It was never worth asking my frugal mother—the answer was always “no.”
I thought that our parents didn’t want to spoil us or that we didn’t “need” whatever it was we desired—a toy at the store, a candy bar, a soda from the vending machine. Frankly, I don’t even remember asking because I knew the answer was obvious.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the reason “no” was the default answer—there was no extra money.
We weren’t poor—we were the middle class of years ago. We had what we needed, but there wasn’t room for the extras. Every grocery item was the store brand: Acme pretzels, Acme toilet paper, Acme cheerios. I didn’t know brand loyalty was a thing until I went to college.
Fast forward to 2017.
I watched in awe as my notoriously frugal mother eyed a Lands’ End jacket that my sister gave my brother-in-law as a gift.
“Wow. That’s really nice,” she said, as she touched the fabric. “This would be great for Dad.”
Dad—the man who spends hours in the dollar store, hits three grocery stores to save 25 cents on bread, and drives an extra 15 miles to save 3 cents on gas.
“Oh—here it is,” she said, adroitly navigating her iPhone and ordering the same Lands’ End coat for my dad. No sale, no “need” – just a pure want. “It’ll be here in 2 days; it’ll be perfect for the evenings.”
Two minutes from start to finish. I want, I get. Who was this woman?
Just then the college kids entered the room.
“Did you use the Chipotle gift card I sent you?” Mom asked my son.
Mr. I-love-food-particularly-free-food replied immediately. “Are you kidding? I used it the day it arrived.”
“Well, here’s another one,” she said, handing him another gift card.
College kid #2, my niece, prefers Panera, and before I can finish the thought, out popped another gift card for her.
“Thanks Mom Mom,” they said in unison, as they sprang up to hug her.
Is this the same woman who thought it was just fine for me to eat every meal in the disgusting dining hall in the late 80s? It sure looks like her. I eye my sister, and mouth, “What the hell?”
The conversation turns toward dinner for the next night, always three meals ahead of where we are. After much discussion and checking OpenTable for reservations, we make the decision to cook in. As we prepare the grocery list, my frugal mother keeps chiming in.
“Don’t buy that. I have enough chicken.”
“No, don’t buy paprika, I have that.”
“Don’t buy three heads of romaine. I have some lettuce left from Tuesday [today is Sunday] night—we can use that —just buy one more head of lettuce. Oh, and I have a coupon for the dressing—hang on.”
It goes on and on—finding ways to save on this item, not have too much of that item, buying just enough so we don’t waste anything (which in her eyes would be an epic fail).
That’s when it hits me. Nothing has changed. Their penny-pinching ways are still front and center. Their cabinets are full of store-brand cooking oil, nuts, dressing, seasoning, toilet paper.
There’s still not a lot of “extra.”
But the reins have clearly loosened, just enough to indulge the six grandchildren and maybe even themselves a bit.
We went out to dinner the next night—our “usual” for New Year’s Eve. I marveled at the six teenage children, the hearty food, my parents’ collective good health, the banter at the table. I felt so grateful.
“Our treat!” she declared when we went to pull out our wallets. I eyed my sister again. But I didn’t bat an eye when my frugal mother pulled out her coupon.