The Perfect Two-Fer, How to Save Money & Embarrass Your Kids
Raising a family in today's tough economic climate isn't easy. Guess what? It's never been easy, except for the rich. In our family we have The Legend of Mrs. Swift as guidance.
So, herein I present the Savings Stylings of my late mother-in law. They are all 100 per cent true.
My MIL grew up during the Depression, the second of five siblings, all first generation Americans in a modest immigrant family.
An incredibly determined young woman, she worked hard from childhood, eventually putting herself through university by working to earn a year's tuition, going to classes a year, working for the next year, going back to school, and so on ... for the seven years it took her to get a full BS in Chemistry.
She became a school teacher. She married and had three sons, my husband the eldest. She never lost her frugal ways, in fact her ingenuity in stretching a dollar only increased as her family grew.
But, well, her novel money-saving techniques also became more and more, let's say, unusual. I'm being kind. You'll see.
Her three sons have told these stories and others for years, always with love and respect. But also with rueful humor and no small amount of discomfort at the memories of her obvious eccentricities.
Think I'm exaggerating? Take yourself back, become a kid anywhere from age 5 to 15 and imagine this...
1. Why pay when you can bring your own?
Taking 3 boys to the movies, even the Saturday Lunchtime Matinee Special, can get expensive. They charge an arm and a leg for soda and popcorn in there. Forget the local restaurants for lunch, they're even more expensive.
Here's the thing. To this day the boys all remember sliding down in their seats, eyes rolling, hisssing "Mo-ohmm" as she pulled from her cavernous purse a half loaf of bread, a jar of mustard, a salami and --oh yes, really-- a small cutting board and a knife.
By the light of the movie she'd get busy slicing and spicing, making them sandwiches. They were too hungry to refuse, but kept their heads down as people in surrounding seats began sniffing the pungent air, "What's that smell? Is somebody eating salami??"
Then, out came the cans of warm, off-brand soda, cheaper by far than concession stand Cokes. They all swear she'd wait til the quietest moment in the movie, then wshsssss, wshsssss, the sounds of the cans opening echoed throughout the theater.
They claim they watched some movies from the sticky floor, too humiliated to risk being seen.
The woman was barely 5 feet tall. How she corralled 3 rowdy boys while schlepping a purse easily the size and weight of a 9 month old baby is beyond anyone's comprehension.
2. One party for the price of two.
My husband's birthday is near the end of July. His brother was born barely 14 months later in November. The youngest brother came 4 years later, so he was out of this particular loop.
You can't have a birthday party at the end of July. School's out, people are on vacation, away visiting relatives, whatever.
Plus, let's face it, the cost of throwing three birthday parties a year can add up. So, she held a joint birthday party for the two older boys in November, usually on a weekday after school, making a main meal unnecessary.
Just pretzels and soda. Oh, and a homemade cake. One. For both of them. Okay, a sheet cake, but still, pretty small pieces for each attendee.
To her credit, she was scrupulously fair. She kept a list of who invited her boys to parties and made sure they returned the favor, even --in fact, especially-- all the dweebs they normally wouldn't be caught dead talking to, much less entertaining. (Another reason for November, somebody who was "owed" an invitation might not be able to join a party in July).
Here's the thing. She didn't believe in exchanging gifts, celebrating birthdays or fussing over any occasions within the immediate family, except for Jewish holidays. So her sons' birthdays were public affairs, only held to reciprocate the invitations they'd accepted from their friends.
And she never got around to explaining the whole July-not-good rationale. So, while the two older boys knew they were born a year apart, until they were 9 and 10 both thought they shared the same November birthday! July passed without a ripple, my husband having no idea his real birthday had passed too.
Note: I make a BFD about my husband's birthday every single year. He still can't get enough and grins like a little kid.
3. Practical gifts have lasting value. A cheap plastic toy has none.
This could be presented as a sidebar, but well, you'll see. Many of us learned from our elders the importance of squirreling away sale items for a rainy day. My thrifty MIL wrote the book on that practice. Towels, pillowcases and shower curtains were prime finds apparently, as her closets were filled with them.
It's almost impossible to gauge the humiliation of a 9-year-old boy handing over a set of pillow cases as a birthday gift. A Lone Ranger set, well, maybe. Daniel Boone or cartoon figures would at least be in the ballpark.
But no, just plaids or prints or (god-forbid) flowers that had been on the Reduced table, then languished in a closet waiting for the opportunity to strike.
Here's the thing. I can attest to this practice personally. Our son received from his grandmother on his 5th birthday ... a 3-piece towel set: bath size, hand towel and washcloth.
Practical? You bet. Bless his heart, he thanked her with a kiss and moved on to open a Ghostbusters car from his best friend. I washed the towels and hung them in his bathroom.
What? I should have regifted them? Not after his innocent class act showed me up.
4. If the richest man in town can wear old clothes, so can you.
My husband and his brothers swear that aside from each receiving a brand new Bar Mitzvah suit, all their everyday clothes were hand-me-downs.
Hey, don't get me wrong, we all share kids clothes (and our own) with relatives and good friends if we're smart. Still, occasionally a new shirt or pair of jeans or for sure new underwear could be purchased. Nope. Too many older cousins with too many bags of clothes to give away.
But boy clothes, especially back then in more free range play days, were vigorously worn. Con gusto. Holes in knees, seats, elbows were the norm. Plus, the older cousins' clothes never seemed to arrive in the right sizes at the right time.
There are stacks of photos of the three boys with big rolled up sleeves and pant legs, bodies barely visible under hugely oversized winter coats, and all clothes carefully mended with patches, many meant for girls. (They are well hidden, not allowed to be shown to anyone. We laugh at them together, privately ... sort of).
Here's the thing. The role model guy was Old Money rich from a famous, affluent family and was a city councilman. He was photographed frequently in terribly expensive, worn-looking tweed blazers with suede patches on the elbows. You know the look. Casual elegance, a supposed disregard for fashion, one has more important uses for one's fortune.
Not quite the same panache to pull off by a budding adolescent wearing too big, rolled up worn pants with patches on knees, crotch and butt.
None of the brothers will wear hand-me-downs to this day.
5. Coupons and sales are like money in the bank.
This was the big Kahuna of Mom's life, her raison d'etre. Envelopes stashed everywhere, overflowing with coupons wrapped carefully in rubber bands. Stacks of newspapers waiting til she had time to read them and find more coupons.
Along the way undoubtedly she saved money with those coupons. It was in fact a noble, time-honored tradition.
Here's the thing. We'd occasionally go through the stacks to sort the coupons. Most had expired years before. My father-in-law always said, "Don't throw them out, she's waiting for 1964 to come around again."
Sales were manna from heaven, irresistible siren songs to her ears. The boys had a dog growing up who eventually died during their teens. Every once in a while Mom would come home from the supermarket with a case of dog food. Reminded by her husband the dog was long gone, her reply is one that echoes through the ages, "But it was on Sale!"
Here's the other thing. She kept shelves stacked in the basement with non-perishable items, soups, cans of vegetables, cereals, detergents. Part Depression mentality, part Bomb Shelter mind-set ... all frugality-driven.
Cleaning out the basement after she died we found Cheerios that had expired in the 1950's. Literally. Canned goods bulging with the gas of age, miraculously unexploded.
Best of all, an Ivory Snow detergent box, contents petrified rock solid. The sweet, lovely mom pictured on the box was a former model named Marilyn Chambers, who'd gone on to become a huge 1970's porn star.
That box was a collector's item, but somehow it got thrown out. Mom would have preferred that, frankly, though she'd have had a moment of angst at the idea of tossing even a porn star adorning even probably toxic detergent, bought but never used.
Last one, too irresistible...
6. Leftovers are just as nutritious.
Mom cooked every night for her husband and three sons. It's impossible she didn't start out at some point with a new meal that then became 'leftovers.'
Here's the thing. My husband and his brothers insist that the only dinners they ever ate were leftovers. With two exceptions --meatloaf and mashed potatoes turned into Shepard's Pie and last night's chicken into homemade lo mein-- they all hated leftovers with a passion.
No matter how disguised, reinvented or reinvigorated, none of the three will ever willingly eat a re-purposed meal ... aka leftovers. Good thing their mother taught them to cook, because none of their wives are willing to create a brand new dish every night.
Think of the waste!!
Oh wait, we could make some into sandwiches and send our husbands to the movies with them.
My MIL was a wonderful woman, caring and especially generous to those less fortunate. A role model for many. She raised her sons to be equally loving and charitable.
It's just that, well, the one take-away from their childhood she might not have expected: they all believe that charity begins at home.
With additional apologies to stellaa, thanks for inspiration supplied by Denise Montgomery's Grandma to finish a piece coincidentally already begun in response to the discovery of an unopened pack of ugly dish towels circa 1969.