My Grandma was Truly Frugal

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Grandma and my Mom in 1944

Yesterday I promised to tell you about my frugal Grandma.  Grandma was born in 1914 and passed away in 2007.  She grew up during lived through the Great Depression which I’m sure affected her lifestyle for her entire life.  In her mid-twenties, my Grandma contracted tuberculosis and spent almost three years in a sanitarium. When she finally recovered enough to be discharged, she discovered that family members, apparently assuming she would die in the sanitarium, had been able to remove her life savings ($2000!!)  from her bank account.  Not having anywhere to turn, she joined the order of the Little Sisters of the Poor, becoming a nun where she took vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and hospitality. Unfortunately, when winter came Grandma became very ill with a serious case of pneumonia.  Grandma said the nuns were afraid it was the tuberculosis, and they insisted that she leave.  Grandma says somehow her brother, who she hadn’t seen for years, and literally had no way of contacting her, came to get her and took her away from the Sisters.

After she recovered, her doctor told her she had better move to Arizona if she expected to survive with her lung problems.  All she had left at this point was a suitcase with a few belongings, the clothes on her back, and she used the last of her money on a train ticket to Arizona.   She said she expected to  see cowboys and Indians when she got off the train. She was a twenty nine year old single woman, and during those years, she was considered to be an old spinster.

She found a spinster’s home to live in once she arrived in Phoenix and shortly thereafter found a job in a secretarial pool with some of the other ladies.  She was an excellent stenographer and wrote the most beautiful shorthand. I always loved seeing that secret language she could write. After she retired, she would often transcribe phone calls from family members just to stay in practice.  She and my Grandma met at the workplace, and were married three months after meeting.  They spent a few days together before Grandpa got his orders to go overseas, to fight in World War II.  Shortly thereafter, Grandma learned that she was pregnant with my mom.  After about 18 months active duty, Grandpa was discharged from the service.  He began building their home, the house in which he and my Grandma would live for almost fifty years.  It was a nice little home, and I have fond memories of the times I spent there.

The House That Grandpa Built

The House That My Grandpa Built - 1948

But let me get to the point of my post today – to share with you the ways in which my Grandma was frugal:

  • She tracked every single penny. If she took you out to lunch and spent $0.99 on a burger for you, it went into her little record book as NINETY-NINE CENTS, not an even dollar.
  • She also counted pennies when paying the cashier.  Not because she was poor, but because she liked using her pennies.  I guess pennies probably had more value back then.
  • She managed to save over $50,000 by the time she retired in 1978, and had two pensions coming to her for retirement.  She lived so frugally, the two pensions were 5 times as much as what she needed to get by.
  • She was a small woman with scoliosis; as a result, it was difficult for her to find clothing that fit.  I never, ever saw my Grandma in pants, she always wore dresses.  And once she found something that fit, she wore it for years and years. She had this one blue dress with white flowers that she often wore in family pictures, it was obviously one of her favorites.
  • Her clothes lasted so long because she often hand washed them to save on electricity and water.
  • She had concrete wash tubs on the porch with a hand wringer set up to wring hand washed clothing.
  • She never had a clothes dryer. Her clothesline was awesome with thick metal lines. Grandpa built it real low so Grandma could reach it easily.
  • She kept a little rectangular tub in the sink under the kitchen faucet and washed her hands, or washed the dishes over that little tub, then she would cart it to the bathroom to dump in the toilet to flush it.
  • She rarely filled the tub with water, instead taking sponge baths.
  • When she did use the bathtub, she would use the water to flush the toilet.  I think when I was little, I didn’t even know how the toilet flushed at her house because she dumped water down it with such regularity. Or maybe I remember her freaking out because I tried to show her how to FLUSH the toilet.  ;-)
  • Once the sun went down, she stayed in the kitchen, with one 60 watt bare bulb lamp. The rest of the house was pitch dark.
  • She listened to the radio for entertainment. While they had a television, they watched only two or three shows a week, and kept it off the rest of the time. Grandma’s favorite show was Lawrence Welk.
  • They definitely didn’t have cable, they used rabbit ears with aluminum foil wrapped around them.
  • She had an old fashioned rotary phone, with no frills and no long distance.
  • She would save envelopes from bills, open the envelope up, smooth it out and use it for scratch paper.
  • She wrapped presents with cartoon funny paper.
  • She reused wrapping bows and ribbon again and again. We knew opening a present from Grandma meant removing the bow and handing it to her for safe keeping for the next person’s gifts.
  • She crocheted slippers for all her grandchildren with inexpensive yarn.
  • When she was first living in Phoenix, she would crochet beautiful tablecloths, then go around to all her neighbors selling raffle tickets as a way to make a little extra money.
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Grandma's Crocheted Tablecloth

  • She saved rainwater that dripped off their roof in 55 gallon barrels and used that water to wash and rinse her hair and water plants. She claimed the rain water did wonders for her hair and made it very soft.
  • One of her hobbies was collecting rocks.
  • She stocked up on food when it was on sale. She always had lots of canned goods on hand.
  • Another hobby was making baby quilts out of old clothes. They were really pretty! I have one she made for my first son.
  • She used old worn out clothes to mop the floor with. She had one of those mops where you could replace the head, but she just draped an old t-shirt in where you would put a new mophead.
  • My mom started doing her own hair when she was ten, and started doing Grandma’s hair, too. Cutting it, and she would do perms for her, for her entire life.
  • Grandma never wore makeup, or painted her nails.
  • She wore sensible shoes and would wear one pair until they wore out.
  • She would save her old nylons for us kids to use to play with. We would put them on our head and make faces, or we’d use them to keep our hair up out of the water when we were in the bathtub (mom had to go home for a few months after my dad abandoned us).
  • She made many foods from scratch, like she made her own egg custard and yogurt, and pizza dough.
  • Grandpa owned a fish and chips restaurant downtown and Grandma worked downtown. Since Grandpa didn’t like to drive (he was nervous after the war), Grandma would drive him to work and park the car there at the restaurant. Then she would walk to her job, which was just about two miles.  She could have taken the bus, or driven the car, but she chose to walk the two miles to work each morning, and two miles back home in the afternoon to save gas, money and get exercise.
  • Grandma and Grandpa had a small cast iron fireplace in the living room to heat their home.
  • They never had air conditioning, they always had an evaporative cooler. It only blew into the livingroom so the rest of the house was pretty miserable and hot during the summer.  This alone saved them thousands of dollars in electricity bills.
  • My Grandma would save bars of soap that were almost too small to use any longer, put them all in a jar with water and let them get soft and squishy. She would use this soap to wash her delicate clothing.
  • She had tile floors so she swept with a broom, and never had a vacuum cleaner, and obviously never had the expense of getting carpets cleaned.
  • She fed any old food to the birds, and to her chickens which she kept so she could have her own fresh eggs.
  • My Grandpa kept a garden where he grew some of their vegetables, in his later years he only planted Swiss Chard but he grew enough to supply the entire family with shopping bags full of Swiss Chard.
  • She saved all her plastic containers, like cottage cheese containers to store things.
  • She saved all glass jars.
  • She had a freezer that broke, so she used it for storing papers.
  • She had a camera, but rarely took pictures.
  • She brought home old paperwork from her job so her grandchildren could use it for coloring and drawing.
  • Grandma never had any toys at her house that I can remember. Instead, she had a desk drawer that she kept filled with all kinds of goodies that we could play with when we visited. We LOVED that junk drawer!
  • She would cut liquid dish detergent bottles into scoops.

There might be more, but that’s all my mom and I could think of in the time we talked the other day. As we talked, my mom would tell me the things she does that are frugal that she learned from my Grandma’s ways.

No wonder I sometimes feel guilty for not being more frugal! I daresay my Grandma was Queen of Frugality!

If you are visiting from the Festival of Frugality held at Eliminate the Muda, welcome to Out of Debt Again! Thanks Greg for the work you’ve done to host the Festival today (January 5th, 2010).

Was your Grandma frugal? Has it rubbed off on your family or you?

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28 comments to My Grandma was Truly Frugal

  • Awsome post! What a wonderful history to tune into for future inspiration.

    [Reply]

  • My grandmother wasn’t so much frugal as poor. Well, I suppose it was a mix.

    She married my grandfather right out of high school. She was 19 when her first kid was born. Within 5 years, they had had 3 more. So both she and my grandfather worked. Later, they scrimped even more (and he took up a paper route) to put him through college. They didn’t go without, per se. They made sure the kids got a bike, even if it was on layaway right up until Christmas. The kids had enough clothes, but not really any to spare. But things like bread were calculated to last an exact number of days, so woe unto you if you had some toast or a sandwich after school. The kids didn’t really notice much. I think it helped that it was a small town and most of the people were in the same situation.

    Shortly after he finished college, my grandfather and grandmother got divorced. Things had been rocky for years, so it wasn’t exactly shocking, I suppose. But it completely changed her world. She had to support herself and I don’t think she could have supported the remaining two kids (my mom and her brother). So they lived with their dad.

    At some point, she started dating a guy who was a supervisor at a local factory. Comparatively, it was big money. She married him, more for company and financial security than much else. When they got a house, she insisted they pay it off as quickly as possible. He complained, said they should enjoy themselves. But, sure enough, shortly after the house was paid off, the factory closed down. Her husband took an early retirement package, since he was about 10 years older than she was. With her work as a school secretary, they did okay. Things weren’t easy, but they were a lot better than earlier in her life. (I should mention at this point, she was only in her 40s. Exhausting just thinking about it!)

    The rest of the story has very little to do with finance, so I won’t sadden you with details. Suffice to say that we lost her to cancer when she was 68. She got to meet her first great-grandchild, my cousin’s son. I wish she could have met my husband Tim. She would have loved him because he is so good to me. Unfortunately, that’s a bit of a rarity in our family.

    I will say that she taught my mom how to be very frugal — which came in handy when she was a single mom, living on not-quite-full-time minimum wage. And I learned from my mom. So it is a legacy. Though one, I am hopeful, that we’re slowly learning to balance with a little bit of ease (and a little less constant, tense worry). In a generation or two we should be all set.

    [Reply]

  • What a nice tribute to your grandma. Yes, my grandparents lived through the depression and were shaped by it in many of the same ways you described.

    [Reply]

  • Wow, I just got through this whole list. Your grandmother was truly amazing! I love how she lived!

    [Reply]

  • Rainwater for your hair…I forgot about that! My mother, who was born just three years before your granma, did the same thing.

    Well…we didn’t have a 55-gallon rain barrel, but whenever we got a good rainstorm, she would collect rainwater in pans and jars, and we would use it to wash and rinse our hair. Especially in Arizona, where the water is hard, it makes your hair feel SO wonderful!

    LOL! My mother could crochet, and knit, too. I still have some of the sweaters she made, though they no longer fit me. Maybe someday I’ll have a granddaughter who can wear them. ;-)

    [Reply]

  • Oh, I have a Frugal Grandma too!
    http://www.miss-thrifty.co.uk/2008/08/11/bowing-to-frugal-grandma/

    Clearly an extraordinarily thrifty grandparent is a prerequisite for frugal bloggers!

    Really enjoyed reading about your Gran – the tip about the old clothes as mop heads is genius, and I feel duty-bound to try it.

    [Reply]

    Mrs. Accountability Reply:

    Hi Miss Thrifty!! I have read your post about your frugal Grandma! I am glad you still have your Grandma in your life. :-) My mom reminded me of the mophead one… I guess I’d forgotten all about it when I was trying to find a mop that works! I will have to try it, too. I think I even have one of those mopsticks around. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

    [Reply]

  • I recently visited my grandmother for what will likely be the last time. I heard a bunch of similar stories and examples of how frugal they were then. It really makes you wonder if we are going about things completely wrong.

    Nice job!

    [Reply]

  • Kyleen

    My grandmother made me baby dolls out of face towels/ small scraps of fabric. Year ago, I tried to make them but I couldn’t remember how. Thank you for reminding me of those dolls.

    [Reply]

    Mrs. Accountability Reply:

    Kyleen, those sound adorable. Have you tried looking on Google for images with the keywords you’ve used here? Maybe you could find something similar and come up with how to make them. Thanks for visiting and commenting! Mrs. A

    [Reply]

  • oregonsun

    Thank you for sharing stories about your grandma. It reminded me of my grandparents. Truly frugal and people who did understand the value of money. Neither side of the family had money, by today’s standards they would be considered impoverished. I never heard them complain. What a tribute to strong and determined people.

    [Reply]

    Mrs. Accountability Reply:

    Oregonsun: You are welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed reading about my Grandma. It sounds like my Grandma and your grandparents would have gotten along great. Thanks for visiting and commenting! Mrs. A

    [Reply]

  • This is an awesome post!

    Yes, my grandmother was frugal. She had to be. She had 14 kids. They didn’t have a phone until about 1980. My grandparents lived in Puerto Rico. My grandmother used to wash clothes in the river. Can you imagine? My mom told me she used to sew clothing, embroider, knit and crochet items to sell. She also grew her own fruits, vegetables and COFFEE BEANS! I still remember the smelling the coffee beans as she roasted them every summer vacation. I wonder if that’s why I love coffee so much?

    I know I took after my grandma in some aspects. I am a mother to 7 kids. LOL! Am I frugal? I’m frugal compared to my other family members, but I’m not as frugal as she was…

    [Reply]

    Mrs. Accountability Reply:

    @Getting Out of Debt, I love hearing about other frugal grandmothers! Wow, fourteen children. Amazing. My grandma only had two that lived. She named the other three that she lost by miscarriage. Seven kids! I think our grandmothers were as frugal as they were out of sheer necessity. It’s hard to be as frugal as they were when you don’t absolutely have to be. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

    [Reply]

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