Sherri has been living frugally since she embarked on paying off her credit card debt in the 1990s. She loves coupons and free stuff.
Poverty Is the Best Teacher
My grandparents' families were poor before the Great Depression, so they keenly felt this global economic downturn. My grandmother's family was lucky to have fried potatoes and cottage cheese, though this is all they often had to eat, and my grandfather dropped out of school after the eighth grade because he had to go to work picking cotton and watermelon.
These financial struggles affected my grandparents for the rest of their lives. After they got married, they both took low-income jobs in a factory. Yet, they stretched their dollars to get the most for their money, and they saved their pennies for a rainy day.
My grandmother bought generics over store brands and reused oleo (AKA margarin) containers to store leftovers, but she was frivolous compared to my grandfather. My grandfather was so cheap that my family said he could squeeze blood out of a nickel!
As a child, I laughed at how cheap my grandparents were, but—now that I'm an adult who has lived through the Great Recession and other financial bumps in the road—I understand and appreciate their miserly ways. In fact, I've adopted some of their frugal hacks, and I use the savings to live in the lap of luxury!
A Little Dab'll Do Ya
When your mustard squeeze bottle seems empty, do you unscrew the cap and scrape out the rest with a table knife? Do you tear off the corners of paper towels to clean up tiny spills instead of using full or half sheets? My grandparents did, and I do too!
I turn honey jars upside down in bowls to force the remnants to drip out, even if I’m only able to collect enough to top one more piece of toast. I also cut off the tops of face wash tubes and scoop out enough facewash to last one or two more days.
These may seem like little things but imagine if I were able to get a couple more servings out of every maple syrup bottle and a few more uses out of every hand soap dispenser. Even if this practice only saved me $50 over my lifetime, that would be $50 I could spend on something fun like going out to a nice dinner with my husband or something essential like buying another bag of groceries.
5 Containers Worth Scraping and Rinsing Out
- Laundry detergent jugs
- Chocolate syrup bottles
- Shower gel bottles
- Olive oil bottles
- Dish soap bottles
Reduce, Reuse, Resell
Dumpster diving is nothing new; it has been around for ages. In the 1970s and 80s, my grandfather salvaged several old bicycles, a toy racetrack, and all sorts of things he cleaned up and sold in his yard sales for pure profit. I did not inherit my grandfather's tolerance for filth or his tinkering skills, but I've rescued a few items from ending up in landfills nonetheless.
I pulled a boxed set of three hardcover data visualization books, which I sold on Facebook Marketplace for $5, out of a relatively clean dumpster containing primarily paper and broken-down boxes. I rescued a perfectly good muffin pan, which I now use, that had been discarded by the recycle bins in my Chicago high rise. In addition, I sell items that I get for free. I recently sold a free coffee maker for $15, and I sold a used computer that I'd been given for $250.
Making $5 from a dumpster dive may not seem worth the effort, but $5 can buy a three-pack of paper towels. Personally, I would rather spend the $5 from a dumpster recovery than my hard-earned money to buy household essentials. I would rather spend my money on weekend getaways. Selling stuff I get for free simply makes sense.
5 Places to Find Valuable Junk
- Dumpsters and garbage cans
- Recycle bins
- Book exchanges
- Friends and family (who give belongings away)
- Companies (that give away free items)
Get Ready to Rumble—for a Discount
My grandfather was notorious for arguing for his senior citizen discount. He demanded that a restaurant's senior citizen discount should be applied to our entire party of six, which included my little brother and me, because my 55+ grandfather was paying the guest check. This insistence was a little over the top, but I got the penny-pinching message.
In a single week, my husband and I cashed in coupons for two free submarine sandwiches, one free 11-inch pizza, BOGO burger dinners, and two free medium deep-dish pizzas. We're the royal couple of taking advantage of discounts and coupons. Like my grandparents, I always shop the deals, but—unlike my grandparents—I don't demand unreasonable discounts.
I do argue for reasonable discounts, however. If a business refuses to honor an advertised discount or fails to accept a valid coupon, I'm the first person to speak up. Ethical companies never need to worry, but unscrupulous bait and switchers should beware. I'm on a mission to stretch my dollars and get the most out of life.
5 Places to Find Discounts
- Coupon handouts at festivals and events
- Store reward program apps and websites
- Membership organizations (e.g., AAA and AARP)
- Rebate and couponing apps (e.g., Ibotta, Fetch Rewards, and Coupons.com)
- Credit card rewards (e.g., Chase Rewards)
A Life of Thrifty Luxury
Because my grandparents were so cheap, they suffered some missed opportunity costs. My grandfather complained that the less expensive brand of butter pecan ice cream skimped on the number of pecans, but he would not spend 50 cents more on the premium brand, for example.
Too extreme for me! Therefore, I learned something else from my Depression Era grandparents: Live frugally but luxuriously!
With the money I save using my grandparents' frugal hacks, I buy tiny lobster tails when they are on sale for $4 each, and I wear a strand of $30 cultured pearls. I may pack a lunch to save $10 a day, but I'll never settle for substandard ice cream. I have my standards, after all.
My grandparents survived financial troubles because they used their heads. Thus, I know that—though inflation may rise now and the stock market will surely plunge in the future—my grandparents' frugal living tips will help me weather the economic storms. I hope they will help you and your family as well.
5 Tips for Living a Life of Luxury on a Budget
- Shop for cashmere at the end of the season.
- Spread a little lemon curd on fancy crackers and top with brie. Enjoy with a $10 bottle of sparkling wine.
- Take a charcuterie picnic to a free outdoor performance.
- Use libraries to borrow art films and use free streaming services to set the mood with upscale music.
- Earn gift cards from Microsoft Rewards, Swagbucks, etc., and save them up to get luxury items for free!
Great Depression, The. (n.d.). National Museum of American History Behring Center. Smithsonian. https://americanhistory.si.edu/american-enterprise-exhibition/corporate-era/great-depression
Rich, Robert. (2013, November 22). The Great Recession. Federal Reserve History. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/great-recession-of-200709
Tana. (2021, November 26). The 14 best places to dumpster dive. Debt Free Forties. https://www.debtfreeforties.com/blog/best-places-to-dumpster-dive/
Under the Median. (2022, February 17). How to feed your family for $50 AND stock up, too [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-EcHiCbvlU
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Sherri Ter Molen