Inheriting the Frugal Gene: What My Dad Taught Me About Money


Fathers Day Frugal GeneWhen I moved to New York after graduating from college in 2005, one of the things I left in Tampa was my car. My father, who was quick to remind me of who’d made all the payments, reclaimed it with the cold authority of a repo man.

“Sorry, kid. The car’s in my name,” he said. “And if you think you’re taking it up to New York with you, you’ve got rocks in your head.”

This is a favorite saying of his, the having rocks in your head thing. Paying full price for cable, reporting cash tips on your tax return, moving to the most expensive city in the world—people who willingly do these things have rocks in their head.

Even so, I was hoping to sell the car and roll over the money to cover my rent in New York while I looked for a writing job. Having it swept out from under me had thrown a real wrench in my plans, but in Lou Hayes’ opinion, it was his car fair and square.

I couldn’t say I was surprised by the way it had all panned out. In fact, I can still think of no greater scam than to have somehow tricked my father into financing my move to New York. It wasn’t that he didn’t support the idea of me pursuing my dreams in the big city—he just didn’t support the idea of footing the bill.

A self-described “knockaround guy,” my father simply couldn’t relate to the idea of a free ride, probably because he was never given one.

As Father’s Day rolled around this year, I couldn’t help but look back on all the things I’ve inherited from my dad. Aside from my freckles, the number-one trait is certainly my attitude toward money.

Growing Up With a Cautious Spender

My dad came of age in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1950s, where both opportunity and money were equally hard to come by. If he wanted new sneakers, he waited for his older brother to outgrow his. If he got a cavity, it meant months of toughing it out while his mother quietly snuck money away from her husband for a dental visit.

Unlike his own children, my dad knew what it felt like to walk to school with holes in his shoes, the weight of hunger heavy in his belly. My grandfather’s belt served as a reminder of what happened to those who squandered what little money they had.

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“That’s just how it was in them days,” he’d say casually. But while time and circumstance have lifted him far beyond his days on Flatbush Avenue, the imprint it left behind runs deep.

  • Jacsmi

    Excellent reminder about being frugal and not feeling bad about it! It will all work out in the end as long as there is balance!

  • BlueMoon364

    OK, love the concept of the article and a number of concepts are good, but having your child lie and not declaring wages (cash or otherwise) is flat out unethical. I waitresse from age 14-21 and my dad was clear that you have to do the right thing even if you could get away with the wrong thing. I can’t believe you think this is OK and would publish it/encourage others to follow suit.

    • robin

      I agree! I was thinking the same thing when she talked about having her kid lie about her age to get into Disney World for free and sneaking candy into the movies. What is good about being frugal if you are teaching them to be dishonest? And, it sounds like her grandfather was abusive (mentally, emotionally, financially), which continued into a cycle of abuse and control with her own father. The mother buying them toys with the “don’t tell dad” concept is not a good sign. An interesting article, for sure, but still, a bit disturbing…

      • Coyote Blood

        You suck, too.

    • Coyote Blood

      This article was great. You obviously don’t have a clue about what it means to live day to day or dollar to dollar. First of all, this isn’t the 50s, it is not called ‘waitressed’ or ‘waitressing’, it is called Serving. If you are wasting your day on the internet criticizing articles then you have no clue what it is like to worry about family and money, etc. Sidenote, it is also unethical to bash someone’s own way of living. Go get a hobby.

  • Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    It sounds like your parents balance each other quite well. There is always a fine line between being cheap and frugal. I wrote about this recently, as well as the idea of using credit cards for the rewards. Interesting topics. I always enjoy hearing the different sides of these issues. Thanks for the article.

  • Dylan

    Thank you for sharing your story! I really enjoyed the underlying message. I just wanted to share my own experience with my parents, so that you can consider the messages you are conveying to your daughters, in case you hadn’t thought about it.

    My mom always stressed honesty, and if she was given too much change or wasn’t charged for an item, she always brought it back. From watching her I realized how important it was to do the right thing. But at the same time, she’d bend the rules when she wanted to – in the same ways you do, like lying about age and other tricks to get discounts (we also went to Disney when my brother was 3 and I was 9, and I clearly remember them lying about his age). What I learned is that it is ok to bend the rules to fit your needs as long as no one seems to get hurt. The problem is, if everyone bends the rules because they can’t see the results, society falls apart. As I got older I had to learn for myself that my mom had been essentially teaching me for years that it was ok to lie and cheat, and that’s not the sort of adult I want to be. Is saving a few dollars here and there worth teaching your daughters that it is ok to lie if it suits them? Keep teaching your daughters the value of a dollar and how you don’t need to spend money to have a good time, but realize they are learning other lessons about honesty and integrity at the same time.

  • UES162

    Love this article. I appreciate your honesty and think you are an amazing writer. Your kids are lucky to have you as a mom.

  • Cervantes

    Hey glad to finally see an article that involves real people unlike the usual yuppie/ DINKs (dual income no kids)

    I really enjoyed this article, thanks for your honesty.

    As to the previous comments, I can’t blame her family for cutting corners, I like any other American do the same occasionally.

    For those who think they would NEVER cheat the system, I would like to ask, do you ALWAYS declare on your state tax return online purchases where no tax was collected???

    • Alison

      Are DINKs not real people?

  • Coyote Blood

    I think this is an amazing article on so many levels. It is cute about being frugal and honest about living on the lighter side of your wallet. There are a few comments below that seem to miss the point. I am glad to read that most people are like this and remain happy and healthy. Great writing.

  • Paula

    I liked your article. It felt real. Your honesty amazed me. As an adult I can now relate to my Dad who also told me about cutting off the lights and would put up sticker reminders from the electric company. We all do things we regret so forget about all the other folks who always do the right thing. Keep on writing and sharing your stories. You have a gift. Continue onward :)