The daughter of a frugal woman ponders her legacy

Among the handful of blogs I read regularly is that of Frugal Scholar, an articulate university prof who is (her term) "pathologically frugal". She's written a from-the-trenches post, "Is Frugality Fun?"  

Spoiler alert: it is for her.

Frugal (We have corresponded personally so I am privileged to use her first name) makes a bit of money re-selling thrift finds and scores nifty gifts for her young children and their friends. Very occasionally Frugal hints at the dark side of frugality, a tendency to buy just because something is such a deal. (She often spots this and resists.)

I am the child of a Depression-era, penny-pinching woman who had little of Frugal's zest, and heaps of the self-righteous judgment some uber-frugal can display. 

Every blessed time she saw me, Mom asked how much I paid my hairdresser and would then upbraid me; she never met a MagiCuts she didn't like. One day, I shot back, "But see what you get for $16?", which spun her into huffy silence. But, I felt, she asked for it.

I am dismayed when frugality tips from responsible, value-conscious consumption into anhedonic self-denial that sucks joy out of life. A childhood with just such a mother formed us. 

My brother lives large (and made sure he could fund that). My sister, who died years ago, married a man so cheap that he permitted them to own but one set of sheets at a time. My modus operandi has been to closely observe consumption—including its rationale and results—while rejecting frugality as a paramount principle. Dad's bon vivant genes mitigated Mom's. 

I'm especially annoyed about freeloading. The community agency where I take French class sometimes places bags of free bread on a bench for clients to take; one of their programs is food security for families in need. A classmate takes a bag each time, saying "I only eat bread when it's free." I know she has a very comfortable financial situation. (For that reason, Dad forbade Mom to shop at charity thrifts; we had to sneak as if visiting a shooting gallery.)

And yet, inside me is a frugal woman screaming to get out. Sometimes, I let her. As Frugal says, a Goodwill score is terrific fun, and you've rescued a garment (Frugal finds Chloe!) to live another day. But mostly I'm frugalish, reheeling shoes the second they begin to tilt, refusing overpriced, logo'd goods, avoiding out-of-season produce: the usual good habits, nothing fancy.

Mom's influence is never far, so when I buy something at full price—even if I urgently need it—I see her pursed lips and practically hide it from myself as I carry the bag home. 

Frugality relates to self-worth, security, and our reaction to the rapid running of life's hourglass. Like other virtues, it can't exist without its opposite pole, so let's splurge occasionally—a fine bar of soap? a box of ruby raspberries?—and enjoy every last morsel with vibrant, intense pleasure.

 Morning, Mom; call if you want to go to the Sally Ann.



Susan said…
I was raised by a mother very much like yours. Even now, I feel guilty whenever I buy myself a new article of clothing. For years, I did without a nice wardrobe, even though I could well afford one. Even now, I struggle with this.

I'm sure you understand all the ramifications of being raised by someone who lives a life based on scarcity instead of abundance.
Duchesse said…
Susan: The thing is, my mother did not suffer directly from the Depression, and could afford whatever. I suspect her frugality was more a personality trait.
Madame Là-bas said…
Last night, I went to a production of a local play "Conversations with Mother" about a deceased mother who hovered expressing her views to her daughters. Mother's legacy is powerful. My parents lived extravagantly and since my father's death, Maman has become much more aware of money. I tend to want value for the money that I spend and like you, reheel shoes and delight when I do find a good sale.
frugalscholar said…
I'm honored to have provided some inspiration. Interestingly, I am working on splurging a bit more--I think I need to put out a call for suggestions (seriously).
materfamilias said…
I suspect I'd take up inches and inches if I really let myself respond to this -- a provocative topic! Was tempted to just walk away, but wanted to let you know I enjoyed the post -- got me thinking. . . ;-)
LauraH said…
This post brought up a lot of thoughts about my Mom, me, my spending habits - past present and future. She grew up in the depression and was sensibly thrifty. I encouraged her to spend more on herself after we left the nest and she enjoyed having some nicer clothes and travelling. That seems to be my pattern too - saving for the future while working and in retirement starting to buy cashmere and other lovely things to enjoy. I found that since I wasn't in the habit of buying, it took me a while to figure things out once I decided to spend - there was a definite learning curve. Something I haven't stinted on is my health - stretching classes, regular massage, Alexander lessons - I've never regretted the money spent on those. My challenge now is how much can I afford to spend and still have enough for the older years. There may never be an answer to that question.
Susan said…
Duchesse, I think this issue is usually due to a personality trait. My father was raised on a hardscrabble farm during The Great Depression, but had an attitude of abundance. I can still hear his voice saying, "buy whatever you want." It was his spirit of generosity. My mother (age 91 now) gets upset if she thinks I am going to give something away!
LPC said…
Like Mater, I could write a tome, but will spare you. As you know, I was brought up in a non-frugal environment:). In our family, it came down to living above our income means, by spending capital. Ah, capital. The word is so fraught. But enough.

I will say that I think it's important to separate "frugal" from "virtuous." The two are so often conflated. Frugality can be virtuous, but isn't so necessarily. And there's virtue in abundance, when it's ethical and generous.

Truly fascinating topic.
This is an excellent post, thank you. My mother was very frugal, but had no choice; we were very poor, my father was ill for extended periods (very heavy smoker) and died when I was 15. She went back to schoolteaching, but the salaries weren't what they are now, as even professional "women's work" was seriously undervalued.

Reheeling is important. Those chic Frenchwomen constantly mentioned reheel, and mend.

I have an aunt whose husband, a doctor, was a pathological skinflint. My cousins ate worse food than we did (also because this aunt was a less-skilful cook than my mother).He died and left a huge estate, though his son had to leaf through mounds of hoarding to find those stock certificates.

I know you can't tell your classmate off, but she is taking food from hungry people. The lovely nuns who run the centre between your home and mine work tirelessly to feed hungry families in the neighbourhood. And if it is another community centre (I'm familiar with them all, as I've worked in that field, in Villeray) it is the same story. They leave the bread to preserve people's pride.

But charity shops and bazaars are for all.
Duchesse said…
MMe: I too have someone in my family who never looked at a price tag till she was a widow. It's a shocking adjustment to make in one's 80s.

frugal: Oh, I think you know what you want, as you have written about certain objects and experiences; it's a matter of giving yourself permission.

materfamilias: You have written wonderful post about your family's influence on your habits, thank YOU.

LauraH: Once my father died (she was 84), Mom loosened up; he never seemed to object to her spending so I couldn't figure out the dynamic. I'm glad your mother can enjoy life.

Susan: 91! Yes, my mother criticized family members' spending till the end- age 99.

LPC: Ah yes, preserve the capital was a family mantra, too.

lagatta: I have known a number of poor people who were not frugal, as well as rich people who are; the trait does not seem to attach wholly to income level, in my experience. Yes, it's the agency next door... I'm working up to saying something, discreetly.

I have a see saw relationship to saving and spending...I can save for months only to let go of restraint and go on a spending spree. See my most recent blog post for more details!
The ultimate frugalista was my grandmother who learned how to save during the Depression, she taught me many frugal tips in home keeping and cooking. I cherish her chats with me over tea...
BTW my own mother cuts her own hair to save money yet she spends thousands every year on clothes and she does a pretty good job.
Eleanorjane said…
It's interesting stuff, our relationship to money, abundance, treating ourselves, wealth, comfort etc. We are all a mass of various influences from our families to life experiences, friends etc.

My mum loved a bargain and a sale and I've certainly inherited that. I am trying not to fall into her trap of buying things that aren't quite right just because they're on sale or I want a pick-me-up. It's a tricky balance but I think I've gotten a lot more thoughtful about purchases, generally.

You can take some credit for that Duchesse, as well as all the other excellent bloggers I've been reading for the past few years.
Anonymous said…
Great post, Duchesse. My mother grew up orphaned and truly impoverished during the Depression. Her experience left her anxious, but her remedy was creativity, rather than extreme frugality. An observant auto-didact and instinctive stage designer, she was skilled at creating the impression of bounty and luxury with very little. I know how lucky I am to have learned from her.

frugalscholar said…
Duchesse--One thing I am wondering about: how did your parents negotiate their different attitudes towards spending/consumption?
BTW, we have had 6-7 week trips to Europe for each of the past 4 summers, several times treating one or both kiddos, so I don't think we're tooooo self-denying. I've really enjoyed reading the comments.
Duchesse said…
Frugal: My father told my mother she •had• to spend in our small town (which had many exclusive shops) because the business owners were the same folks who paid for his services. He did not allow her to go to thrift stores or discount outlets there- she did it when she traveled or in their second residence where she was not known.

When she visited me, she wanted to go to Value Village, where she would park her Caddy in the parking lot, and try to get them to drop their prices!

Anonymous said…
Interesting post. Heredity or environment? In my case, both. Depression-era parents who scrimped and saved to buy a house. Had a happy childhood, didn't miss the "extras" we didn't have. Married to a self-employed spouse and now living in retirement on a fixed income. Like Frugal Scholar, I make it a game to live as simply as possible, but I have slowly learned the art of quality over quantity.
Elizabeth said…
Really thoughtful post i enjoyed it very much. I am aware i spend more when my life spirals out as it does sometimes then i go to thrift shops to prevent making very expensive mistakes.We do what we can to survive!
pinkazalea said…
Interesting post and comments. I was fortunate to grow up feeling like I had enough. I think my parents thought it was in bad taste to show off with material things, but not that it was shameful or wrong to have them. I remember that my father did not have much regard for people who lived beyond their means. We didn't lack, but we also weren't indulged. Looking back, it seems like most of my peers and their families were like us. Sure, at either end of the curve there were rich and poor. The biggest change in my adult life is combatting the constant pressure to spend.
NancyDaQ said…
This post really hit home for me because I had very frugal parents. Growing up this way has really left its mark on me, although I've learned to let a lot of it go over time. It has not been easy.
virago said…
Frugality can be virtuous, but isn't so necessarily.

If I could favorite this, I would. Unfortunately, the conflation of the two is practically an article of faith in New England, where I've lived most of my life. (A friend says that when he visits his parents, his dad will turn off lamps in the living room when my friend puts down his book to, say, get a glass of water or use the bathroom.)
Duchesse said…
Nancy DaQ: Is that why you began to sew? That's one good thing to come of it!

virago: A longtime friend still talks about visiting my parents' with me. My mother gave us paper napkins at breakfast, and penciled our initials on them so they could be re-used the next morning. I think we used them for at least 4 days.
diverchic said…
I despair. I can't do it. I try, really I do. But I can't keep track of the 72 cent coupon I get with the No Frills gas from the distance between the gas pump and the store - maybe 100 yards. I shop at the Thrifts because I love the thrill of the find. But my money vanishes into unplanned extra trips to town, and expensive doggy day care and my invaluable handyman. Being able to fix small things helps, but I had to call him to change a stuck light bulb last month. My mother despairs of my ever learning. And then she drinks the expensive wine we brought.
Duchesse said…
diverchic: LOL!
Mom to Le Duc: "Those French really put it over on us, trying to get us to believe what year they made the wine makes a difference!"
Le Duc: "But, Mrs. C., it's true."
Mom: "Nonsense!" Pushes her glass forward to indicate she will have more Puligny-Montrachet, which she intuitively senses is pretty good.
diverchic made me laugh so much!
tess said…
My mom ingrained in me to think 10 times before I spend a dollar, my daughter loves to live large, would eat at restaurants 3 times a day. I buy new sock and underwear, most of my clothes are secondhand or CP Shades (US made), some going on 20 years old.

I would let the freeloader(s) go scott free. Evidentally she/they feel scarcity and the bread fills the lack. Bread represents hospitality and love. Let her have it. It would be a bad thing for the charity to get strict about proving credentials of the people served. It would discourage the most vulnerable from applying for and receiving help.
Duchesse said…
tess: I see this very differently than you do, perhaps because I have more information.
1. The organization has a stated mandate to distribute food to people •in need•.

2. The organization is struggling to survive. They are trying to stretch dollars to feed hungry people.

Therefore, a person not in need of such support takes a limited resource not intended for him or her when she takes the bread she does not need and does not normally eat.

Rather than inferring that she "evidently feels scarcity", I am more inclined to think she (whom I know well) is just not thinking about whom the bread is for and regards it like free samples handed out in the subway.

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