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Being frugal is about being resourceful

What does it mean to be frugal or thrifty? Well, it’s often used to describe one who uses money and other resources carefully and not wastefully.

Growing up, that was a mindset that was instilled in me from an early age. When I look back at all my parents did, with the little they had, and what generations did before them. It wasn’t really considered thrifty or frugal, it was just the norm. They had to be cooks, gardeners, seamstresses, Jack’s-and-Jill’s-of-all trades, without the aid of Youtube, HGTV, FoodTV, Pinterest or even any formal education. They had to learn it all to raise a family. To survive. They got creative. And before you raise your hand to say that we work more now, both my parents worked full-time, and at times they had second jobs.

Certainly, times have changed and I’m not suggesting we go back to the way it was then. But a lot has changed, generational traditions are being challenged and I sometimes wonder if we’ve given up too much, all for the sake of convenience. I was watching a food documentary the other week, where they discussed how there have never been more magazines and shows devoted to cooking, yet we have never cooked less. How France has turned into a fast-food culture as well, with the second-largest market for McDonald’s after the U.S. One chef even estimated that over 80% of French restaurants are serving frozen, prepared foods today – a stark contrast from our image of what French cooking once was.

But it’s certainly not just happening in France, it’s happening everywhere and not just with our food. Skills like quilting, knitting, gardening that were previously meant to be passed on are now disappearing. It was about taking what you had and making something from it. Frugality isn’t simply about saving money, it’s about being resourceful with the money you have.

A blast from the past

I started thinking about some of the things my parents did or that we had available, back when I was a kid, to save a dollar, that doesn’t really exist anymore. Turns out, a lot of it had to do with clothing:

Mending clothes. I remember when we had rips on our jeans my mom would sew them up, and cover the big holes with patches. Everyone at school had the patches. They came in all shapes and colours. And when our jeans or clothes would fade, they simply dyed them to revive them. If the pants were ripped at the knees, they were transformed into new shorts. And if your dress shoes were all worn, they were brought to the local shoemaker to get re-soled for a small fee. I can’t remember the last time I even saw a sign for shoe repair. When you think nowadays how many just toss out their clothes with the littlest tear and without a second thought.

Clothing by function. My parents would take me to the local discount department store for clothes. Bargain places like Bargain Harold’s and Bi-Way existed everywhere. Where you picked your shirt from the mountains of clothing. They didn’t even bother putting them on racks. But times seemed much simpler then – I remember at least as a kid, we didn’t compare our shoes so much by which brand name was better, but by which brand could make you run faster (i.e. Cheetah’s could beat Puma’s in a race, but they both wouldn’t touch a Bullet). It was probably the cheapest shoe you could get, but in our minds, nothing stopped a Bullet. I’m sure our parents were delighted to hear us raving about the cheapest shoes and not the priciest brands.

Layaways. Back then, if you didn’t have enough money to pay for that coat you wanted, you could put down $10 a week until you were able to pay the store off for that coat. Sounds like an everyday loan, except you weren’t accruing interest and weren’t allowed to take that coat home until it was fully paid for. Retailers had whole departments just dedicated to layaways. Today, you’re almost encouraged to take everything home, throw it on a credit card and worry about it later. Apparently there are still some retailers like Sears and Toys R’ Us in the U.S., which offer layaways, but none to my knowledge, here in Canada.

Thrifty minds are better than one

Growing up I’d like to think my friends and I were pretty frugal too. I couldn’t have done it alone.

Meet the new bike. Same as the old bike. I remember one day one of my friend’s bike got a flat. His older brother recommended we just patch up the tire. So that’s what we did. We all walked our bikes to the local Canadian Tire, bought a little kit for a couple of dollars and disassembled the bike tire to patch the inner tubing. And when we got tired (no pun intended) of the same old bikes, we’d spend a whole day sanding and spray painting our bikes. Good as new!

Couch pillows transformed into hockey goalie pads. Back in the day, everyone had these spongy couches, filled with a yellowy foam. So whenever we’d see a couch thrown on someone’s lawn for garbage pickup, we’d ransack their pillows, unzip the foam and pack it on our bikes. We’d cut it to size and make goalie pads from it, feeding spaghetti string into it, to wrap it around our legs. They only lasted a couple of months after being dragged in the rain and the snow, but by then, we were onto our next pair. Hey, it was free! It’s something all of us did, and yet I can’t even find one single example of it on the Internet to show you. Ah, a lost art. I guess nowadays, they’d probably even laugh at you for doing that.

Free stereo system. Some assembly required. People would also throw out a perfectly good car or home speakers, so me and my friends would disassemble it, collect the good parts and figure out how to build a stereo box for it and boom! – we had a home theatre system. Err…or at least my friend did.

Ok, I’m done reminiscing

But I’m not done passing on these stories to my own children. While our lifestyles have changed, the principles of frugality remain the same. I don’t believe we’re doing our kids any favours by just giving them what they want. Thrifty, frugal, whatever label you want to put on it, I think ultimately, one of the most important things you can do for them, is to teach them how to be resourceful, by getting them involved with the things we do every day. These skills are invaluable. And I’m glad I learned from the very best!

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