I often chuckle when I browse recent articles with experts
advising readers on frugality in the current tough economy. As a
self-employed writer married to a small-business owner, I’ve lived with
income fluctuations for years, and often find the “tips” most “experts”
preach are things I’ve practiced for years.
Clip coupons? (Yep ... saved $19 in one recent grocery
trip using coupons.)
Shop insurance carriers and increase deductibles on
coverage to save money? (Yes, again.)
Keep your car longer? (I’ve always kept cars for a long
time; I’ve driven my 10-year-old Saab for the past seven years and hope to
get at least another 100,000 miles out of it.)
Not that trying to save money isn’t more important than
it’s been in a long time. Many Americans have lived lives of abundance for
years, and even our poorest citizens are better off than the majority of the
world. But with double-digit unemployment and a rising cost of living,
frugality is suddenly chic.
Although the current recession is unquestionably severe,
so far it doesn’t touch the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment
rates reached nearly 25 percent and had only dropped to 14.6 percent as late
as 1940. Since I was born later in my parents’ marriage, they were older
than my peers’ parents and experienced the Depression first-hand. They’re
both gone now but I often asked them what that time was like.
My parents lived with my dad’s parents on the family farm
for the first seven years of their marriage: They simply could not afford to
get their own place. Mama used to tell me, “We didn’t have any money but
because of the farm, we did have food. I remember reading the newspaper and
seeing photos of people in Richmond going through garbage cans looking for
So part of what helped my
forebears was living in a rural environment. The farm produced vegetables
that could be canned during summer harvests, keeping vegetables on the table
Biscuits were made from scratch each morning,
there was a cow for milk, and the farm’s eggs and chickens also provided
food. Male family members hunted and fished.
But something tells me that even city-dwellers were a
different bunch then. People who endured the Great Depression were part of
the group Tom Brokaw dubbed “the greatest generation.” These people knew the
meaning of frugality and self-sufficiency before the Depression actually
hit. They were grateful for what they had, knew how to live on less, and
those fortunate enough to have work, worked hard. They were content in any
job they did because they worked for their family’s welfare and not
necessarily for personal fulfillment.
At Christmas, Mama and her four siblings each received one
small toy, an orange and perhaps some candy. Compare that to the boatloads
of toys and expensive electronic gadgets many kids today receive at
Christmas. One of that generation’s mottos was “use it up, wear it out, and
make it do or do without.” People learned how to repair things and grow
things; they didn’t live in a disposable society where perfectly serviceable
items are thrown away just to get something new.
Some say frugality hurts the economy. But frugal people
likely have less debt and more savings, an important buffer in times of
income reduction or lost jobs. One way my Depression-era parents influenced
me was by emphasizing home ownership. We live in the second home we’ve owned
during our marriage; deciding to postpone moving, we refinanced our home to
a 15-year mortgage and are now mortgage-free, a godsend in tough times.
One Internet blogger observed, “If you can’t make more
money, you can spend less — and that’s the equivalent of making more money.”
Put another way, it’s like something a friend once told me: “It’s not how
much money you make, it’s how much you get to keep.”
Years ago I read a wonderful book called Your Money or
Your Life (Penguin Books) that had a simple premise: Most people must work
to live, but working has costs — such as costuming (clothes needed for one’s
profession), commuting, day care for children of working moms and the cost
to “de-stress” via expensive vacations. The answer: Evaluate how you live
and what’s really important in life.
Lessons our parents or grandparents learned are now being
taught by a rough economy to many who don’t remember anything but good
times. Another lesson from our forebears: People helped each other then and
we can help each other now. We’re all in this together.
As we enter a new year, I don’t think it would hurt at all
to look back at that “greatest generation” for inspiration — and to say a
prayer of thanks for what we do have in life.
This column is meant
to provoke thought, so we welcome reader comments. Send e-mail to:
[email protected] (please enter “Perspective” in subject line), or send
written responses to Cooperative Living, Perspective, Attn. Bill
Sherrod, P.O. Box 2340, Glen Allen, VA 23058-2340.