The Emergency Owl

by Amy Burns


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In a constant effort to stay on top of our finances, I have never kept much cash on hand. Cash always seems to get frittered away on the little things, and often we didn't remember just what those little things were.

But what about those times when you just want to buy a Sunday paper for $1.79? Or take the kids for a simple ice cream cone? We found ourselves using the debit card for those same little things. Lo and behold, the receipts would get lost or the small purchase went unrecorded.

I finally wised up. Wising up came in the form of a ceramic owl bank from the 1970s. It belonged to my father-in-law, who passed away last summer. He was an inveterate saver of his change and had giant buckets of quarters in his closet. He never used a debit card; he'd simply count out whatever change he needed for his purchase, go to the corner store, and come back.

My father-in-law was a deeply frugal man. He grew up on a small farm in the Upper Midwest during the Depression. Money was always hard to come by in those days. One of the ways he hedged his financial bets was to keep cash on hand at all times. Even though he was using cash, he wasn't frivolous or foolish with it.

My mother-in-law passed on the owl bank to us. It was full of quarters. We loved that it came from Grandpa and placed it on our kitchen table among our ever-rotating collection of treasures. Soon, we started raiding it when we needed $2 for a Sunday paper or a few bucks to rent a video, something we don't do very often. One week I counted out enough to get us the eggs and orange juice we needed. I always had a quarter for the Aldi shopping carts. We started calling it the Emergency Owl. And the Owl was good.

Soon the Emergency Owl began to feel a little light. We started adding our change back to it, including dollar bills here and there. The Owl got moved to our bookshelf. The more I looked at it, the more I realized how wise the Emergency Owl really was, and how it had freed us from continually relying on a debit card. I thought to myself, "We are very frugal people. If we want to take a few bucks occasionally and buy a paper or even…gasp…a coffee, that's okay, as long as it comes from the Emergency Owl."

My husband, who has never been as comfortable as I am with total frugality, now feels he has a little stash when he wants a video after a long week at work. He really enjoys being able to raid the Owl. Maybe we take ten or fifteen dollars a month from the Emergency Owl. It's a way of affording a few of life's little luxuries, and that's all we really want. We more than replace it with our change.

Perhaps more importantly, the Emergency Owl's prominent place on our bookshelf is a constant reminder of my father-in-law and his wisdom. He lived a hard life, but he never hesitated to spend on a little present for someone else or for himself. The Emergency Owl has taught us the lesson that living on a strict budget all the time can be draining. We all need a little mad money once in a while or it's difficult to maintain our overall commitment to frugality. By saving our change in the Emergency Owl, we've learned that we trust ourselves enough to fritter away a little bit, and that it won't hurt the total financial picture. Spending a little bit on some small luxuries has made us smarter and firmer about the big costs.

Our Emergency Owl has been a great addition to the household. We'd forgotten the simple pleasure of putting coins in a bank. Our children enjoy helping with this task and it's a great teaching moment. Every day I silently thank my father-in-law for his wisdom and contribution to our happy and frugal home. I think he would have been proud to see his grandchildren placing quarters in the Owl.


Amy Burns is a stay-at-home mother of two young children. Having recently survived a move from the Southwest to the much more expensive Windy City, she is enjoying applying frugal living techniques in a new environment.

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