The Making of a Cheapskate

What makes some people spendthrifts and others tightwads? My undergraduate biology degree requires that I frame the question in terms of “Nature or Nurture?” I wonder about my grandmother who lived through the depression? Did a frugal nature simply allow her and others like her to survive it? Or did the circumstance itself create the financially disciplined woman I knew?

I think my parents are middle of the road and so are my sisters. So, why am I so frugal?

Can adults intentionally instill a certain financial philosophy in children?

I remember several influences in my life that shaped my financial outlook, but did I seek them out because I was predisposed to such things? Or were they so compelling that no matter what, I would’ve had to tune into them? After all these years, I believe it was a combination. I think these characters stood out in my mind because in a way, they were rebels to me; my first heroes. They did things that made others shake their heads. As a middle child, this sort of thing got my attention.

If Life (or your waitress) Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade

At restaurants, my grandmother used the lemons that were served in her glass of water and the sugar on the table to make lemonade in her glass instead of paying for a drink. She also drank the remainder of any cream left on our table so that it didn’t go to waste. And when we stayed with her we sat spellbound in the evenings and watched her curl her own hair, parting it into sections and twisting it into pressed circles held to her head with a bobby pin “x”. (My other grandmother paid a pretty penny to have her hair curled and set each week.) All the while she rocked in her chair and hummed along with Lawrence Welk. How she could do all that without a mirror we never could comprehend. She also planned expenditures and it peppered her conversation; “I’ve set aside $20 a month for a trip in April,” or “If strawberries cost more than $1.50 per quart, I don’t buy them.” There was clarity of thought and intention in her financial life.

Don’t Worry What Others Think

Another character was a family member, who lived in another state. He wouldn’t buy charcoal for his grill. Instead, he walked around his suburban neighborhood, gathering sticks and pine cones. I remember hearing that story and being intrigued because I had never seen anyone burn regular old sticks in their grill. Some in my family were embarrassed for him but I thought, What else am I missing because I accept the norm?

Less Is More

Another early memory that I believe shaped my minimalist tendencies, was watching Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. Besides the fact that I had a super secret crush on Pa Ingles and John Boy, I was fascinated by the simplicity of their existence. They hung a single item on a single peg, like Pa’s hat, and each room was sparse but functional. In contrast, the tops of our closets were avalanche danger zones and my own bedroom was littered with papers, plastic horses and softballs. I longed for the simple peg existence.


As a teenager, before I was paying my on way, a friend and I used to giggle at her mother’s habit of washing and reusing plastic baggies. We thought that was a bit extreme and a little embarrassing. However, as soon as I had my first apartment and bought my own baggies, they suddenly turned into gold and I too washed and reused them (unless I had stored raw meat in them).

What sort of example does your financial behavior set for young people around you? You may get by just fine, but would you sit down and intentionally teach your financial habits to the children in your life? If not, what would you do differently? Remember that you may not be the only one who is hurt by your financial philosophy. And you won’t be the only one who would benefit from rethinking how you spend your paycheck.

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7 Responses to The Making of a Cheapskate

  1. Part of my thriftiness is driven by a calling I got in 5th grade (in 1969) to save the environment.

    Lucky for me!

  2. Fred333 says:

    Great article. I would have to say it all comes down to how your parents were spending the money. Mine were very tight which taught me the value of a dollar.

  3. Michael says:

    At some point in my life, I realized how wasteful my parents were with money and found out how poorly they were doing financially despite my dad’s above average income. I took it as a lesson on what NOT to do, and it’s worked well for me.

  4. I wondered about the same thing. I meet siblings where one is frugal and the other spends money wildly. I’d admit growing poor made me appreciate money.

  5. You raised a very compelling point. The fact is, numerous studies have shown us that our financial behavior is most often inherited from our parents.

    Barbara Stanny, author “Overcoming Underearning”

  6. Cindy M says:

    Excellent article. I’m thinking my being the oldest child and oldest grandchild in the family had something to do with my responsible attitude. I saw more. I’m kind of a throwback compared to my generation. Both grandmothers were thrifty, never drove, kept decent homes and knew how to work with what they had. The men all worked hard and brought their paychecks home to their wives. Mom and dad were looser, worked hard but dad drank and mom is/was childish in regard to money. They fought about money and mom worked full time when I reached high school, which meant I had to be more responsible in regard to watching the younger kids. I frankly have greater admiration for my grandparents and their generation than my folks and was more like my grannies from the time I was a kid, more serious. I stayed with my grannies a lot and found them far more interesting to listen and talk to. They had had it rougher as kids and were grateful for what they had. Mom and dad always seemed to want something (thanks to the media, probably, who knows?) I’m 52 and remember the pincurls (shoot, I do that myself sometimes) and picking fruit to make a pie. I love striving toward self-sufficiency and never wanted to be like my generation, hated being a teenager, could hardly wait to be on my own and had my own house by the time I was 23. I try to instill what little I know in my grandnephews when I babysit with them, doing things the old fashioned way, cooking from scratch instead of running them to Mickey D’s, playing board games instead of those violent video games and we hit the park regularly. They seem fascinated by hands-on activities and figuring out how to have fun with pennies instead of dollars, and in particular, they thrive on the attention and the slower pace, I think.

  7. Carol says:

    I think my greatest influence on being thrifty had to be my grandmother. I used to listen to her stories about living through the Depression and how tight money was, and it used to scare me to death! She would tell about all these families who would get put out on the streets or get their stuff repossessed because they couldn’t pay their bills. I don’t know if there is any genetic link, because my mom was the polar opposite, running up huge credit card debts. I do try and teach my kids the importance of saving, but it’s not working on my daughter. She is definately a spendy.

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