Gifts of Frugality and Abundance


When I was growing up, my parents were exceptionally frugal. They acquired nothing until we needed it, and they acquired it in the least-costly way possible. We received items others did not want and made good use of them. I remember when a cousin of mine gave us a suit he was going to throw away because it had a tear in it. My mother had the suit rewoven by one of her sisters, and I wore it for several more years.

We borrowed things and used them. My dad used to repair televisions in his spare time. Aside from getting a little bit of income, our family had the benefit of not having to fight over who watched what program because the televisions would stay with us a few extra days after they were repaired, usually because the person who had requested the repair could not get over to pick the television up until the weekend.

We bought used items whenever they were sufficient. I wish I had saved the wooden-shafted golf clubs my parents bought for me when I was 11 years old. I used them until I was 18 years old, and, unfortunately, my parents gave them away when I stopped using them.

They moved into progressively smaller living spaces as each of us left home. When I was a second-year law student, my parents sold their home and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. They told me I would always be welcome if I were willing to sleep on a pull-out bed inside the living room sofa.

Curiously, I always felt a great sense of abundance because of the way we lived. Because we shared so many things with relatives, we felt like we had access to the wealth and possessions of many families. We also felt like we could get more by simply applying ourselves more aggressively to making more money. Two of my mother’s sisters became experts at flea market buying and selling, and used to make good profits during the summers when we all lived at lake cottages.

We tended to believe that extra possessions we did not use were a burden, rather than evidence of extra wealth. We also tended to want to donate what we did not need to those less fortunate, because we felt they would appreciate them more than we would.

Although this is one of the most frightening economic and social environments in our lifetimes, it actually has caused me to try to remember back to the way we lived when I was growing up.

I do not want to make my childhood sound more idyllic than it was. We did not have the most comfortable homes or living situations. I did not have air-conditioning where I lived or slept until I was 25 years old. We had one car, one bathroom, and one small living room, dining room, and kitchen. We spent a great deal of time on labor-intensive chores, like dish-washing, leaf-raking, snow-shoveling, car washing, and window washing. We also had to haul the garbage cans to the curb twice a week for collection. We burned more calories because we walked more to play, to school, and to shopping.

My dad took the bus to work, and I took two buses to get to my high school, the first of which I boarded at 6:30 am on even the coldest Rochester, New York, mornings.

However, what I remember and what is most useful today are the twin abilities to live with less and feel richer while doing so. Those abilities are more important for all of us than ever, and I am fortunate that I had a whole childhood to enhance them.