When I was a kid, I remember one morning waking up to my father seated at the dining room table in his usual checkered robe over sweats and his favorite slippers. It looked like any other morning. That is, until he reached for his cereal. Instead of pouring milk into his bran flakes, he poured orange juice.
“Gross!” I winced, imagining the bitterness of the OJ clashing with the cereal.
“Tastes pretty good,” he said, laughing.
It turned out that we had run out of milk, and instead of running to the store to fetch a gallon, my dad wanted to use up the OJ first. Frugal as heck and a bit of a character, my dad felt no shame doing his own thing, especially when it came to saving money.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In fact, studies reveal that our money habits are largely formed by age seven, according to the Money Advice Service. And while both my parents are resourceful, when it comes to over-the-top frugality, my dad takes the cake.
Here are some of the frugal living tips I’ve learned from my father, the original cheapster, about saving money:
1. Only Eat Out If There’s a Deal
Sad but true: The only times I remember eating out were on Tuesdays, when we’d go over to Fuddruckers because kids ate free that day. Our parents were divorced, and Tuesday nights were when my big brother and I would spend time with our dad.
To this day, my father will call my brother out of the blue to let him know that Popeye’s is having its Tuesday $2 wing and breast deal. No joke!
And when I visit my dad at his job every so often, while we meet at a commissary, we brown bag our lunches.
2. Waste Not, Want Not
My father will go to extremes that sometimes prove to be more trouble than they’re worth. For example, he would reuse the envelopes in which his bills came by turning them inside-out. At his apartment, empty vitamin bottles are upcycled as pencil holders, and images from old calendars are displayed as artwork.
3. Go for Quality
Where his health is concerned, my father will uncharacteristically spring a bit more for the pricier, higher-quality stuff.
For instance, he pooh-poohs shopping at the dollar store and discount grocers. “Oh no, I don’t like the 99 cents store,” he would say, shaking his head when I told him how I liked discovering cool things there. “I like quality.”
Since he was diagnosed with prediabetes about a year ago, he’s frequented Whole Foods to buy low-carb and low-fat alternatives of his favorite foods. As a result, his blood sugar has lowered quite a bit. Fat-free cheese, anyone?
4. Run Things Down to the Ground
Our family has a 1990 Toyota Corolla that's been lovingly passed down from person to person. While it was originally my dad’s, my brother drove it in high school, and then passed it on to me when I was 16.
After I bought my new car in 2003, my dad decided to take the Corolla back. Since he takes the vanpool to work, he uses his car only on weekends. “It works great!” he says, and drives his beater with pride.
5. Don’t Go for Brand Names
My dad abhorred advertising. When watching his favorite TV shows, he would mute the TV when the commercials came on.
“Don’t get brainwashed,” my dad would say. He rarely paid attention to flashy cars and expensive gadgets.
When it came to choosing colleges, he would point out that sometimes expensive private schools aren’t worth it. Depending on what you studied, a public state school could offer the same — or even better — education.
Meanwhile, if you're looking to continue learning without getting yet another degree, online courses may be right up your alley.
6. Give Back
My father wasn’t big on giving physical gifts, but he would donate money to causes that spoke to him, such as a Tibetan Buddhist literature group. He may come off as a sourpuss and cheap as heck, but he does give money to organizations that he feels could use some financial support.
Some organizations will even help you donate to the causes you care about most.
7. Live a Little
While my father has taught my brother and me a lot about saving money, there are a few things I’ve learned not to do. For example, on a family trip to Phoenix a few years ago, we stayed at a Motel 6 that was incredibly cramped for my dad, brother, and me.
He plans to throw a “big” bash for his big 7-0 this year and wants to invite all his relatives to his small, one-bedroom apartment. My brother and I have suggested renting the clubhouse at his brother’s condo, but he refuses. “This is easier and cheaper,” he insists.
These things don’t normally cause too much harm, but I often wonder if my father can be too frugal and too afraid to spend money. I sometimes catch myself struggling with this scarcity mentality.