Frugal Living Lessons From The First Thanksgiving

By David DeFranza on 25 November 2008 1 comment

Here in the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday governed by some fairly specific traditions. Most of us eat a turkey-based feast, enjoy a parade or football game on TV, go to sleep early, and rest up for the biggest shopping day of the year.

We know that these traditions are mostly modern inventions, but on some level we all invoke the myth that our celebrations are a reenactment of the first thanksgiving.

This is fine (I would be the last one to give up my pumpkin pie in the name of historical accuracy), but there is still a lot we can learn about frugality from the first Thanksgiving celebration.

Here are five lessons:

Use what you have

We are not exactly sure what was on the menu during the first Thanksgiving. Still, it likely consisted of foods that were readily available in the limited local area of the Plimoth Plantation in early November. It was a celebration of what the colonists had, not what they pined for.

This is, perhaps, the most significant rule of frugal living. Instead of looking to what could be, make yourself happy with what you have. Then, as some have pointed out, we can try to "use it up. Wear it out. Make it do, or do without."

Work with your neighbors

We don't know if the English at Plimoth Plantation made a regular habit of working with their Wampanoag neighbors but the limited evidence we have indicates that the first Thanksgiving was indeed a joint celebration.

Instead of "competing with the Jones'," it is clearly better to share and work with them. Whether its a cup of sugar, an afternoon of labor, or a shared dinner, working together allows us to live more simply and frugally.

Learn new skills

It is likely that, in preparation for the celebration, the English of Plimoth Plantation learned some new skills from the Wampanoag, such as catching eel and growing corn. Most of this education, if it happened, would have come from Squanto, a former slave who learned English while in bondage in Europe.

Regardless of its authenticity, this element of the Thanksgiving story remains a strong lesson for frugal living today. Learning to repair your home, maintain your car, or cook saves significant money over time, making education one of the most valuable investments available.

Prepare for lean times

Before the famous first Thanksgiving, it is thought that both the English and Wampanoag held harvest festivals. Traditionally, the goal of these festivals was twofold: to collect the food reserves necessary to survive the winter and to restore everyone's health before entering these lean times.

Those looking to live frugally should take note of this philosophy. Windfalls, be it a holiday bonus, tax return, or small inheritance, can buy some excellent gifts. However, this unplanned income can also be used to build an emergency fund, save for planned health expenses, or as a contribution to a retirement fund.

Celebrate accomplishments

Of course, the first Thanksgiving was a celebration. The English of Plimoth Plantation had survived disease and drought and saw easier times ahead. It is thought that the festivities lasted three days and featured entertainment as well as eating.

If you have been working hard, saving money, and cutting expenses, don't forget to occasionally give yourself small rewards. Otherwise, the tunnel ahead becomes very dark with burnout looming ahead. Instead, set goals and reward yourself responsibly when you achieve them.

When you sit down for your Turkey Day meal or kick back in front of the TV this Thursday, try to take a moment to think of the frugal lessons we have learned from the first Thanksgiving celebration. And don't forget to relax, enjoy the company of your friends and family, and have an extra slice of pumpkin pie. You can say it's for me.

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I really liked it.