On a visit to my husband’s family farm in rural Iowa, his grandmother handed me a Styrofoam plate of brownies. I made short work of that plate, and as I licked the last delicious crumbs off it, I noticed that the "plate" wasn't actually a plate at all. The brownies had been housed on a Styrofoam tray that grocery stores use to package meat, and the plastic wrap covering looked like it had been through two world wars.
I called my husband, who was at work, and he assured me that yes, the tray had previously held raw meat, but that I wasn’t going to die. His grandma washed them in the dishwasher, so they were “clean.”
“Oh, and that plastic wrap is still good,” my husband added. “Don’t throw it away.”
Crazy or not, when it comes to being frugal, no one beats octogenarians. From freezing everything to thinning out soap with water, the majority of us probably have grandparents who were born during the Depression, and who came of age when saving money wasn’t just a lifestyle choice ... it was a necessity.
Here are a collection of money saving tips from the people we know as grandma and grandpa. Some of the tips might seem quirky, but hey, they've worked well for our grandparents over the years, so who are we to judge?
1. Everything Is a Resource
My own grandmother, Barbara Baranowski, grew up in Rome, New York. As the daughter of poor Salvation Army missionaries, she learned to make thrifty choices an everyday part of her life. In fact, her thrifty ways are so ingrained in her that when I asked her for tips, she replied, “Oh, I don’t do anything special.”
Oh, but she does. Among other things, my grandmother is the Mother Teresa to an orphan plastic bag. She will pick up any errant plastic shopping bag she finds, wash it, dry it and iron it out between two pieces of paper. Then she reuses them for shopping, or she puts them in boxes as packing paper.
My husband’s grandparents collect black walnuts from around their neighborhood and dry them on the driveway at their farm. When the walnut husks have turned from green to black, they drive the tractor over them to crack the shells. Then, Grandpa Arnie and Grandma Betty wash and package the walnuts in (reused) Ziploc bags and freeze them. They’ve never, ever had to buy walnuts.
Same goes for cherries, plums and pears.
2. You Can Always Do More DIY
My father recalls that his grandparents made their own toothpaste out of baking soda and a little hydrogen peroxide. “It tastes awful, but it gets you clean,” my dad said. It should be noted that he buys his toothpaste. At the store.
Two years ago, I started making my own kitchen cleaner with natural soap and tea tree oil. When I told Grandma Betty, she wasn’t impressed. “I’ve been doing that for years!” She said. “Before you all were ‘going green’, we were just cheap!” She also suggested washing my floors with a vinegar and water solution, and I’ve been washing them that way ever since.
The very idea that you would hire someone to do something you can do yourself was horrifying for our grandparents. My friend Jim Martin told me that his grandfather taught him to do everything himself, from changing his oil to roofing his garage and cleaning his house. Martin adds, “He also worked 50 hours a week, but managed to always have a side business white washing barns in rural Ohio.”
3. Waste Not, Want Not
Robin Mayhall remembers that her grandmother used to save the heels of bread and used them to make her own croutons. She also reused tin foil over and over, washing it and flattening it out, so it could survive multiple uses. Mayhill notes that while she may draw the line at reusing tin foil, she does follow her grandma's example and recycle Ziploc bags.
My grandma Baranowski showed me how to take little bits of soap bars and ball them together into one giant ball of soap. She also would sew two washcloths together to make a small pocket, where she would deposit the soap remnants, just so she didn’t miss “one little soapy bit.”
My mother’s mother, Barbara Boyce, grew up one of thirteen children and knew how to save a penny. She cut the buttons off old shirts so she could turn the shirt into a rag and still keep the buttons. “They're expensive!” was her justification.
4. Less Is More
Brenda Della Casa was raised by her grandfather, who would make her humble meals of pork and beans, with dessert of rice, milk and a little sugar. And once a week, he would take her out for a hamburger and a piece of pie. Said Della Casa, “…it was the most incredible 'date with Grandpa.' So much so that I celebrate him on his birthday and honor him the day he died by having ‘burgers and pie’ with my closest friends.”