Friday, October 21, 2016

My Frugal Upbringing

We can learn from our ancestors how simple and frugal life can be. Allow me to reminisce to my childhood. I grew up in a home owned by my grandfather and grandmother. My great-grandfather built it. He built a lot of the homes in my old neighborhood. My grandfather paid for it in cash to his father. There were no mortgages back then.

It was in the city and was a 2 story home. My grandparents, my mom, my sister and I lived on the 2nd floor. At one time or another, different aunts and uncles and cousins lived on the first floor. Each floor had a small living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, good size pantry and three bedrooms. The closets were small so storage was limited. Each floor had a fireplace but I don't ever remember them being used. They were actually covered up. Upstairs we had a lovely screened in porch where I spent many hours reading. I was an avid reader and I still am. I spent many hours reading Nancy Drew books and Little Women that I borrowed from the library. Downstairs was a nice porch where I spent a lot of time with friends playing Monopoly and Clue. This was one of my favorite things to do and hours upon hours were spent with board games. 

For a few years that I can remember, the house was heated using a coal stove. Every once in a while, the coal man would come and fill up a bin in the basement with coal. The coal had to be shoveled and brought up in a bucket to the stove. My grandmother would be so mad when I would play in the coal bin and come upstairs with my clothes all black. Finally we got a gas heater and the old coal stove sat on a landing between the two floors for as long as I can remember. My cousin and I used to leave notes for each other in the stove. It was our secret and it was such fun. 

The heat was turned down at night and you got warm under the blankets and quilts.

My grandmother did all of our cooking. I don't remember her using recipes. She just seemed to know how to cook. She used to cook our meat till it was very well done because my grandfather didn't want to see any blood coming from it.  My uncle(her son) was a butcher so we had good cuts of meat. However portions were not what they are today. One T-bone steak fed all 5 of us. We ate much healthier back then. My grandmother was a simple cook. Most meals consisted of a small piece of meat, a boiled potato, and a spoonful or two of vegetables. If she cooked a roast on Sundays, we would then have mashed potatoes and gravy with some vegetables. That was my very favorite meal and it still is to this day. Fridays were meatless consisting of tuna fish creamed on toast, crab salad, shrimp salad, a macaroni salad, baked tomatoes with saltines, etc. About once a month or two, my grandfather would bring home fried fish from the local fish store. That was a real treat. What is considered a fish fry in this area where I live now fed all 5 of us.

Once a week my mom would buy a quart bottle of cola and perhaps a bag of chips. She would make a dip to go on the chips consisting of cream cheese, milk and catalina dressing. I still crave and make that dip once a year. That was the snack for us for the week.  

My grandmother would bake the best apple pie, make an applesauce cake with a glaze poured over it that was to die for, and make cakes and cookies. She was a great baker. But desserts were far and few in between. Food was simple back then and mostly made from scratch. When the catalina dressing and other processed foods showed up in markets, it was rare that my grandmother used them. I would walk the 7 blocks each way, when I was older, to go to our small market to get some canned tomatoes, tuna, canned crab meat or shrimp, tomato soup or canned vegetables. But I don't remember her using much more than those once in a while. 

If you made a cake, you used a spoon to make it. We didn't have all of the appliances of today. You had a cookie sheet, a roasting pan, some pots, and a skillet and that is what you used for your meals. There were no toaster ovens, microwaves, electric mixers, etc. You made your coffee or tea in a pot on the stove.

We washed dishes in the sink in hot soapy water and they got dried with a dish towel right away. We used a dishcloth to wash the dishes. There was no dishwasher.

We had a Freihofer bread delivery man who came in a cart pulled by a horse, a vegetable delivery truck, and a milkman who delivered to the house weekly. I loved feeding the horse an apple once in a while. I also remember the man who came in a truck about once a month and would sharpen my grandmother's scissors or knives when they needed it. He was fun to watch.

We were much healthier back then than people are today. I weighed 107 lbs. and was 5 ft. 6 and 1/2 inches tall when I got married. I was also fit from many days of playing tennis and getting other exercise after school and on weekends.

We also walked many blocks to school every day crossing heavily traveled streets using traffic lights. There were no school buses to pick you up and take you to school. I remember many days bundled up in winter clothes to walk about 7 blocks to and from school. My fingers would be frozen sometimes when I reached my destination. That was a lot of exercise we got each day too.

We were always outside making our own fun when the weather permitted. Besides playing board games, we roller skated on the old style skates that had a skate key that tightened your skates to your shoes. We played hopscotch, tag and jumped rope. I remember many a fort in the woods that I helped create from sticks and branches. I loved playing tennis and softball. We ice skated and took our sleds to the nearest hill in the winter and swam in the summer. Most of these things didn't cost much money. When I was about 12, I got my first bike which was used. I loved to bike. The skates were used also. Most children were very fit because of all of the exercise. You always saw kids playing outside. 

Almost all of my clothes were passed down to me from my cousin who was three years older than me. Maybe I would get a new outfit for the first day of school or for Christmas. I was happy to wear those hand me downs. When I was in high school and more clothes conscious, I went to a private school where I wore a uniform everyday.

Christmas was not like the Christmases of today. Gifts were usually clothing that was needed and perhaps a toy, book or board game. Our stockings had fruit and nuts in them. The true meaning of Christmas was celebrated when we attended church. Then we would have a meal at home. I remember special treats at Christmas being stuffed dates, homemade fudge, and ribbon candy. Relatives would visit or we would visit them. It was fun. I would love to go back to the simple, more meaningful way of celebrating Christmas. 

You also did not get a lot of gifts for your birthday. You usually got one thing that you wanted and perhaps a piece of clothing or shoes that you needed. You had a homemade birthday cake or a frosted cake from the Freihofer man. Most birthday parties were at home with relatives. Mom didn't spend any money taking you and your friends out for an elaborate birthday party.
Thanksgiving was spent every year at my aunt and uncle's who lived in a town near us. We had turkey and all of the trimmings. The entire family on our side and on my aunt's side attended. There were so many people for dinner that they set seating up in the basement for all of us to eat. I actually have a tape that was made a few years back of those dinners. My cousin had the tape made from her father's old 8 millimeter films that he would make. I love looking at it once in a while since it brings back such wonderful memories. 

My grandmother was fortunate to have a wringer washing machine. She had no dryer. We had a small back porch upstairs where she stood to hang the wash. There was a clothesline attached to the porch and then to a telephone pole in the backyard where she hung our clothes. Many winter days those clothes could stand up by themselves when you took them off the line because they were frozen. I remember taking the clothes off the line in terrible wind that shook the porch and praying that the porch wouldn't fall down with me on it.

I would do the dusting every week because my grandmother was aging. All we used was a dust rag. No furniture polish. If something was stuck to the furniture we used a little water to get it off. I remember my mom washing the floor once a week. In between, it was swept. Once a week, you used a push sweeper to clean any carpets.

In the kitchen was a sink in a metal cabinet, a huge old black stove, the hot water tank, a refrigerator, the washing machine, an old sewing machine and a table and and chairs. Grandma had a huge walk in pantry that I would love to have today. There were shelves for food, pots and pans, and one at just the right height to make pie doughs and other foods. Built into one wall was a china cabinet for the everyday dishes.

The dining room was only used for company(my grandmother's bridge club) and holiday dinners. It  had a big mahogany table that could seat many people and mahogany chairs. There was also an old mahogany desk, buffet, and china cabinet(for the company dishes). And at one time the coal stove and then the gas stove. 

The living room had a couple of chairs and a sofa. When the first black and white TV's came on the market, my grandparents were able to buy one a few years later. I doubt that they purchased it brand new because they were so expensive. Most likely Grandpa either got it used or a deal on it. That was a real treat. It was back in the day when there were only a few shows a day on the TV. I remember watching a few black and white cartoons and the Howdy Doody show. When I got older, Bonanza was popular. But our TV watching was restricted by both our elders and the fact that there were not many shows on the air. 

My sister and I shared one of the bedrooms which had a bed and a small closet and my mom's dresser in it. My mom had her room which had a bed, closet and dresser. The dresser had my grandmothers clothes in it. My grandparents room had beds and a dressing table in it. Hence that is why none of the dressers were in the rooms that people actually used them. Space was a premium.

In the later years of my childhood, my grandfather bought a used car. He only used it to go to work and to the men's club that he belonged to. My mom got her license and a used car when I was in middle school. She used it to go to work. She worked at the telephone company during the week and the movie theater on the weekends to not only support us but so that she could pay to finish her college education,  pay for our private high school, and so we could spend most of our summers at a lake.

When we went downtown to shop, to see a movie, or to go out to dinner which didn't happen very often, we took the city bus. Fares were reasonable, buses were on time and you didn't have to worry about finding a parking space or paying for it. Gasoline was expensive.

We lived in a neighborhood that had many German and Irish immigrants. I never thought of us as being poor because we never went without. I think that most of the people who lived on our street were all in the same income category. That is one of the reasons that we didn't know that we were lower income. Life was simple and things were sparse. Even though we had lots of furniture, I think it had been accumulated over years of my grandparents married life. It was the same furniture they had when I moved there at 3 years of age with my mom and the same furniture when I moved out when I married at 19. They kept things for years and only replaced them if they broke.

We were only allowed to take a bath once a week and washed with a washcloth the rest of the week. You washed your hair in that bath. My sister and I shared the same bath water. Hot water was costly.

In those days the doctor came to house to treat you if you were sick. We only went to the dentist when we had a toothache because it was too expensive to go. I have paid for that all of my adult life because I didn't have regular check ups as a kid. They were sporadic at best.

The insurance man also came to the house monthly and you paid him the premium for house insurance, car, or life insurance.
My mom worked 52+ hours a week between the telephone company and the movie theater and saved all year long so that we could spend the summers on a lake instead of in the hot city.  One of my fondest memories are the days spent at the lake with so many other kids every year. Mom paid cash for everything those summers.

I remember Mom using credit cards when I was in high school. Prior to that our family did not have credit cards. My grandparents always paid cash for everything whether it be their home or a used car.

My grandmother had an old, old sewing machine and she used to repair our clothes with it. Clothes were repaired and patched back then. You didn't throw them out ever. When they became unwearable, Grandma would cut them up and put them in the rag bag to use for cleaning.  

My grandparents wasted nothing. Leftovers were  always eaten. Every thing was used until it was no longer repairable. They didn't run out and buy something new just because they wanted it. Shopping was for necessities not used as entertainment.

Times were much more frugal and simpler back then. You had less things to care for and to worry about breaking. Doing things in the fresh air was the entertainment. Our houses weren't packed with every toy imaginable. Meals were simple and portioned. They knew how to live frugally. They didn't envy the Joneses or try to keep up with them. They were not a throw away society.

Each and everyone of us could learn a thing or two from our ancestors that would help keep our money in our wallets. My grandmother was my first frugal example and I learned a lot from her.

I had a simple and wonderful childhood filled with love and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

How about you? Did you learn anything frugal from your grandparents or great grandparents? 

PS: My granddaughter loves to write stories. She is always sharing them with us. So I wrote a similar story to this one(leaving out the blood from the meat) for her in word and printed it out and wrapped it in a box for Christmas as one of her gifts. She will love it!


  1. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression, and just passed away in their 90s a few years back. They were extremely frugal, but also enjoyed life. My grandmother never worked, didn't drive, made everything from scratch, grew a huge garden, sewed, and volunteered at her church.

    I'll be honest & say that until I was about 30, I loved them both dearly, but i didn't understand the lifestyle. I have a huge amount of respect, and a new appreciation for the woman my grandmother was. Sometimes it takes age & perspective to understand all of those things.

    My mom's mother had a harder life - she was married at 15 to my grandfather, who already had two kids. She immediately became a mom & then went on to have four of her own. My grandfather died at 45 of a heart attack, leaving her with six kids, limited education, & no job. She struggled a bit until she remarried in her 50s. She was strong in other ways.

    What a great gift for your granddaughter.

    1. Hi Hawaii Planner,

      Thanks so much for sharing your family. My family always enjoyed life too. They were very happy people.

      My grandparents and my Mom lived through the great depression too. I think that is one of the reasons they were frugal. My grandparents never had a garden but I think it was because my grandfather's best friend had a farm and Grandpa got veggies from him cheaply.

      I think all of our grandparents were strong because they had to be.

  2. I enjoyed this. My grandparents grew up on farms during the depression and then started their married life during WWII and had to deal with rations. I learned how to keep a large garden, can and why and how to have well stocked pantry. As a child I didn't understand why they keep so many things. Deli containers, old clothing and broken farm equipment. As an adult I can see how lean years during the depression and limit resources during the war influenced them. There is a wealth of knowledge to glean from our ancestors.

    1. Hi Wendi,

      Thanks for sharing. There us a wealth of knowledge to learn.

      I remember my grandparents talking about ration stamps. They traded some of their food ones to get enough gasoline to visit their son in Maine during the war.

  3. Your trip down memory lane was so much fun!

    1. Hi Amanda,

      I am glad that you enjoyed it. I loved writing it.

  4. My grandparents on my mom's side were very frugal. (My grandparents on my dad's side probably were too but I didn't know them as well.) They lived on the farm, no running water but had a handpump at the kitchen sink where they got their water from a cistern. I took a bath in a tub out on the enclosed storage room if I was there on Saturday night. They had a wood cookstove in the kitchen and an oil heating stove in the living room. They had an outhouse for the toilet. I remember many happy days spent at the farm as we lived in a small town only 7 miles from them. We went to the same church as they did and often had a roast beef, mashed potato dinner with them afterward. Their house always smelled like roast beef to me :) That is still my favorite meal too. My grandparents had 9 living children and 2 more died in infancy. I had lots of uncles and aunts and cousins and we would get together in the summers at grandma's house on the farm. This all gave me a good education which I practice today. It also gave me a love of country life and we live on 5 acres, I raise chickens for eggs and meat, I garden and can and my husband and I live a very frugal lifestyle. Our 2 children are married and I know they have to watch their pennies as they both have children. Life has been good to us and I thank my grandparents and my parents for the great frugal heritage they gave me.

    1. Hi Nannie,

      What a wonderful story. You were very blessed to be able to spend so much time at the farm with your cousins. We all learned that family was everything back then. That is what I tried to instill in my sons. I love how you live because you are happy and very self - sufficent. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Aw I think that is a wonderful gift for your granddaughter. While I was reading your post, I thought it would be great to share with your family. Sounds like you had a wonderful childhood...such great memories.
    I am thankful for my happy childhood too. I had everything that I needed and most of what I wanted. My parents were frugal, and they taught me the value of money and saving. I know that they made many sacrifices to give us the things we needed. I miss them so much.

    1. Hi Kathy,

      I think my granddaughter will truly enjoy it.
      I am sure you do miss them. I miss mine. But we truly did appreciate them while we had them.

  6. Thank you for a wonderful story!
    My parents and grandparents lived through the great depression and I am so thankful for the lessons I've learned through them.

    1. Hi Jo,

      You are welcome. We are all thankful for what they taught us.

  7. I loved your sharing of your memories growing up. It sounds like there was a lot of love in your home and that it was filled with family, good times, good food and great examples.