Automatic frugality.

The other day I stopped writing and left the room to go to the euphemism. (We didn’t say “potty” in our house.) As I walked out I turned off the office light even though I’d be gone only about a minute.

At lunchtime I rummaged in the fridge for some cheese, the sausage I brought with me to Alaska and the mustard. The nearly empty bottle was upside down, so the last few drops would be attainable – just enough left for my lunch.

It’s 50 degrees, breezy and raining but I didn’t turn up the heat. I just put on another layer, my fleece Mr. Rebates pullover. (Only recently did I figure out that the logo is a little bag of money wearing glasses. Or maybe it just has googly eyes.)

Welcome to automatic frugality – stuff that’s so ingrained you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Only when someone reacts do you learn that the whole world doesn’t write grocery lists on junk-mail envelopes or pick up pennies from sidewalks.

If you’re lucky, that person doesn’t think you’re a kook. If not, then the wedding is off or you don’t get that promotion after all.


Automatic or pathetic?

These are the things we do without thinking, because:

  • We were raised that way. (I can still hear my mom saying, “Close that door! Were you born in a barn?”)
  • We’ve gone through tough times when every penny counted.
  • We consider ourselves part of the solution. (Not part of the precipitate.)
  • We are simply cheap bastards.

Frugal newbies look for Ziploc coupons. We, on the other hand, automatically fold up the bread bag for future storage of leftovers.

We hand-wash bras because we know that washers and dryers take years off our lingerie’s lifespan.

We scope out water fountains rather than soda machines in public places.

We re-use printouts, either as scrap paper or to print new stuff on the blank sides.

We don’t just set the catsup bottle in the fridge upside down to get as much out as possible. When it’s truly “empty,” we add a teeny bit of water, shake well and pour the reddish liquid into our next batch of homemade soup or chili.

And yet we wonder why the wedding is off.

What are YOUR default settings?

As I noted in a previous post, not everyone is comfortable with frugality. Their discomfort could be rooted in defensiveness or insecurity, or possibly the fear of being served crusty mustard.

Personally, I think plenty of friends, relatives and co-workers could use a good dose of frugal. I choose to model rather than preach, though.

It’s up to you how much frugality you’re willing to cop to, at least in public. Having a sense of humor helps. Wise Bread recently showcased a post called “20 signs you were raised by true money-savers.” I didn’t find the ideas too scary, although I respectfully disagree with No. 4.: Mashed-up kidney beans are not as good as pizza. They’re not even as good as ramen.

The author, Marla Walters, invited readers to add their own signs that they were raised by frugal people. Lard-and-sugar sandwiches, anyone? Asking to glean fruit that’s falling on the ground? Cutting little mold spots off the cheese?

I’d like to do the same thing here, minus the lard and sugar. (Although, come to think of it, those were once the two main ingredients of Oreo filling.) Feel free to post your own instances of automatic frugality, either those you were raised with or those that you have come to practice on your own.

I’ll start:

  • When I see a paper clip on a bank counter or even on a sidewalk, I pick it up.
  • Naturally, I also pick up any coins that I see.
  • Ditto beverage caps with My Coke Rewards points on them.
  • When making spaghetti I freeze a couple of spoons of the sauce (in old cream-cheese containers, of course). Later on, if I find myself with an aging partial loaf of French bread or a staling kaiser roll, sauce + bread + a little grated cheese = pizza.
  • At the supermarket I routinely seek out “reduced for quick sale” items. Bananas get eaten (I prefer them very ripe). Meat gets frozen. Milk gets turned into rice pudding. Squeamish people get queasy when they hear about this.

Anyone else have tips – or repressed memories – to share?

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  1. Valerie

    My Mother used to water down the shampoo – drove me nuts because I had to use twice as much to get the same effect, which pretty much means she was just wasting water! I just use less shampoo and get my shampooing needs met and the desired frugal effect she was seeking. 🙂

  2. Nicole

    “Not part of the precipitate.”

    This is why I love (or should it be hate with the puns?) your work.

    Yes, your tips are my life, although the ketchup thing is now a repressed memory– I’ll do it for tomato sauce but not for ketchup. But as I was reading this I thought about our similar friends who have been living in the bay area and saved up a net worth of ~500K by age 30 despite working part-time after their first kid was born (and eating out on occasion). Automatic little things combined with investing can get you a house someplace where nobody else can “ever afford” one.

  3. Thank you! A lot of these habits are not pathological penny-pinching: they’re just the way you were raised.

    * I ask for plastic bags (naughty!) at the grocers because I use them to store bread (a home-made loaf is usually too big for a Ziplock bag) and large varieties of produce, and to pick up dog mounds.

    * I make my own bubble bath by pouring some unperfumed dish detergent into an old glass bubble-bath bottle and squirting in a few spritzes of my favorite perfume.

    * I try not to buy face and body creams dispensed with squirt attachments, because those things never use up the cream on the bottom of the container. If forced to get a favorite in that kind of packaging, though, when the squirter stops dispensing I unscrew it and use the long tube thing to scrape out the last of the cream. This can delay purchase of a new bottle for two or three weeks.

    * I’ve reverted to asking for water instead of tea or pop at restaurants. And I never buy pop from machines (what a rip!).

    * I do my own manicures and pedicures, thank you.

    Butter and cheese sandwiches…Darn! I’d forgotten about cinnamon toast. My mother and later, my roommate, used to butter a piece of bread, sprinkle on lots of sugar and a little cinnamon, and run it under the broiler. Yum! Will have to make some of those one day soon.

  4. My mother, who ran the house, was (is) not AT ALL frugal. Nope, not a bit. My dad, on the other hand, was the one who asked us if we had stock in the electric company and chided us for not cleaning our corn cobs well enough. (When he finished his, it was bare.)

    And cinnamon toast is a beautiful thing.

  5. At my office, there’s always a stash of food for everyone–usually junk food, but sometimes bananas. I ask if I can take any brown bananas home, then I use them to make muffins and bread.

    I halve the meat and double the veggies or beans in any recipe. My husband never notices there’s less meat in anything. Score!

    I’m going to start walking to work this week, at least 2 days a week. I’ll drop my daughter off at daycare on the way, and the whole trip is something like 2.1 miles. My goal is to make a tank of gas last a month.

    For presents, friends get homemade granola, jam or fruit butter that I’ve canned, cherries in amaretto syrup, coupons to babysit, black and white photos I’ve framed with mats (of their pets, kids) etc.

    We also love cinnamon toast!

  6. My war baby English husband could teach most people a thing or two about saving money and getting the best deals. He can often get a store brand toothpaste here for 11 pence (about 14 cents) and he mixes the oddest things together from the refrigerator. He reuses or repurposes anything possible and once made a coffee table out of driftwood from a beach in Ireland. It looks like a coffee table you might buy anywhere and it’s still in great shape even though he made it about 40 years ago.

  7. Donna Freedman

    @Elizabeth Harper: When I helped my dad clean out the garage after my grandfather died, we found several tool/hardware trays my grandfather had cobbled together from lumber scraps. He saw no need to waste things, either.
    The good thing about knowing how to do such things? It saves you money PLUS a lot of trips to the store.
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  8. Deedee

    Oh, my dad. When I was growing up almost nothing was thrown away. The baby food jars were all used for screws, nails, etc above his workbench (nail the top to the underside of the shelf then screw the jar up into it. He also wrote shopping lists on used envelopes and every piece of junk mail that was blank on the back was used as scratch paper. (As a kid I would be deliriously happy if I got a piece of paper to draw on that was blank on both sides!) Tea leaves and coffee grounds went on the mint plant out the back door. Hankies not kleenex. Wash the plastic bags and reuse. And, of course, margarine tubs and miracle whip tubs for tupperware. Break a plate? Handle off a tea cup? Get out the superglue. Cheapest brands of shampoo (bought by the gallon) because there’s no difference in quality according to my Dad (who was bald anyway). (that drove me crazy as a teenager – I wanted Herbal Essence!)

    I kind of went wild in the opposite direction in my early adulthood. But now I kind of get it! The best lesson my dad taught me was not to be taken in by advertising. He’d say that’s a whole industry that makes its money trying to get you to buy things that you didn’t even know you needed or wanted.

  9. Nicole

    Try the cinnamon toast with sour cream instead of butter (and brown sugar).

    • Want it to be healthier? Skip the butter or sugar and use coconut oil with cinnamon on Whole grain toast. I love it and it is soooooo good for you too.

  10. rosa rugosa

    I am a fairly recent convert to the frugal lifesyle, and my family was not particulary frugal. Just last week I made my first batch of laundry detergent, and I’ve been using a facial scrub recipe I found on a PF blog for a few months now. I get a strong sense of satisfaction and feel much more resourceful when I find acceptable ways to get something for pennies that I could have spent big bucks on! I am replanting one of my garden beds this summer, and I’ve been challenging myself to spend as little as possible by using seedlings and divisions of perennials that I already have instead of buying a bunch of plants. I’ve bought a few, but most of my purchases were from Bluestone Perennial’s post-spring sale (purchased online). Their prices are great to begin with, and half price is even better. But of course the free plants from my own garden are the best deal of all!

  11. While I am not to the frugal extreme that some families were, I have to admit that I was surprised to learn how many people did their grocery shopping without coupons! I thought that was a NORMAL shopping behavior!

  12. You wrote, “Their discomfort could be rooted in defensiveness or insecurity, or possibly the fear of being served crusty mustard.” I must admit that I am only somewhat frugal. I do admire those who can live on very little! I’m not insecure or uncomfortable regarding frugality; just that we already save 1/3 of our gross income (another 1/3 goes to the government) so feel that I don’t have to do the extreme things listed.

  13. I come from Depression Era parents who were very frugal. Mom just celebrated her 91st birthday yesterday. (Dad passed away 11 years ago this week.)

    My sister and I had to wear the ugliest clothes that my mother made for us when we were growing up. She was not a very talented seamstress and often picked the cheapest, most hideous fabric. We were laughed at a lot.

    When we were around 12, my dad put his foot down and said he didn’t work this hard for his kids to look like they belonged in the poor house. What a relief! My mother stopped making our clothes and we could buy real clothes in a real store. He took us shopping one time and let us buy anything we wanted. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

    • We only had hand me downs until I was old enough as a teenager to sew all of my own clothes and then i had to sew for all 6 of my younger siblings too.

  14. BTW – My husband (an entrepreneur) taught me the other half of the frugality equation – generating money. Hubby and I are both very frugal, have raised 5 frugal kids and have a pretty high net worth. So, my Depression-Era mother is happy to have me spend my money on her!

    And I do happily. Too bad Dad isn’t here to enjoy it too.

    I enjoy being frugal…. to a point. I have my Dad’s attitude…. I didn’t work this hard to not enjoy the fruits of my labor. I don’t waste resources, but I enjoy a nice life.

  15. I’m still stuck on “the whole world doesn’t write grocery lists on junk-mail envelope”. Really? They don’t?

    I do most of the above mentioned tips (and also didn’t know that cinnamon toast was being frugal) without really thinking about them. Just habit, I suppose.

    I also bring home leftover food from work meetings. Otherwise it’s just going to sit in the fridge til it goes bad! I may as well eat it 🙂

  16. Maryl H.

    Yep, my grocery list is written on envelopes, back and front – because the line drawn through one side means I’ve bought it! Also notes to my daughter on days she gets home from school before I am home from work, and ‘to do’ lists. And it all goes to recycling afterwards. Cutesy notepaper lasts forever here!

  17. FranticWoman

    Cinnamon toast…yum. Haven’t had that in ages.
    We got bread pudding and french toast lot too – I think it is to use up stale-ish bread?

    My parents were big on buy only what you need, buy used if it doesnt need to be new and buys things only to be useful, not attractive. Appearance means nothing, only the utlitarian quotient matters. As a 13 year old in huge hideous glasses this was a problem, as well as the fact underwear rarely got replaced. Torment by kids in gym and swim team (who saw said underwear) made sure to let me know their low opinion of it.

    I respect my parents frugality at this point but unfortunatley I also see hoarding tendancies. They have items that are 25+ years old cluttering their house because they might need it “one day”. That might be true but 25 years of clutter is not worth saving a few bucks IMO.

    And count them in turning out the lights, even for a minute, reuse of all plastic bags and no A/C – even when it is 95 degrees with 100% humidity.

  18. Sarah L

    I loved this post!

    I do a lot of the above mentioned things. An area where I’m also careful is laundry. Besides hanging stuff outside when I can, I also only use about a third of the detergent recommended, ando nly use fabric softner on the sheets (to keep them smelling good until the next time that set gets used), or guest towels.

    Until my little guy is age three, I bring him his own juice box to restraunts, and he shares off our plates.

    I stockpile shampoo and other toiletries when I can get it free, or near free, and it’s been years since I’ve paid full price for something hygene related, and we have a ton of it in the closet.

    My little guys clothes are 85% from yard sales, and I’ve got up to sizes 5t in the closet. While occasionally I discover belatedly, that a beautiful pair of, say, forest green osh kosh cordery pants that looked brand new in fact, had had the elastic dry rot once I got them home and checked the elasticity, so I couldn’t use them (happened this weekend, *sobs*) it’s a very rare occourance, so the dollar I lost there, is made up for all of the awesome other clothes I have gotten over the years for a quarter. (average paid price for his yard sale clothes is 50 cents a piece, name brand, near new!)

  19. TosaJen

    You mean that some people actually DON’T buy all their bread at the outlet store? We usually spend $20 or less to fill up the freezer with loaves of whole wheat bread, pizza crusts, bagels, and English muffins that are close to (but not past) their sell by dates.

  20. Donna Freedman

    @TosaJen: I get my flour tortillas from a bread outlet near my apartment. A 20-ounce package costs 79 cents. It would cost more than $4 at the supermarket. For more about “old” bread, see this link:
    Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.
    Best regards,
    Donna Freedman

  21. Norman

    At work, when my laser printer cartridge tells me it is out, I will gently shake it back and forth and stick it back in for many more months of printing. I’ve had it last me 6 months past when it was telling me it was empty by continually doing this. Even though I’m not directly paying for it myself, its just my nature to make it last as long as it possibly can.

  22. It was normal for us to only have loaves of bread from the day old store. Cinnamon sugar toast with margarine for breakfast (butter was too expensive) with a glass of powdered milk (fresh milk- also too expensive). We rarely ate out. Once in a blue moon we had McDonald-sm hamburger and fries that were eaten at home with Kool-Aid. Cheese and soda drove the price up and we never even bothered to ask for them.
    We had hand me down clothes. I don’t remember ever going shopping with my mom to get new clothes except to get my homecoming dress- at Kmart. You can only imagine how ugly that was.

  23. Shopping lists on envelopes… front, back, then both of the insides.
    Or better yet, on my PDA.

    CFL lightbulbs through most of the house. 1 on a timer. When I had a job where I came home at 3am, this let me come home to a lit house without leaving a light on. Some nights I’d glance at the window as I pulled in & it’d be dark, but by the time I parked in the garage the light would be on. 🙂
    One light I leave on all night now is an LED bulb, slightly over 1 watt.

    Adjust the flame on the stove so it’s hitting the underside of the pan or pot, not going up the side – you want the heat that’s coming off the top of the flames to hit the underside of the pan. For electric stoves, use the right size burner.

    And like clothes, I don’t wash some dishes every time I use them. F’rinstance, the plate I use for toast; it can sit next to the toaster with its crumbs & it’s not hurting a thing. The worst that happens is a cat hair floats up onto it. Or a water glass; it can sit in the dish drainer ’til I want it again.

  24. amberwitch

    I sometimes cut open mayonnaise bottles to get the last mayo – which is quite a lot actually. My dad would keep the cut-up bottles in the fridge until he had used all the mayo, but that is just a little too much for me.

  25. In addition to the above, I use rubber scrapers to get the last bit out of anything that I can. Small sized for small mouthed jars. If it is a liquid I add a bit of water to it and shake it up to use one way or the other. I do this with shampoo to get the last of it out. If you use bar soap and you get down to a sliver, I learned that you can take a new bar and after the first use it is soft. You can attach the old to the new. Take the old sliver and the new bar and using your fingernail scratch lines into the bars on one side going in the same direction. Now push the two together. They will stick like glue and you have just saved every bit of soap from the old bar. I know 100s more ways to save money as I was a missionary kid growing up.

  26. donna

    I love reading all of your comments and was surprise at how many I use myself. learned mostly from my gram, I can hear her talking in my ear even tho she passed away in 1964. We used to go “down east” at my gr uncle’s house to stay with her in the summer and she had this routine-see if this is how it goes. after brealfast, she’d was dishes, wipe the table and stove top (black wood burner), wipe up spills on floor, then rinse out slop pales. Last thing was to water her flower garden. Some days I’m sure there were other things she did with that water, in the proper order of course. She really stretched it. The water we used to drink was at the spring up the road. the house water she got at the pump couldn’t be consumed. There were so many things she used to do. reading this article brought back so many memories. tho I don’t clean slop pails now their are other things that just come without thinking. Thanks for the memories!!!

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks for sharing those memories. Your grandmother sounds like a resourceful woman.

  27. after rereading this article and the things others wrote made me
    think of a few more things. Such as bean sandwiches. They were regular yellow eyed beans dad or gram would bake. when some was left over we’d mash some up in a dish and put them on a slice of
    bread w/a slice of onion & salt & pepper.YUM! I sent one to work
    w/my husband one day, He brought it home and said “I don’t know
    what it is but I don’t want another one.” OK hon, you don’t know what you are missing.
    On Thurs nites mom & dad would go “grub shopping” dad’s words.
    We would go w/them to the hot dog stand across the st from the pic-
    ture show, (another one of dad’s terms). My sister & I would go to
    that, a whole 50 cents. 25 cents for popcorn, while they went shopping a few stores away. Then we would meet out front and go
    home together. Brenda & I would be searching through the bags and
    asking for this & that. Dad would say “There’s another day coming ya know” I miss my daddy!!!

    Sorry to keep rambling but like I said, You help bring back alot of
    fond memories. THANKS donna

  28. Gabriel

    One of the things I have been doing for the last year and a half is mystery shopping restaurants. It gets my meal paid for, plus a few extra dollars for my time. This takes care of my desire to eat out, and its at a profit.
    Another thing I do is as soon as I wake up in the morning I turn my a/c up to 80 degrees. This has the double benefit that 1. I don’t have cold air blasting when I exit the shower, and 2. it barely switches on during the day while I am at work. When I come home in the evening I turn it back down for comfort.
    I coupon, started a vegetable garden, take my lunch to work, and work freelance jobs in my field. I also buy all my clothes on clearance. Who cares if I am wearing brand new Santa Claus boxers in February, right?


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