Dad would be proud of what a cheapskate I’ve become, even if my conversion to cheapness came in an environmentally friendly kit labeled “energy efficient.” When Dad toured the house flicking off every light that he deemed unnecessary (which was pretty much every light), he wasn’t thinking about his carbon footprint, he was only thinking about his electric bill. He may never have heard of “recycling,” but he was very familiar with and enthusiastic about hand-me-downs, second-hand stores, yard sales, and the many creative uses for what others might mistakenly call garbage.
Dad never thought much about what a virtue it was to cut down on waste, he just monitored everyone carefully if he saw us tip-toeing near the trash basket, always ready to yell, “Don’t throw that out, it’s still good!” Sanitation workers must have thought we spent a lot of time out of town because our garbage can was practically empty on garbage night.
Mom was constantly coming up with creative uses for leftovers: Yesterday’s roast chicken would become tonight’s chicken surprise, and then the carcass saved for tomorrow’s chicken and dying vegetable soup. But she went even farther than that. She made a deal with my Aunt who lived down the street. Every Tuesday they would trade each other surplus leftovers, and then pawn them off on us kids as a whole new meal.
My mom never heard of “the local food movement” but she knew how to garden. The first garden she had was a Victory Garden during WWII (gardening to save the world from Fascism – now that’s the way to win a war!). From then on she was hooked. Sure, the vegetables she grew in our backyard tasted better than the ones from the grocery store, but more important than that, they were free. Mom and Dad were also big believers in buying from farm stands, because not only did you cut out the middle-man, you could also haggle for lower prices, something that was never going to happen at the Kroger’s or Stop ‘n Shop.
Obviously, I learned the fine art of being a cheapskate from experts, and it’s always served me well. For example, as a poor college student, I had no aversion to dumpster diving. The food the supermarkets or local restaurants threw away often looked a lot better than the leftovers Mom and Dad made us finish off. Shopping for clothes at the Salvation Army was actually a step up from the wardrobe I was used to. The clothes had less wear and tear than the hand-me-downs I usually inherited, plus I could buy things that were actually my size, instead of my older brothers’. When I forgot to pay the heating bill, I just put on an extra set of long underwear. It wasn’t really much colder than Dad set our thermostat back home.
Now all my frugal ways have suddenly come into fashion. I’m no longer a cheapskate, but a pioneer in environmental sustainability. I’ve become a big believer in green transportation, or as I tell my children, “No, I’m not going to drive you there. Ride your bike!” I don’t believe in buying a lot of junk you don’t need. In fact, I don’t believe in buying things you do need, either, not when you can just borrow them from friends and neighbors. Tools, books, extra pots and pans, even furniture that’s just sitting idle in someone’s basement or attic – I’m a firm believer in beg now, re-pay later (preferably with kindness, which is free).
Like my Dad was, I’m astounded that people use chemical fertilizers on their lawns; the damn grass grows fast enough as it is. And why invest hundreds of dollars on a noisy, polluting gasoline lawnmower, when my son can get so much good exercise with the push mower I rescued from someone’s trash? As far as owning a leaf blower or a snow blower goes – don’t make me laugh. Although I did splurge at a garage sale last year to make sure everyone in the family has their very own rake and shovel.
I don’t have to be as cheap as Mom and Dad were. They acquired their skills growing up during the Depression, and honed them making ends meet with a family of four children plus Grandpa living with us. Mom never needed to make complicated calculations about the advantages of buying an energy efficient dryer or dishwasher, she just hung her clothes on a line in the backyard, and washed dishes by hand. Dad was never tempted by the latest cell phone, computer, HDTV set or other electronic gizmo; for him it was a big deal when I bought him a second radio, so he could listen to the game both downstairs or upstairs in bed.
But just because I can afford to buy things my parents never dreamed of, doesn’t mean I want to. I’m having too much fun enjoying the things I already have. Plus the things other people already had, got bored with, and sold for a dollar at a yard sale. If enough people learn the pleasures of being cheapskates, there may even be a world left that we can be proud to pass along to our children.
Hey, don’t throw that away! It’s still good!