Great Depression survival stories my grandfather shared with me. His miserly ways were deeply shaped by the childhood he lived. Talk about extreme frugality!
My grandfather was a simple man—simple, not unintelligent. He grew up on the same farm we did in Pennsylvania. Even though he was just a toddler during the Great Depression, those years had a huge impact on his life, and he often warned me—while washing his dishes using dish soap (he deemed this wasteful), or throwing away cheese because it was moldy (that can be scraped off, he'd huff at me)—that the next Great Depression was coming. If only he had lived to see a few more years to realize his vision.
Pop-pop was a miser.
For most of my childhood at the farm, my family lived on the downstairs portion of the farmhouse, and Pop-pop lived in the apartment upstairs, which was cut-off from our home. He got his own trash can outside for the trash man, and we got our own, both of which we managed to fill each week. One day we got a letter from the township saying that we would have to pay for the second trashcan. Somehow, Pop-pop managed to produce just one bloated grocery store bag full of trash each week thereafter (was he storing the rest? We never did figure this out). Each week he would do his one load of laundry using a washing machine that you had to pry open with a screwdriver, and a dryer that only slicked the wetness off of his clothes. But there would be no second-drying for him; he would take the clothes, wet and all, back up to his apartment to wear for the next week.
Each week he would give us his list to take to the local Mennonite-run grocery store, as well as $16. His weekly groceries consisted of: canned peaches, ½ loose pork sausage, sweet dough only from the discount rack the store was about to throw away, apple butter, occasional pork chops (when on sale), two bananas, plums, a pint of beet salad, and cottage cheese. Somehow he managed to still be overweight most of his adult life, and his extra weight was supported by a feebly, splintered cane that must have been left over from his own father. Pop-pop would never buy new.
You can imagine, after reading about the way he chose to live his own life, how critical he was of ours. Even though both sets of my parents declared bankruptcy during my childhood and we lived the stereotypical penny-less farmer’s life, Pop-pop was mainly appalled by our extravagances. Anything that he deemed wasteful—and that included most things—he shouted at us to “throw over the fence”, specifically the fence that separated our yard from the barnyard and meadow. This included our Nintendo system, bicycles, horse saddle, grill, and ponytail holders. One year, we put a new, shiny white fence post up where the rickety, splinter-ridden one used to stand. That must have rocked his world, but he never uttered the word “fence” again.
So what can we learn from a man like this? Here’s what I took away:
• A lifetime of being a miser does end in a heap of money. Pop-pop left his sons and daughter with an inheritance. However…
• Being crazy miserly can turn your children away from you, and you may age lonely.
• A kitchen full of hidden bacteria, and cutting your heart medication into thirds because you don’t want to pay such a high co-pay each month ($25) may not kill you…but then again you may only live until 76.
• You can, infact, use the same stove pan for 30+ years, even if it is stained, even if it is burnt, even if it is warped.
• Life ends, and it is sad to see people go when they hardly seemed to have enjoyed themselves at all.
• We could all use some more miserliness and saving up for rainy days (because they do happen).
• Even if you make stupid purchases, it would be even more stupid to throw them over your fence…as then you would have completely wasted your money.