(say that three times fast)
My dad is a frugal man. Notice how I thoughtfully use “frugal” instead of the ‘C’ word? Well, for one thing, I respect my father and, for another, I would never want to hurt his feelings. At least not to his face. My siblings and I save the ‘cheap’ shots for when he’s not around.
My grandparents had ridden out the depression and my parents had been drilled, bombarded and otherwise brainwashed into the mantras that used plastic Cool Whip containers didn’t just grow on trees and throwing away old issues of National Geographic qualified you for that special place in Hell, reserved for the frivolous and wasteful.
(In a related and totally true story, ask me, when our house got TP’d in high school, where the used toilet paper from our trees ended up. If you guessed in a paper bag, next to our toilet, you win big!)
Both my mother and father believe that, if faced with the choice between cheap and not-cheap, well, there is no choice. For many years I subscribed to this adage until I realized that cheap is sometimes – well – crappy. It doesn’t necessarily mean a well-made product that costs less. It could also possibly mean a poorly-made product that costs less. I know this first hand having bought my share of plastic shoes from Big Lots or socks from flea markets with pretend elastic.
Accounting for Nothing!
Now, as you may remember, not only was I an accountant in a former life, but I was also a single mother on a very tight budget, so I would not consider myself a spend-thrift. As a matter of fact, I would submit that I am fairly practical. Having said this, when faced with a choice between Heinz ketchup and the no-brand option from Dollar Tree, I reason that the price difference of 69 cents is not a deal-breaker, and I’ll splurge for the good stuff. On the other hand, I’m happy with a designer knockoff bag from Target or a fine pair of Zirconium earrings from Sears.
My father, not so much. I have received shoes two sizes too big, because they were on sale and men’s shirts because “you can hardly tell the difference.” My son, as a teenager, was once the recipient of a pair of beige wrinkle-free pants with what looked like a built-in diaper, because “they were practically giving them away.”
My dad is a habitual shopper who makes the rounds at Kohl’s, Target and Meijers just looking for a good deal, whether he needs it or not. If one comes available, he mentally combs his list of family members that he can rationalize giving that particular gift to. It’s actually very exciting. You never know what could be in the brown paper bag with your name scrawled in black magic marker that is your birthday gift. It could be a slightly damaged George Forman grill or perhaps the purple leggings with the matching belt you once had your eye on in 1988.
Wealthy is as wealthy does
My father and step-mother, Janet, are not what I would call rich in the traditional sense of the word. On the other hand, they live a very comfortable life between a small but meticulously maintained home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and a condo on a golf course in Naples, Florida. They have health care and pensions and, though they live on a budget, they do not worry where their next meal comes from or how they will make their mortgage.
So you may find it surprising that they did not have air-conditioning in their home in Michigan where the humidity in summer rivals that of the jungles of Southeast Asia. July is a particularly steamy month and it wasn’t unusual for my father to mention how they, once again, slept in their basement because it was so darn muggy. The basement he is referring to was updated in 1974 with orange furniture, shag carpet and dark wood paneling, and has been preserved in that state ever since. It also, does not have a bathroom.
“Why don’t you guys just go get an air conditioner? Look, Sears has them on sale this week,” I would beg as I showed them the Sunday circular.
“Oh, we don’t need one. We enjoy sleeping on the couches. It’s very dark down there.”
“But, Dad, you have to go upstairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.”
“Well, then you father can check on the house,” Janet would add. “And besides, they’re so darn expensive to run. Maybe next year.”
“What are you waiting for?” I countered, more than once. “It’s not like you’re getting younger every year. How old do you have to be before you don’t feel guilty for making yourself comfortable? There is no age limit in Kalamazoo for a good night’s sleep.”
I bugged them enough that last year they finally relented. I think it was the point I made that, when they were ready to sell their home, it would be difficult to find a buyer in this day and age who would be willing to make the same sacrifices that they did with the sleeping arrangements.
The thought that they might not get the full value their home deserved forced their hand and they broke down. They bought one of the cheapest models.
Passing stones, throwing stones, Rolling Stones
Last summer, I got a call from Janet telling me my father was in the hospital. He had a kidney stone and was in horrible pain. We rushed to Kalamazoo and by the time we got there, he had passed it and was sitting up in a chair, ready to tell his story.
“So,” he began, “I was so sick last night. I was throwing up and had a fever. I was miserable and I had stomach problems,” he looked at me and mouthed the words ‘the runs’ before he spoke again. “I was running upstairs all night to use the bathroom.”
“What do you mean, ‘running upstairs’?” I asked. “You have a ranch home.”
“Well, we were sleeping in the basement.”
At this point, I need to share with you that this exchange took place during an oppressive heat wave in July.
“Dad, you were sick, running to the bathroom every five minutes, and had a fever. You were passing a kidney stone for heaven’s sake. Why in the world didn’t you have your air conditioner on? The one time, when I can’t think of a better reason to be comfortable and near a bathroom, you were in the basement on a sofa,” I said exhaustedly.
“We only use it when it’s an emergency,” my parents stated in unison.
And there you have it. In a nutshell.