The Greatest Frugal Generation

spoon windchimes

This week I attended the funeral of an old family friend. This man was a member of the “Greatest Generation,” growing up during the Great Depression and coming of age during WWII. Aside from his stories, the thing that always amazed me about this man was his ability to construct the most useful items from things that I would have thrown away. It was like knowing MacGyver. Give him some string, glue, buttons, and bottle caps and he could probably make jewelry that would be picked up by Tiffany’s.

His most famous creation was a wind chime made from nothing but some old wire, copper pipe leftover from a plumbing job, and some bits of broken glass. It was just a simple wind chime, but it made the most beautiful music. He built it and tuned it better than any mass produced chime I’ve even owned. Everything he built was like that; beautiful and useful. None of it was like the crap I tend to make when I’m trying to create something from recycled bits. Most of my creations belong in the garbage. By trying to build something from trash, I’m only delaying its inevitable trip to the landfill.

As a kid, I would watch him make or repair things using nothing but his brain and scrap materials. It never failed to amaze me what he could come up with and I got some of my best toys from this man; handmade, of course. I asked him one time how he did it. How did he manage to know what materials would work well together, how to create something from nothing, or how to repair something he’d never worked on before?

He chalked it up to his upbringing. Growing up during the Great Depression, nothing was wasted. Everything had a second, third, fourth or even fifth life. And even if it appeared that no further use was possible, an item was often kept, “just in case.” My friend worked on all kinds of projects in his youth, learning many skills from his father and grandfather as they worked to make ends meet during hard times. If he wanted something to play with, he had to make it himself as there was no money for toys. If something broke, it had to be fixed because there was no money for a replacement. If the item in question wasn’t something he had worked on before, he had to figure it out because there was no money to hire a technician to do the repair. Much of his life was like that until the end of WWII brought prosperity, but by then he had learned how to make or repair just about anything.

Those were skills he never turned his back on. Even when his post-war job brought him more money than he’d ever had before, he still kept right on saving scraps and creating new things. He had a garage full of items that he believed would be useful someday. To me it looked like the biggest pile of junk I’d ever seen, but to him everything had potential and most of it was eventually used in one way or another (unlike my garage where there are many “someday” items that sit collecting dust).

Because of his skills, he didn’t have to buy much since he could repair or create most of what he needed. His upbringing also taught him the difference between wants and needs. He was very clear about what was necessary in life and what wasn’t. He didn’t need to buy a lot of prepackaged do-dads because he got his pleasures the way he always had; by taking pleasure in the outdoors, gardening, talking to people, being with family, or by creating something he found fun to build like toys for us kids. He didn’t “need” a vacation every year or a state of the art home theater system. He didn’t need a huge house or a new car every two years (when he died he was still driving a ’58 Chevy that, thanks to his skills, was in tip top condition). To him, the things that many of us consider “necessary” today were all luxury items that he could do without. He didn’t even get air conditioning until a breathing problem forced him into it. He lived a very simple life and, as a result, died a very wealthy man.

While I listened to the minister drone on at the funeral, it occurred to me that my friend was the only truly “frugal” person I knew, in the traditional sense of the word. He lived by the WWII motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” He was the only person I knew who generated almost zero waste. Organic materials were composted for his garden and almost everything else was given a new life, either by his own efforts or because he donated it to someone who could use it.

He was the only person I knew who had a true grasp of the difference between wants and needs and AND PUT IT INTO PRACTICE. We all know that a vacation every year, a Wii, a DVD player, and cell phones are wants, but we all have a funny way of somehow turning those wants into needs. My friend didn’t do that. Wants were wants and needs were needs. Money was used to buy needs and only after all true needs were satisfied were any wants allowed into the equation.

Wants were only allowed very sparingly, which made them all the more special for him. Little things like ice cream from the local shop thrilled him in a way that I don’t see in people my own age. It was funny to watch the pleasure this old man took in eating an ice cream cone while the children around him (the ones who should have been thrilled the most) were acting bored and as though this was the least thrilling thing they could think of to do. My generation has so much of everything that the little things aren’t thrilling anymore. But to my friend, their rarity only enhanced the pleasure. Despite his relative lack of material items, I never got the sense that my friend felt deprived of anything because he had all his needs met and had some money left over for a few well-chosen wants. Everything else went into building his future financial security, which was the one thing he wanted above all others.

The people that I consider frugal that come from my generation or younger aren’t really frugal, not like my friend was. We all have luxury items such as DVD players, iPods, cell phones, houses that are bigger than we need, cars that are newer than necessary, etc. We may shop for the best deal on those items and call ourselves “frugal,” or we may congratulate ourselves on saving money by using coupons, but we don’t hold a candle to people like my friend who knew how to make every penny and item work for them in creating a secure financial future.

The definition of frugal today isn’t the same as it was for my friend. Today you’re considered frugal if you clip coupons, turn up the thermostat, or shop the clearance aisle. In my friend’s time frugality wasn’t optional, it was the way of life. Having not grown up during periods of true deprivation, most of us are not terribly resourceful or interested in learning how to become so. It’s so much easier to just toss a broken what-not than to try to fix it, and we think it’s more rewarding to go to the store and buy something new rather than fashioning something new out of something we already have. We’ve also convinced ourselves that we need so much more to live happy, comfortable lives. My friend was proof that we do not need even half the things we think we do. (He had the benefit of growing up before the advent of “marketing techniques,” which probably also helped him grow up with a less “needy” mindset than we have today.)

I was fortunate that my friend taught me some of what he knew. No, I still can’t make a decent wind chime out of trash, but I know how to change my own oil, how to create compost, and how to repair many things thanks to him. Even so, I don’t know half of what he knew. As I sat at his funeral, I found myself wondering if, when the last members of the Greatest Generation pass on, will we remember how to be truly frugal? Without them to teach us and pass on the lessons learned from true hardship, will we lose yet more of our ability to be self-sufficient? When no living person remembers the Great Depression and WWII, when it is all just facts in a history book, will anyone remember or care how to make something from what appears to be trash (beyond artists who create for a living)? Will anyone remember the true difference between a want and a need? Will anyone be left who knows that marketing hype and keeping up with the Joneses isn’t what matters in life?

I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it. I look at my generation and those younger and I don’t see anything except more spending and more artificial “needs” being created by the marketers. I don’t see anyone that I know making a conscious effort to be more self-sufficient or less wasteful. I don’t see anyone saying, “No,” to their kids or to their own desires. I see so few people really interested in building a secure financial future. All I see is people wanting to live only for today. Maybe I’m turning cynical, or maybe it’s just the post-funeral blues, but I just don’t see an interest in learning to live below ones means and an understanding that it doesn’t have to be painful. You can have money but not spend it all and still be perfectly happy. There is so much more that matters in life than money, and my friend knew that.

I know there is more that I can do to live by the example set by my friend and his generation. I can get better at saying, “No,” to some of my wants, knowing that by being selective I’ll enjoy what I do have more. I can learn how to do more for myself and be more self-sufficient. I can get better at enjoying the simple things in life instead of relying on mass produced things for my enjoyment. I can spend more time talking to the Joneses rather than envying their stuff. I can work on finding more ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, not only for the benefit of my wallet, but for the benefit of the environment and future generations. I can teach some of what I learn to others, so that they might pass it on. Maybe I can even learn to make a decent wind chime.

Image courtesy of scraphouse5

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28 Responses to The Greatest Frugal Generation

  1. wealthman says:

    You have perfectly shown what the problem is when it comes to being frugal:

    “He lived a very simple life and, as a result, died a very wealthy man.”

    Why would anyone want to die wealthy? That means that they did not use their money while they were alive to do all the things that they wanted to do. Sure, you may want to leave your family some money once you die, but you don’t want to leave them huge amounts. The reason to have money is to spend it and make your life better not to save it so that the newspapers and your friends can say you “died wealthy”

  2. James says:

    The point of dying wealthy is to pass the cash onto your heirs, thats the WHOLE point. Saying the “reason to have money is to spend it and make your life better” implies that the point of having money is to spend it – and that type of thinking is the part of problem with Americas consumer economy.

  3. dean says:

    I think that the current economic turmoil will make a lot of people learn basic frugality. Hard times come with valuable lessons

  4. pinky says:

    Just because someone dies wealthy doesn’t mean they didn’t spend money on themselves. It just means that they took good care of their money.

  5. Nancy says:

    I think that there has to be a happy medium, when it comes to being frugal, and spending for pleasure.
    We need to be responsible, and save, but not to the point where saving becomes the “be all, end all”.
    The sad thing about dying wealthy, is that your heirs will probably blow all of the money you worked so hard to save!

  6. ben says:

    I’m spending all my money before I die – I earned it and I will use it. My kids already know not to expect any inheritance because when I retire, I plan to have the time of my life!

  7. xinecho says:

    I think the most important thing is to make balance between saving and spending. Saving too much or spending more than you need are not the best choice.

  8. Lori says:

    But the point of this article seems to be that this gentleman lived a full, complete, wonderful life without NEEDING all the trappings of materialistic goods. He had the time of his life without wanting to spend excess money, through nature, family and friends. Being frugal doesn’t have to mean being miserly or miserable, as the author demonstrated. I hope to be able to reach the end of my life with the same priorities and skills as the authors’ friend. I’m sure that he is sorely missed by all who knew him.

  9. Shannon says:

    What a wonderful eulogy! You are very blessed to have known such a person. My parents grew up in the Depression, but even they seem to have forgotten some of these frugal skills, which are certainly a dying art.

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  11. mjukr says:

    Spend money on experiences, not “stuff!”

  12. Jacinda says:

    That was wonderful. I think you pointed out the heart of being frugal. It’s about being content with what you have and finding joy in the simple things-like the joy your friend found in eating ice cream. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I wish I could convince my hubby to live with less. I think if we would agree to try that we’d both be better off.

    My great grandmother was of that generation and saved EVERYthing to the point we teased her about it. But by golly she found a use for almost everything too. Run in a nylon? Don’t throw it away. It makes a great tool for tying veggies or flowers.

    Your friend sounds a lot like my great-grandma. 🙂

  14. Katy McKenna says:

    Your friend sounds like an excellent role model. He evidently did not feel deprived in any way. He enjoyed his life. It’s just that he learned early on to be happy with little in the material sense.

    I sometimes worry than anyone from the Boomers on down might be nearly incapable of really understanding the difference between true needs and wants–and largely unwilling to tackle acquiring the types of skills your friend developed. Maybe I’m wrong—I hope so. I fear we may need those skills again some day!

  15. mark says:

    Thank you for sharing this story with us! Beautiful and inspirational! Thank you!

  16. peg says:

    My husband and I save quite a bit. And yes this generation does try to be frugal but not like the greatest generation. My goal is not to die a wealthy person but to have lived life to the fullest with my family. I work full time as does my husband and i think we should enjoy some fruits of our labor.

  17. Leonard says:

    Great article. The sweetness of life is not in the toys but in the joys of relationships and the simple pleasures of the “ice cream”, a warm evening filled with stars and waking to the sunshine in the morning.
    As I lay dying in my bed with my kids holding my hand I hope to say “it is all ($) gone.” Live life without great material expectations.

  18. RyuRabbit says:

    I am generation X and I live the way your friend did. I’m not as good aat it but I try to reuse or recycle everything. I have learned that somethings are just not worth my time to fix. I used to try to fix everything but I would end up having a garage full of stuff. Now I buy tools to repair stuff that has resale value or is worth my time. If you cant save at least your regular hourly wage repairing it then you can find more prosperous ways to spend your time.

  19. Jay says:

    This is a beautiful post. Very well written and I’m guessing the main reason you wrote it was to pay homage to a man you admired after his passing. You’ve certainly done a fantastic job and I agree with you 100%, younger generations have lost a lot of the frugality and financial wisdom that define our older generations. We’ve never really had to go through a depression so it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to try to stretch every dime and every resource so far. Hopefully our current economic mini-disaster will wake a lot of people up, especially those governing our country. We can’t go on spending more than we make forever, right? That seems to be the new American way.
    Anyway, I’ll quit rambling, just wanted to say brilliant post and let’s see some more!

  20. Em. says:

    “… check out this post by Jennifer at Personal Finance Advice …”

  21. Carol says:

    That old man had the right idea. I come from Asia and I was shocked when I first came to America. There are so much waste here.

    I have since planted a garden that consist of fruits, potatoes, rhubarbs and any other edible that I can find. I live in the North East so it is pretty hard to get food grown in the winter, but, during summer we have so much fruits and veggies that we don’t really need to go to the stores to get them.

    I buy bulk and I like shopping at the thrift stores for neccesities. I also cook our meals from scratch including pizzas, tortilla, marshmallow and anything that tickle our fancy. No package meals for us.

    Our family of 3 is able to live comfortably on $24,000 a year including our house loan which amounts to $12,000 annually. We even manage to build up a healthy nest egg just in case we needed it.

    We spend more money during winter because of heat but insulation goes a long way in cutting down our bills.

    I save everything because in Asia we are taught to not waste anything. I am trying to instill this in our son and so far it is working. He is 5 and he can recite the 3 R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle. And he puts every container he eats from into the sink so that I can wash it and use it again.

    Maybe the next generation will get back to basics and learn to use their imagination again instead of their money.

  22. Susan says:

    This is a beautiful eulogy in memory of your friend; thank you for this. I just posted the WWII motto on my cube wall as a reminder to myself to utilize every drop, shred or bit of whatever is available to me. I’ve known several people of his generation (my grandparents) with similar resourceful abilities. What is surprising in the activity, which requires little, if any expense, is the joy of the creating something new from something used. It truly is one of the most pleasurable and engaging forms of entertainment that I have found. I hope our generation can pass on some of what we’ve learned from our predecessors and infuse this thinking into our children as well. Thanks again for the excellent message.

  23. debbie says:

    Fabulous article. Very well written. Moving and inspiring.

  24. Missy says:

    Beautiful story! It reminds me of my grandparents.

    I grew up hovering just above truly poor, and saw a lot of

  25. George says:

    This is a fantastic memorial to a fantastic man.

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  27. Ruth says:

    This lovely man was living a spiritual life and he probably didn’t realise it. He was a teacher and probably influenced everyone who came into contact with him. So many comments about all the money he left, if you cant see beyond $ then you probably wont understand what this lovely man was all about. I would have loved to have known him, and i think i would have been privileged if i had.

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