Lessons From My Frugal Father

My dad was 12 years old when the first waves of the Great Depression spread across the country. A modest but thriving farm insulated his family from the worst of the effects, but this period still defined his approach to money management and influenced nearly every aspect of his lifestyle.

When I was a kid, I skipped most of the usual rebellious attitudes about thrift and simple living. I wasn't elated that we had a smaller house, that my dad and like-minded mom controlled all the finances with a surgical precision, but I vaguely realized they had a goal and a focus that I might benefit from someday. At the risk of dating myself, I remember wanting a pair of parachute pants so badly and for so long that by the time I could finally buy a pair, wearing them would have seemed ironic.

Now, decades later, I look back at my childhood and see the simple, direct, conscious attitude that drove my parents' financial decisions large and small. They had a goal, they discussed it, they kept the goal in focus and their biweekly paychecks weren't occasions for temptation, but little task-master reminders. With the perspective that only 30 years' worth of hindsight can give, I've filtered my dad's financial priorities down to five principles that are worth a review today:

Keep A Garden

Next door to my childhood home sat an empty lot that the city begrudgingly maintained because of absentee owners. My dad located the owners and offered to take care of the lot in exchange for permission to plant a garden on it. This large, ambitious garden thrived and supplied our family with dill, radishes, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, onions and corn for nearly 15 years. Everyone had a hand in planting, watering, weeding and harvesting what came out of that garden. It put us in control of a major portion of our food supply and was organic, sustainable and local before those concepts were cool. The positive effect on our food budget was nearly an after-thought.

Know Where Your Money Is

I have a perpetual visual memory of my father sitting down every evening and reading the paper in his recliner. About once a month or so, he would skip the paper and pull out a little 3" x 5" notepad and add up his net worth. He did it all by memory and line-itemed each savings account and investment that he and my mother contributed to and the corresponding balances. His accounting methods were rudimentary by today's standards, but he knew where his money was. That simple little notepad told him all he needed to know and was another tool he used to keep himself focused.

Take Care Of Your Stuff

Working in the garden took hoes, rakes, shovels, tillers and other implements that my dad was charged with taking care of. They each got the Dad Treatment of a thorough wash and a thin coat of oil on any metal parts to prevent rust. We sometimes joked as kids that if we stood still too long, we'd get washed, covered with a thin coat of oil and hung on a peg board. He took care of his tools, his cars, his clothes — anything that he had invested in was meticulously maintained in order to extend its service. So much is expendable today that often this concept gets lost in the wash of new products we have to choose from.

Avoid Credit

When I started college and fell victim to those on-campus credit card solicitors, my otherwise fairly silent father had a few things to say. While I thought quick credit marked my entrée to adulthood, my dad reminded me of his credo: if you can't afford to pay with cash, you can't afford to buy it. I've since modified his approach a bit, but I do use credit extremely conservatively and am constantly amazed at how cash-poor most of my contemporaries are. When my parents had a new large purchase to make, they added a savings 'account' on that little 3" x 5" notepad and saved until the item could be bought outright.


My dad had an amazing engineering gene that the DNA lottery has denied me. When something broke in our house, he instinctively knew how to fix it. If the blender stopped blending or furnace stopped heating, he could identify the specific failed part and replace it. In his more amazing MacGyver moments, if the part couldn't be purchased, he would craft it himself with a grinder or welding torch. Now, I don't own a welding torch and trying to mill a gear from an old washer would send me straight to the ER for nerve pills. But the spirit of his approach isn't lost; I can patch a leaky garden hose and replace a wax seal on a toilet (thanks, Dad). Doing tasks himself saved my dad money, probably entertained him to a certain degree and constantly expanded his range of skills.

When I look back on those years with dad, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 84, I think of the quiet lessons he taught by example. Especially now that the world is talking about simplicity and savings and living within more modest means, I've come to treasure the images of that little 3" x 5" notebook, the bushel-baskets full of produce from our garden, those perfectly hung tools gleaming rust-free on the basements walls. He was a man ahead of his time.

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Guest's picture


Your dad sounds like a very wise man, and I'm sure that you have many pearls to pick from.

Thank you for sharing this.

Guest's picture

What an amazing write up,the advent of television, " the fast life", " I need this thing NOW" attitude has lead to uncontrolled spending and albeit utilization of credit- has lead to wasteful expenditure . After finishing graduate school, medical school and then residency.I remember an incident when I had moved to a new town to begin my job as an attending physician. Already in neck deep debt, no savings ( try living in NYC on a resident stipend :) ), I did not have money to buy a mattress and spring box . Though I did have a host of credit cards I had decided during residency not to accumulate any more debt on the credit cards.Buy if you have money after you have saved was my motto. I brought the cheapest futon that money could afford, picked up a pillow and comforter from walmart and slept on the carpeted floor till I could afford a mattress. That night was the best sleep I ever had. Credit does good to great things if used wisely, but beware of the trap, I have seen the wisest men make foolish mistakes with credit.

Guest's picture

This is a great story about your dad and thanks for sharing it. I remember my Grandma also saying to us that we should take the little pieces of soap and put them together to save on having to buy more. Eating left overs and not eating out all the time as they remembered the hard times. As kids growing up we did not have it bad and our kids even better. I think the current generation of kids that have been so spoiled and electronic junkies are at least getting a bit of the taste of a bad economy which could be really good. Things go in cycles and I think this economic cycle is an awakening of the ways of the past and why many of those practices existed.

Guest's picture

Nice piece. Your Dad would be proud.

(By the way, your Dad reminds me a lot of my Grampa.

Guest's picture

Your Dad really knows how to save for the rainy days. He had experience how to be broke during the great depression thus he does not want to experience it again. We, as the head of the family must know how to take of things in the house, from the smallest gadget to financial. I admire you dad as he really knows how to take care of his family. With your post, I remember my Dad who is just like your Dad. I miss him.

Guest's picture

My father taught me something he learned from a bartender. The bartender said, "In every bottle, there are 16 drinks, but you can usually squeeze out an extra one. Now, you can sell that extra drink, you can give it away, or you can drink it yourself, but YOU CAN'T DO ALL THREE!" I'm reminded of this when I have competing goals, especially goals that require my time. For example, with any particular day, I could teach a class, or go to a play, or see my nieces, but I can't do all three at the same time. If I keep making choices that take me away from my family, eventually I won't be close to them. Ultimately, money is replaceable but time isn't, yet we treat it as if money is rare but time is plentiful.

Guest's picture

When I was in high school, a conversation I had with my father sticks out in my mind. I told him, "You know in my lifetime I might see something like the Great Depression." My father responded, "Well, you know they put safeguards in place to keep that from happening again." My grandfather, at the time in his 80s, knew better. He always kept a full pantry of canned goods.

In a world with 10% unemployment, the advice of this post is even more pertinent. The last two years have been an unpleasant reminder of the reality of economic cycles.

Guest's picture

This post was really lovely. It is clear the admiration you have for your Dad. He sounds like a pretty inspiring person.

Guest's picture

We had the same dad. :-) I am grateful every day for the lessons he taught me on being financially responsible and taking care of things the right way. They don't make them like him any more.