What My Grandparents Taught Me About Frugality

My grandfather was in impeccable mental health when he died in 2008. He was as sharp as ever – still up-to-date on current events and always curious about my schoolwork and career plans. But his body was failing him. He had been on kidney dialysis for years at that point, a brutal three-times-a-week ordeal that was exhausting for him and my mother, his primary caretaker. I still think about the line often repeated by a friend of mine who worked in a dialysis clinic: “There are only two ways off dialysis: transplant or death.” Frail octogenarians don’t receive kidney transplants.

In the end, though, it was his heart that failed him first. Through the whole ordeal, he never lost his sense of humor. When a cardiologist gave him less than a month to live, he half-joked to my mom, “At least I won’t have to get that tooth extraction we scheduled!” On his deathbed, he was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear, guessing insightfully about how the plot would turn next. He was halfway through the book when he died.

His wife of 62 years, my grandmother, was already deep into Alzheimer’s-induced dementia by then. The exact opposite of my grandfather, she was the picture of physical health for her age – but her brain was gripped by a devastating and debilitating disease. One month, she was holding my grandfather’s hand in the hospital as he died. The next month, she had forgotten the whole experience, innocently asking my mother, “Where did Bill go?”

My mom tried explaining the honest answer the first few times that question came up, but it was too painful after that. My poor grandmother would eventually become convinced that he was out having an extramarital affair, an insulting and ironic inference about one of the most loyal and trustworthy people I’ve ever known.

I think about my grandparents often. Their lives were so different from mine. My life is laughably easy, by comparison. They were both born into relative poverty in the Midwest in the midst of the Great Depression. My grandfather was drafted into the Navy during World War II and nearly deployed to Japan, only to be spared by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was convinced he would have died in the war, and that tragic irony was never lost on him.

My grandmother, meanwhile, had her first pregnancy at 18. Neither of them ever earned a college degree. They worked ordinary, middle-class jobs – as a sales representative and a retail store manager – for decades. The concept of “early retirement” never existed in their vocabularies.

They were ruthlessly frugal, a product of their Great Depression upbringing. They shopped at four different grocery stores every week, optimizing on price and quality for each item. They washed and reused their Ziploc bags time and time again. They wasted next to nothing. They didn’t need a frugality blog to clue them in; it was just the way they lived.

I admired their frugality greatly. When I think of how they lived, the idea that my life is even remotely frugal is laughable.

Ultimately, though, I believe they took frugality too far. One of my greatest regrets for their lives is that they refused to really enjoy themselves in retirement, constantly plagued by the fear of financial insecurity.

For their 50th wedding anniversary, my mom and her siblings gifted them a Caribbean cruise. They never took it, not wanting the family to spend the money.

My grandmother’s sister, who had met a German man and moved to Munich, frequently invited them to visit. “We can’t afford it.”

Their retirement community offered an affordable and stress-free bus to San Francisco, where they could have enjoyed a nice meal and an evening show or concert – even if only on special occasions. “Too expensive.”

When their health began to fail, my mother begged them to have an air conditioner installed in their house, insisting that they shouldn’t be struggling through the scorching California summers. They resisted fiercely for years, only giving in after much stress over the price.

For years, we believed that this frugality was out of necessity – that they had almost no savings. Only later, when my parents took power of attorney and sorted through their records, did the real picture begin to emerge. They weren’t rich, but they were far from poor: A paid-off house. Hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in savings, earning a fraction of a percent in interest. Paper bonds and T-bills years past their maturity dates tucked away in filing cabinets. “Emergency” cash stashed – literally – all over the house.

They could have afforded all those little luxuries. They could have enjoyed themselves. They could have traveled. They could have relaxed.

They never did.

With the exception of a few trips to see family, they rarely even left their town, saving their retirement dreams for a “someday” that would never come.

I feel those tendencies in myself sometimes. I fear financial failure. I toy with the idea of going back to a job I don’t love just to build a bigger safety margin. I feel guilty about spending money, even on things we enjoy. But I do my best to suppress them.

If there’s one thing I learned from my grandparents, it’s this: There’s a cost to being overly conservative. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. We don’t get our time back. We don’t get our health back. Financial prudence is important, no doubt, but so is living for today.

I missed my grandfather’s memorial service. I was in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, one of my favorite places in the world, halfway through a long-planned road trip while moving back to the west coast. At the end of a lengthy day hike, I sat and reflected on my grandfather’s life – my own version of a memorial. I still associate the place with him and my grandmother, however funny that is for two people who were far from outdoorsy and probably never set foot in this part of the country.

We’re back in Canyonlands today, hiking in the Needles. I like to think of this trip as a bit of a tribute to them: Doing our best to live out their frugal values; taking advantage of our physical and mental health, while we have it; and pursuing adventure and a little bit of risk without giving into fear.

Here’s to my grandparents and the inspiration they were to me.

Needles-01

46 Comments

  1. Really powerful and a good reminder. You can always make more money, but you only get one life.

  2. What a beautiful and poignant post. Your grandparents sound like great financial role models, but you’re right to deviate from their path when it comes to how they spent their latter years when money wasn’t much of a concern anymore.

    I sometimes struggle with the idea of switching from savings mode to spending mode, and wonder how that transition will play out. For now, I’m only 36 and still actively (and aggressively) saving. But I hope that when I get to be around 55 and it’s time to quasi-retire or completely retire, I will be able to relax mentally and say yes to travel and to staying in nice hotels and to all of the things that I’m purposely giving up now in order to achieve financial security earlier. It’s going to be a scary switch to make from saving to spending, though.

    • Thanks, Yeti. I’m curious about how the transition will play out, too, and I suspect I’ll still find myself wanting to be in “savings mode” for years to come, even if it’s not necessary. I think that’s okay, as long as I’m not sacrificing the things I want to be doing now.

  3. Such a lovely tribute post. I agree with you — the things that people call “frugal” nowadays are pretty laughable in general, compared to what our grandparents who lived through the great depression did as a matter of habit. I think your grandparents would be proud of you for what you’re doing, and that you’re getting out there and enjoying life, instead of spending it all at the office. And even better that you’re not letting the fear hold you back from living out your dreams. 🙂

  4. This is beautiful. When my grandfather died, we found hidden stashes of rubber bands everywhere…? But yes, I agree he probably took frugality too far (though my poor grandmother was sure she was going to win publisher’s clearinghouse, so she sent lots of money to scams like that). For me, I lean the same as you “Let’s go! It’s worth it! We’re young! We’re healthy! We’ll figure it out!” My husband is the uber conservative one… at some point, we’ll find a safe middle ground. 🙂

    • Ugh, don’t get me started on the Publishers Clearing House. My grandparents really thought they were going to win money from them. People who prey on confused or gullible seniors are the lowest of the low.

      I definitely embrace the “we’ll figure it out” mindset, but it sounds like a middle ground is a responsible place to land, too 🙂

  5. Very nice post to remember your grandparents.
    the lessons you have learned from them is so true: “This isn’t a dress rehearsal. We don’t get our time back. We don’t our health back. Financial prudence is important, no doubt, but so is living for today.”
    That is how I want to live my life.

    • If I can look back at my life and feel like I lived by those words, I imagine I’ll be satisfied. Thanks for commenting, as always!

  6. Hello Matt,

    I just discovered your blog and I can tell you have a new fan!
    I never had a chance to know my grandparents as they died when I was young. You are right, we have to live today. This is why we are leaving in 10 days now!
    Cheers,
    Mike

    • Thank you, Mike! I’m lucky to have known them as long as I did. I’m so happy you’re about to take off; you won’t regret it!

  7. Hi,

    Just found you from over at Nomads With a Van. I’ve read through all your posts and WOW what a story, very happy you were able to retire so early.

    Looking forward to following along on your travels. What a great inspiration, I’m hoping to also hit the road soon. Time is flying by and life is too short. My parents have had several health issues the last few years and it was a big wake up call for me. I want to spend more time with them and travel myself. Don’t want to be tied to just a 2 week vacation.

    Wishing you all the best, and hope you are enjoying NM. I’ve traveled there a lot for work and really enjoy the state. If they ask you red or green say Christmas! 🙂

    Tina
    Northern CA

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tina! We’re having a great time traveling so far. It’s already been much more relaxing and fulfilling than a two-week vacation, that’s for sure. New Mexico is great! I have family here, so I’ve been lucky enough to make it down here quite a few times. I’m partial to the red chiles, but I like Christmas, too 😉

  8. My grandparents were extremely frugal as well. Born in the 20’s they never bought things that weren’t necessities. But I somewhat disagree with your idea that you wish they “did more.” More would have caused them stress and anxiety. Although they might have been fine financially, trying to convince them of that would have been fruitless. I know my grandparents seemed content living the simple life, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with choosing that route.

    • That’s an interesting point, Fervent. You’re absolutely right that more would have caused stress and anxiety — I just wish that it wouldn’t have for them! Perhaps I’m projecting my dreams onto them to some extent. If asked directly, they would have said their number one financial priority was saving money for their family’s benefit, not enjoying it themselves.

  9. Stunning post and such an inspiration. I am so tempted to get out and do something – a hike or a trip – to pay homage to your grandparents.

  10. Wow Matt, that’s a tragic but great reminder!

    • I definitely struggle with how their lives ended, but they did otherwise live happy and healthy lives, so I try to keep that in mind. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Ditto to what Fervent Finance said. It is hard to judge a meaningful life from the outside. Both hubby and I early retired with more than sufficient income and some folks might judge us as too frugal. Yet we spend freely on what WE value. We both have zero interest in expensive meals, shows, resorts, cruises or exotic travel. We are much happier hiking in a National forest or state park and eating a simple meal in a local cafe. We each have meaningful hobbies and expensive equipment and supplies to support them. We are fit and healthy and jeans and t-shirts make up 90% of our wardrobes. I don’t long for designer clothes, handbags or jewelry and if I did, I’d buy them.

    One comment about “needing” about air conditioning…most people on the planet don’t have it and it has only been available to the rest of us for a fraction of human history. Financially independent friends of ours with a paid off house in an expensive neighborhood have AC and almost never turn it on. Not because they can’t afford too or are too frugal, but because they don’t like the experience of “cooled” air! Your grandparents may have been too frugal to enjoy their lives but they may equally have gotten far more pleasure from their austere life than you imagine.

    I don’t mean to sound critical as I loved your thoughtful essay!

    • That’s a really healthy perspective. I agree with everything you said, and I live my life mostly like you described — no crazy frills, no big expenses, no luxury clothing, no fancy housing, etc. Maybe part of my lamenting my grandparents’ lifestyle was the stress they always had with money, even if their austere life was what they really enjoyed. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  12. Why did you miss your grandfather’s funeral? Not judging … just curious.

    • I was in the middle of moving cross-country, and it wasn’t financially or logistically feasible, unfortunately. It wasn’t a source of guilt or remorse, though — I know he wouldn’t have wanted me to forgo any plans, and I was able to participate in my own way. Thanks for taking the time to read.

  13. Anjelina Keating

    June 3, 2016 at 8:02 am

    This was my introduction to your blog, and it’s so well written. It was a real pleasure to read and a great tribute to your grandparents. I tend to be the conservative one, so this is an important concept for me to think about. Thank you!

  14. These are white collar jobs They worked blue collar jobs – as a sales representative and a retail store manager – for decades. Perhaps your Grandparents had no interest in travel. They understood being happy in the now with each other. Interesting how current generations do not understand the difference between blue and white collar jobs. Blue collar involves sweat all day so a white collar would not ever get clean.

    • Noted and updated, Steve. It’s a good reminder that they were fortunate enough to have stable middle-class jobs, even if they weren’t prestigious or high-income. Thanks for reading.

  15. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m also sorry that they did not use the tools they gave themselves. Getting out of a poverty mentality is difficult when you were raised under difficult circumstances. Life is for living though.

    • They definitely always carried that mindset with them — for better and for worse. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  16. Man, I really enjoyed this post a lot, a very touching tribute. It’s sad, yet inspiring all in one.

    “There’s a cost to being overly conservative. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. We don’t get our time back. We don’t our health back. Financial prudence is important, no doubt, but so is living for today.”

    You really nailed it, and it’s such an important lesson. It’s a hard balance to find between making the “right” financial choice and living for the moment. It’s something I struggle with and am continuing to try and improve. Spending money is a good thing, as long as it’s for what we truly value. Thanks for sharing this post.

    • Thank you for the nice comment, Matt. I couldn’t agree more: that balance is always a bit of a struggle, and there isn’t necessarily a right answer.

  17. What a great post matt! I’m a fellow blogger and I’ve lived my life super frugal at some times, less frugal at others. My experience being ultra-frugal was that I didn’t really get to enjoy life always plagued by the worry of saving as much money as possible. You shouldn’t replace the financial stress of having no money with the stress of accumulating a pile of money, that isn’t happiness either. Not even being middle-aged yet I see myself falling into the trap your grandparents did and I’m ending it before it starts. Our money lives are a balance and we must live well by making good decisions but enjoying all that life has to offer. Your blog is so inspiring thank you!

    • Hi Elsie — The main thing I’m striving to remove is the stress and fear, even when I’ve prepared and planned to be in this position. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  18. Matt, your ability to weave a story into your writing is exceptional. This is a very well-written post that I’ll bookmark and link back to at some point. Thank you for taking the time to write and share this. Very powerful.

  19. Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing. I’ve sent this to a few friends of mine who (along with myself) tend to veer towards fear instead of optimism :). Very well written. I’m trying to live my life by similar principles and banish unnecessary fear.

  20. Wonderful post about your grandparents and while they may not have enjoyed things in the way we would have, they sound like they were happy anyway and what a lesson for their children and grandchildren.

    My maternal grandparents taught me different lessons – one was an abusive alcoholic, the other a gambling addict. They lost their house, their business and many relationships. They were lovely and my grandfather had the biggest turnout the town had ever seen at his memorial, so many fond memories from everyone. I learnt to avoid addictions, be smart with my money and avoided excess thanks to them.

    • Wow, I can only imagine what a challenge that would be to witness those addiction and financial struggles, especially at a young age. I’m glad you took positive lessons from those experiences!

  21. Wonderful post about many types of balance: money vs. time, fear vs. adventure, risk vs. safety. Poignantly written, and a gift to the rest of us—thank you. Gotta say, I think you’ve got things pretty well balanced. Your grandparents would be proud of you.

  22. I think everyone else has said what I wanted to say but I want to leave a comment anyway to tell you that this is beautiful and resonated very well with me. Thank you for writing and sharing this.

  23. My grandparents were very similar. They never traveled much except to go to their WW2 veterans’ reunion trip in the Northeast every year. But that worked for them. They loved being close to family and didn’t need fancy vacations to be happy in life. I like traveling cheap and can do it because of the frugal values they imparted to me just like yours did to you. Blessed to have people like that in your life.

    • Agreed, Travis, and you’re right that they didn’t necessarily need those frills to be happy. Thanks for your comment.

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