As a kid, I compared my friends’ family’s habits to my families’ habits. My friends drank whole milk. Straight. We drank whole milk, diluted with powdered milk. We called it half and half.
My friends bought complete new Hallowe’en costumes. My sister and I cobbled ours together from odds and ends. I listened to friends list their Christmas presents and changed the subject when my turn to recite a shorter list came up.
Once I visited a restaurant with a friend’s family and was invited to order whatever I wanted. No restrictions. When my family ate out, my parents restricted our ordering with price limits and off-limits: No appetizer. No dessert. No soda. Drink water.
One Easter, our family visited Pauline Wilson’s home for brunch. Colorful hard-boiled eggs—mounds of them–like ample clusters of oversized multi-colored grapes filled baskets which were set on tables everywhere. Mrs. Wilson suggested I eat an egg while I waited for brunch. I felt excited and bewildered. Was she was serving appetizers straight from Disneyland? Or was she the Mad Hatter sharing a snack? Our family colored eggs—about six—and refrigerated them so they wouldn’t go bad. They were not available as random snacks, but were designated for egg salad sandwiches for the next day’s lunch.
When I was fourteen, I wanted Lee jeans like everyone else. Mom refused to pay for name brand jeans. She bought me no-name jeans for half the price. When I wore the jeans I held my hand over the leather patch that didn’t say Lee. All day long.
To me, it all added up. I believed I was a have-not in a world full of haves.
I didn’t value my parents’ knack for thrift. My mother could (and still can) peer into an empty refrigerator, pull out a few items and create a scrumptious soup. For decades, I’ve rolled my eyes and muttered, “Eccentric,” when Dad unplugs unused appliances to save electricity. Now TV talking heads quoting energy saving gurus say, “Unplug your appliances. Save money!”
If a money saving measure exists, my parents passed it on. As a young adult I clipped coupons, drove used, gas-efficient cars, and comparison shopped for socks. But as my salary increased, I indulged in excesses. Currently I own thirty-five pairs of shoes. I regularly purchase name brand clothes and food. I eat at a restaurant at least once a week. Sometimes, on a lark, I drive to a coffee shop to purchase a drink that’s more costly than two gallons of gas.
However, dismal economic news has prompted me to return to practicing the skills my parents taught me. I called Mom for her soup recipe. With my clothes dryer unplugged, I hang laundry. When I am in line at Subway, I smile as I whisper to my kids: “Order water.” Practicing thrift, I’ve found, is like riding a bicycle, you don’t forget how-to. Each small savings adds up. And, these days? I believe I am a have.