a bargain so much that she practically claps her hands with joy after a shopping spree. Spree is probably the wrong word since it implies a lot of shopping and therefore a lot of spending. Neither is true. Her bargain hunting usually involves buying one item at one store, and another item at another store, always on sale and always with coupons. It's a bargain to her, but the price of gas is never factored into the equation. She doesn't drive. Others do.

On a recent outing, she patiently waited on the customer service line at my local supermarket after I said that my five-percent discount certificate was about to expire. I took off for the yogurts and then swung my cart back around the aisle in time to see her grinning and practically break dancing towards me, waving the recouped four dollars in her fist. Well, maybe not break dancing. My mother is almost 85.

After the grocery store, we hit the pharmacy, again with a $3 off coupon that she wanted to apply to my purchases of the day before. She strode in, put in her request, the clerk consulted with the manager, and three singles appeared in my mother's hand. She came back to the car, smiling ear-to-ear, and said "That was fun!"

I think this favorite pastime of hers-finding the bargain-helps to keep her going. What gives her the biggest giggle is the senior citizen bus trip to Atlantic City. It gives her something to do and people to be with, and money to boot! She pays $12 for the bus and lunch and receives $15 to spend at the casinos. For someone else, the $15 would be gone in a flash. My mother pockets it, enjoys the outing, the other seniors, the lunch, and the fact that she has made money on the deal.

A pioneer, my mother was the original recycler. When I was growing up in the '50s and '60s I would watch her carefully unwrap a present and save the wrapping for later. She would then gingerly fold it and place it in a box. When I needed gift-wrap for a present, out it would come and be reused. It was hard to hide all the creases from the different size of a previous present and it seemed so obvious to me that the paper was not newly purchased. Yet today she would receive a commendation from the National Recycling Coalition, along with her other tree-saving tricks, such as ripping napkins in half to make them last longer, and writing on the other side of paper and envelopes. And the guilt she would make us feel if the toilet paper ran out faster than she expected. At least we didn't have to reuse it!

My mother also recycles presents. The towels I bought her because I thought they so perfectly matched her kitchen are now perhaps not so perfectly matched but doing duty nonetheless in my cousin's kitchen. The new pocketbook I picked up for her is now swinging from her best friend's arm because my mother needed a birthday present for her friend and, I am informed, there is nothing wrong with the pocketbooks my father bought her from their dating days. "The old styles come back you know!" she loves to remind me as I wince yet think of an artsy store that sells vintage clothing and memorabilia that looks suspiciously like things my grandmother owned. People give my mother their newspapers, magazines, and books when they are done with them, and she doesn't care about being up-to-date, as long as they're free.

Her spare room looks like a yarn store with boxes and boxes of skeins in every color imaginable-and some not. Her freebies often cost me. If I slip and mention that I might go buy myself a new winter hat, she will whip one up before I get a chance in colors I never thought anyone would put together. The new coat, scarf and gloves I have to buy to provide matching outerwear for my new hat do not get factored in. I make the purchases and wear the hat because she'll hound me to death if I don't.

I lost count of how many sweaters I have worn over the years that got eyeballed and elicited "I didn't make that for you, did I?" with a look of disbelief that I would actually pay for something I could have gotten for free. I always quickly respond that I did buy it on sale, and I start trying to impress her with my great bargain hunting skills, which are, I must admit, quite formidable. She especially loved the $100 jacket I ended up getting for seven. "You're just like your mother," she beamed, as she packed the bagels to take home that I was about to throw away.


Take the Next Step:

  • Think about frugal people you know and what habits of their's you'd like to cultivate
  • Find more frugal habits in The Millionaire Next Door.

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