My mom, the frugal role model.

Editor’s note: A version of this post (written by me) originally appeared on MSN Money’s Smart Spending blog.

The older I get the more I miss my mother, who died eight years ago this month. Geneva Hanes was the youngest of 10 kids born to an uneducated Tennessee couple who eventually pulled up stakes and moved north for opportunity – that is, to work in South Jersey factories and vegetable fields.

Despite hunger, poverty and violence, my mother became the first in her family to finish high school. Mom owned two dresses (“one on, one off”) and never had a square meal or a bath in a real tub until she married my dad right after graduation.

They had four kids in five years, which sounds impossibly grim by today’s standards. But we didn’t seem to notice that we were poor.  Everyone we knew pinched pennies. Nobody did it like my mom, though.


Ground beef, homemade book covers

Mom could coax a meal for six from a pound of ground chuck.  She canned and froze vegetables, many of which we grew in the yard, and made jam from strawberries we picked at a nearby farm. Bread came a dozen loaves at a time from the bakery outlet and two quarts of whole milk turned into a gallon thanks to the alchemy of milk powder and water. To her, “convenience food” meant getting one of the kids to peel the potatoes.

Our wardrobes relied heavily on hand-me-downs from cousins plus bargains picked up at dime and discount stores. We got school shoes and Sunday-school shoes in the fall and a pair of sneakers in the spring. Woe betide the person who didn’t take care of clothes or footwear. It had to last. We made it last.

Somehow she found the money for things that mattered, such as a set of encyclopedias bought on installment and, eventually, braces and glasses for three of us. A doctor’s office was right next door, which was lucky since someone was always getting croupy or bee-stung – and Mom found a way around that, too, having us mow the doctor’s lawn for part of the bill.


Teaching by example

Watching her, we learned to be resourceful, responsible and kind. Required to cover our schoolbooks, we cut down grocery bags and folded them to fit. Once knee socks got too old to stay up, we put rubber bands around them. When I lost the screw from my glasses I repaired them with a bent straight pin, a fix that lasted until my next vision exam.

As soon as possible, we started earning money; I was picking and selling berries and flowers by age 9, and babysitting at 11. But when it snowed and we shoveled a path to an elderly neighbor’s mailbox, we wouldn’t have dreamed of accepting the quarter she always tried to give us.

Some weeks before her death, Mom fretted that she had so little to leave us because her illness had been costly. I miss her for many, many reasons. Chief among them is that I wish I could thank her for how much she did leave us: a legacy of working hard and making do but never ceasing to hope that things would get better one day.

If she could have read this blog, she would have found herself right at home. If not for her influence, I wouldn’t be writing it.

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  1. Your mother sounds like a wise and wonderful woman! Who knew the lessons we were learning when we didn’t even realize it?

  2. Harry Martin

    I’ve got a tear in my eye — what a wonderful tribute!

  3. What a wonderful tribute to your Mom! I can remember doing many of the things you mentioned, too…

  4. She would be reading your blog, Donna. From a much. much better place.

    And this post, in particular, would have brought a tear of joy to her eyes. That, and a warm smile of motherly pride at how well her duaghter has turned out.

  5. Diana Bombach

    What a nice post. Your mother sounds like she was a lovely woman.

  6. Shannon Bennett

    I really love this! Thank you for sharing something so sweet & personal. Your mom is living on in your writing for sure!

  7. bobbysgirl

    What a blessing to have such a kind and wise mom. You are her legacy. She is very proud of you, I’m sure.

  8. What a lovely tribute.

  9. What a different world it would be today if more people parented like your mother. I miss the good old days.
    Very nice post – and as others have stated, I am quite sure your mother read it and is smiling along with us.

  10. Shellye

    What a great tribute to your mom, Donna. What a wonderful legacy she left you and your siblings. I also remember using rubber bands to keep my knee socks up, and using grocery bags to cover my school books. 🙂

    I’m sure your mom is smiling along with us.

  11. A beautiful tribute…

  12. I’m not sure I’ve ever left a comment here before, and I’m struggling with this one due to the tears in my eyes. What a lovely tribute.

  13. You are so blessed to have had a wonderful mother.

  14. Now A Country Mouse

    I truly enjoy the stories about your Mom, (and Aunts too). Thanks for sharing Donna!

  15. Msjbelle

    I to have tears in my eyes. It reminds me of Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

  16. prettymac

    Donna—i really look forward to reading your blog and i can relate so much to what you say and how you live your life. i too had a wonderful mom for too short a time and this was quite a nice tribute to your mom .

  17. Wonderful tribute. 🙂 Your mom is very proud of you!

  18. Sarah L

    I bet she is so proud of you! She sound slike a wonderful woman.

  19. What a wonderful story! It’s so nice to hear what special legacy your mom left behind for you. It reminds me of the speech I gave at my own mother’s funeral just 6 months ago. I decided to focus my speech on the the most important lesson she taught me and how it affects my daily life. She knew how much I loved her; I just hope she knows how much she taught me.

  20. Michele

    This is a beautiful post! Thanks for sharing your memories.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Michele: Thanks for your kind comment. Remembering my mom is sometimes painful (i.e., regrets sneak in) but eventually I can put things in perspective. While I can’t change the fact that she’s gone, I can model some of the behaviors she taught me in order to help others.
      Thanks for reading Surviving and Thriving.

  21. Donna – Thank you for sharing your mother with us. PS. I used paperbags and left over moving paper to cover my daughter’s school books this past year.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Stace: Thanks for your kind comments, and for recycling those bags. 🙂

  22. Standing ovation salute to you and your mom.

  23. jillian

    This made me smile. It so reminded me of my granny. Thank you.


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