Lessons from a frugal father

Thanks to my father, who was 8 when the American economy staggered and collapsed, my siblings and I grew up as honorary members of the Great Depression.

From a kid's perspective, this was a frustrating, occasionally embarrassing, honor. My father proudly eats moldy leftovers. He patches broken things so they never need to be replaced.

He walks out of stores when the price of – milk, tuna, whatever – is higher than he believes it should be. He drives miles out of the way to cheap, off-brand gas stations. When we were kids, all gifts were greeted with the refrain: "I don't need this. Bring it back."

The four of us still talk about the 40 cans of mackerel that our dad excitedly bought for 9 cents a can. Rest assured, no child in our household ever willingly ate one bite. When we ate out, strict spending limits were enforced.

"When we grow up," we used to grumble, "we're going to let our kids order whatever they want." Each of us dreamed of the day we would be able to order the most expensive item off a menu.

After college (paid for by my parents), graduate school, and jobs, this day arrived. But now, having countless times ordered whatever I desired, I appreciate the frugal habits of my parent's hard-working, generous generation. They've made me more resistant to modern consumerism, helping me temper my desire to live "just a little better," that euphemism for buying a larger screen TV or whatever else has caught my fancy on a given day.

We live in a world where shopping is rarely a response to real need, where "needs" are so slight as to truly be rationalizations of "wants." Many of us are losing the skill to discern between what is enough and what is too much – between eight pairs of jeans and two. It's not completely our fault. Rarely a day passes when we are not touched by something that's been specifically created to encourage us to consume more.

Even though there is plenty of evidence that frugality – which means "not wasteful, thrifty" – makes long-term economic sense, the concept doesn't get much airplay these days. Frugality has always bowed to prevailing political winds. At times – after the Revolutionary War and during the world wars, for example – it was popular and considered "practical patriotism." Other times, it is discarded in favor of purchasing luxuries.

As Benjamin Franklin, its early American apostle, explained, "purchasing luxuries can be a spur to labor and industry." Even the author of Poor Richard's Almanac came to understand there were short periods when too much frugality was a bad thing.

Now that I am not required to live within the limits of my father's Depression Era frugality, I value thriftiness, this gift I would have happily returned as a child. But I have forged a kinder, gentler frugality, dictated by choice.

Of course, my dad thinks I'm extravagant. I have a weakness for buying books, and don't always shop for the best food prices. I don't drive out of my way to buy inexpensive gas. I give my son more freedom in choosing from restaurant menus. I detest moldy food.

But I rarely order drinks at a restaurant; tap water is good enough. We have several computers but only one TV (13 inch). I ward off impulsive purchasing by reading Consumer Reports, a bastion of good information that helps me see beyond the hype.

I enjoy receiving gifts, but while shopping on my own always ask: "Do I really need this?" I let myself hear when I don't. I think about my purchase in relation to my parents and their parents, my son and his future children, poverty I have seen in the world, poverty throughout history, and the wellness of the earth.

As for our dad, we kids, with the invaluable assistance of our mom, have begun to see the fruits of decades of encouraging him to moderate his frugal habits. This year, after 46 years of marriage, he bought our mother an anniversary gift for the first time, completely unbidden! From Tiffany's! I was pleasantly surprised when, after the requisite grumble, he accepted and read a book I had given him.

Meanwhile, I try to be more understanding during those long journeys in search of cheap gas, and happily hand over moldy food.

• Writer and artist Nadine Epstein has not eaten canned mackerel since she was a child.

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