Five Lessons I Learned From My Own Frugal Dad

This is a guest post from The Investor, the publicity-shy blogger who writes about money and finance at Monevator. If you like this post, you can subscribe to his free RSS feed for similar posts on money and investing topics.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a frugal dad. Even fewer are lucky enough to realize their good fortune when they’re still able to thank him.

Medical problems mean my father will never now read this article that he’s inspired with his low-spending ways.

Instead, I hope sharing some of the things he taught me goes someway to thanking the fates for my good luck.

1. You are not what you wear

In his own way, my dad would dress up for what he’d consider a special occasion.

Unfortunately for the more dress-conscious members of my extended family, almost no occasion was special enough.

True, Monday-Friday, 9-5 he wore the worn-in tie and jacket uniform of his generation of white collar workers.

But in the evenings or at weekends he donned jeans with holes in them, jumpers with holes in the holes, and sometimes half in irony something awful on his head.

That didn’t matter when he was mending things, working in the garage or making furniture on demand for my mother – which was most of the time and exactly why he wore them.

And it didn’t really matter when he drove to collect my teenage cousin from her ballet classes in ever more comically awful clothes, just to embarrass her.

I grew up knowing that appearances didn’t matter – it was what the person wearing the clothes did that was important.

And my cousin would now agree. The childhood horror has become an amusing anecdote, and it’s the memory of an uncle who went out of his way to keep her attending her ballet classes that endures.

2. Little moments matter most

Occasionally my dad claimed he’d quite like to spend money on a sports car but my mother “wouldn’t let him”.

I think just the idea of blowing money on something material was satisfaction enough.

In reality what has mattered for him most throughout his life are tiny moments of experience – often with my mother, always with the family – and they very rarely cost much at all.

For instance, in their late 50s they got into hiking, and towards the end of this phase when both he and my mum had retired I got more insight into this mindset when he began using his new mobile phone to send me SMS messages from the trail.

‘Facing the Atlantic with the sun on our back and half our tea left. It doesn’t get better than this.’

or

‘Fish and chips from the best takeaway in the world. Mum only ate half hers, so I had to finish it off. It doesn’t get better than that.’

In the early days I questioned his judgement – and more than once wondered why he insisted on affording me these insights during hours when he knew I must be at work.

Even typing that sentence – and knowing my dad – the answer is obvious.

And the older I get, the surer I am of his judgement.

3. Nothing is ever broken

As a child of World War 2 – he was born amid the bombs of the Blitz here in Europe – my father was raised against a backdrop of rationing and ruins.

Like many of his generation, he’d therefore been instilled with a ‘make do and mend’ mentality that in his case persisted after the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s that he shared in, too.

It helped that he was very handy – furniture repairs were easy, for instance, and he grew up fixing cars.

But he went further than that, recycling delivery palettes into garden fences, or turning the broken down brick wall that fence replaced into a rust-red paving for a BBQ area.

I might be giving the impression here that my parents lived in some sort of rural shack held together by bits of string.

It’s true that some visitors were surprised to see old sinks recycled into plant pots or old doors made into work benches – in later years my dad would boast he’d been green years before it was fashionable, rather than being cheap!

But overall my parents lived better than they otherwise would have, in always lovingly cared for and (generally) conventionally pretty homes, by spending less money and instead being creative and finding a use for anything.

4. Keep money in perspective

Given that I write a blog about money and investing, you might say that I’ve failed miserably to learn this lesson.

But the very fact that I’m writing right now is a testament to my dad’s example.

If I’d followed the path trod by many of my peers from college, I’d be being too busy in the corporate world doing something I hated to even dash off an email to my girlfriend, let alone wax lyrical about my father’s dubious jeans at 3pm on a Monday afternoon.

Indeed, I wasn’t even 30 before I downshifted and got out of the rat race to work as a freelance at hours and in places that suited me.

Often that’s meant longer hours for a time, and sometimes for less money.

But I’m my own boss, nobody can tell me what to do, and I make my own rules without the peer pressure of the typical office (one reason perhaps why I’ve found it easy to salt away 30% or more of my income).

It’s true I’ve probably capped my earning potential by deciding not to follow the carrot of an ever-higher salary up the career ladder.

But money is just money. Our days are too short to be ruled by it.

5. You must control your financial future

Hang on, didn’t I just say money was over-rated?

I did.

Of course I realize that money can mean almost everything if you haven’t got it, whereas in contrast having a lot of it can give you all kinds of possibilities.

But if you don’t put money in its place, you’ll never enjoy any of the riches you do make.

Equally, if you don’t realise that money is just a means and not an end then when you’ve got little money you’ll not appreciate the better things you want it for – to feed your family or to give your beautiful daughter new shoes.

It’s all too easy to see the candle and not the flame. We don’t live for money, we don’t remember it when we’re old, and we’d be better off in a world without it.

But that isn’t the world we live in – which is why I’m dedicated to saving and investing my way to financial freedom, while trying to keep a sense of perspective along the way.

And here my final lesson from my father was an unfortunate one.

Dad did exactly what he was supposed to – he shunned debt, paid off his mortgage, built up a relatively large pension, and ensured his family and my mother were adequately covered should the worst happen.

Yet when the worst did come calling – in a doctors’ surgery, in the form of a diagnosis that gave him less years than he expected but more than he wanted to spend at work – he wasn’t able to immediately quit his day job because of the rules around his company pension.

As a result he had to work for more years than he wanted to, just to avoid massive cuts to his retirement entitlements. (Even then he did retire before his time, and at some significant financial cost).

Happily my dad put up a good fight against his condition, and it’s taken more years than we might have expected for it to move to a threatening state. So he did get to enjoy some of the retirement he’d so looked forward to.

But what struck me about the entire episode was the lack of control he had over all the money he’d paid into his pension over the years.

I decided that it wouldn’t be the same for me.

Explaining the different route I’ve taking would require more posts – an entire blog , in fact – and it’s very unlikely my dad will ever see the results of the lessons I’ve learned from him.

But some day I hope to be sitting on a cliff top somewhere, in the sun, financially independent and with someone I love, and I’ll remember my frugal dad in his frayed jeans enjoying a slice of my mum’s cake like it was caviar on a blini, and I’ll toast him and everything he’s taught me.

Comments

  1. Wow! This has got to be one of the best blogs I have read in awhile. I have been so focused on saving every last penny that I haven’t thought about much else, the important things in life. Thank you for sharing all of this. It is making me think “outside the box” about money and what being frugal really means.

  2. Couldn’t you read this article to your dad. Don’t let the sun go down before you do., He will enjoy and you will get the extra joy.

  3. What a great post! It is so awesome that you could learn what to do from your dad’s example and he taught you well. My own dad was a case study in what not to do. He made a ton of money, dressed to impress, lived large and lost it all in the end trying to keep up with the Joneses. I like your dad’s way much better :-)

  4. This is a most interesting article! I was visiting with my grandmother this summer who, with my grandfather, raised six children on very little. I asked her if they had always saved a little bit each month despite thier struggles. She replied that they had and that they believed that anything they could not afford was, “not worth having”. I think this is an interesting concept.

    Congrats to your dad (and mom) for being so creative and being such good stewards of their ‘stuff’.Please give your parents my best wishes.

  5. you seem to have learned quite a lot from your daddy. i think i can feel the green eyed monster creeping up on me. my dad taught me that money was everything and you should get as much of it as you can. this just goes to show that we are a product of our upbringing

  6. Man, it isn’t often a financial blog breaks your heart, but this one skirts dangerously close. Wonderfully written, and inspiring.

  7. “Nothing is Every Broken” that’s my favorite. Everything has a use, and you can fix it and play with it again.

    My parents grew up with very little and as a result, I didn’t have very much either. We made do with what we had and never missed what we didn’t.

    Great post FrugalDad!

  8. This post speaks volumes about my own situation with work/money. At 24 i’ve realised that working for somebody else is overrated and my time could not be better spent finding ways to become financially independent. For 6 years now being told when to turn up for work, when to eat lunch and more recently I have to ask to go to the toilet. it is really wearing thin! Self employment beckons. I also hear you on the saving for retirement front, the way I see it: the only future i’m securing is the pension company’s, not my own! they would sell me out if they knew they could get away with it. my fathers generation will be the last on ‘final salary’ contributions. anybody born after 1960 should be making some tough decisions about their retirement.

  9. It’s not realistic to expect a pension in this day and age.

    Odds are that the company will close, or go into bankruptcy and be allowed to unilaterally “restructure” the payments it’s committed to make to you. Either that, or it will be bought out by someone who find a way to not have to follow through on the commitment.

    It’s absolute insanity to expect a large company or corporation to follow through on its long-term commitments. Think about it: they make long-term commitemnts to us in order to get short-term value from us. Once the short-term value has been given and the company can’t get any more out of us, it’s got no incentive to follow through on its promise to pay. Therefore, unless the person making the decision as to whether to pay is extremely honest (which is not an attribute encouraged in corporate America), there will always be a huge temptation to take the money and run, because the damage will be absorbed by someone else.

    This take-the-money-and-run behavior is a long-standing tradition in a culture where most variations of the Faust stories have happy endings. In the original story, Faust makes a bargain with a demon: his soul and eternal servitude, in exchange for a period of earthly power and success. At the end of the story Faust has to make good on his promise. Yet there have been further rewritings of the story, such that for one reason or another Faust is saved by a form of divine intervention.

    The moral of the new Faust story is that, as long as you believe in the right higher power and can express that belief convincingly enough under pressure, you can make whatever promises you need to make in order to take as much as possible from others. When it’s time to pay the piper and follow through on the commitments you made others in order to get them to make sacrifices to benefit you, there will always be a stronger, benevolent force that will bail you out. There will always be someone else who can be made to suffer and pay the price for whatever you did. Essentially, as long as you pay homage to the right higher power, you’ve got a blank check. Somehow that kind of philosophy is attractive to people who want to maximize the positive consequences to their behavior, while avoiding the negative consequences fo the same acts.

    I’m not a big fan of the new and “improved” Faust story but I fear it’s become an American cultural meme. So many popular movies and books have been written around the notion of a deus-ex-machina bailout. We’ve bailed out banks, an insurance company, and auto manufacturers… all it takes to get a bailout from the US Government is a big enough self-induced problem that affects enough innocent bystanders, plus a well greased lobbyist and a media-friendly story about how we Really Meant Well and how it Wasn’t Our Fault.

    If at any point the American public ever abandons this meme, and if paying one’s debts becomes customary at the highest levels, it might be realistic to expect pension related promises to be kept. Until then, pensions and other long-term commitments have to be treated as windfalls, because they will become increasingly rare exceptions to the rule.

  10. Wow! You could have been writing this about my father, and only a few details would have been off.

    In watching my own parents over the years, the one thing I do think that limits what they did–from our perspective–is that it’s a time consuming way to live. They didn’t run off to the store for 30 minutes to replace something, they wrestled with fixing it for several hours, something many are unwilling to do in today’s world with it’s emphasis on convenience.

    There’s a lot to be gained from what they did, but it was a different world and a different time that shaped them. The most we can do is learn from what they taught us.

    This was a fine tribute to your dad!

  11. @Everyone – Just wanted to say thanks for your generous comments about my post, and again to Frugal Dad for hosting to it. Very glad it chimed for some people, and reading your thoughts makes me realize again how lucky I’ve been.

    I agree we’re in a different world now, but perhaps we can carry the wisdom of previous generations forward if we choose?

    As for other people’s parents – not my place to comment, but I think most of us learn something from our parents one way or another. Maybe one day I’ll share a few tips from my mum. ;)

  12. Excellent post.

    You learned a lot of good things from your dad. Not worrying too much about impressing others, living within your means and knowing that money is just a tool are valuable lessons for anyone to know.

  13. Excellent post and I enjoyed hearing about your Dad and what you have learned from him.I took from your post the affirmation of living a meaningful life.Thank you Frugal Dad and Monevator

  14. Hi Monevator,

    Good post overall. I really liked it. There is just one part that stood out as bizarre:

    “It’s true I’ve probably capped my earning potential by deciding not to follow the carrot of an ever-higher salary up the career ladder.”

    Do you really believe this? If so, I’d encourage you to find a better belief to replace it. Maybe:

    “I choose to work less and enjoy my life more, but I know I can make just as much money as those who spend their entire lives in a cubicle (if not more!)”

    Being a freelancer shouldn’t limit your income. In fact, by creating products based on your work, it should potentially multiply your income. But you have to change the belief that you’ve “capped your earning potential” first.

    -Erica

  15. Actually – I’d say>>> I choose to work less and enjoy my life more, and as I have learned to get by on less money, there is NO need to make a lot of money !!!!

    That’s how I see it… I have NO NEED to make more :)

  16. Hi Erica,

    Thanks for the suggestion and I see what you’re driving at.

    Without going into too much detail though, if I do what I do best and do it most efficiently (80/20 rule and all that) then my income is going to — has — hit a plateau.

    My income is much higher than someone doing the equivalent in-house, for the reasons you state, but there’s only so far you can go with it.

    I could move into other areas, but that’s a different career really.

    In contrast, if I’d stayed on a career path inside a company, eventually I’d have ended up working in a management role where I’d have managed people like me for twice the cash of my role in staff, or say 25% more than I’m earning now.

    That could have moved on to a position on a board or whatever, ratcheting up the income again. That’s not going to happen out here in the wild west of freelancing.

    What I can do of course is use my freedom to build up other revenue streams. My Monevator blog for instance started as a hobby but it eventually could start delivering some sort of income, if I had say the success of Jason here. I think my site is probably too niche though (the site is much more about investing etc, whereas it seems to be the money saving and get out of debt ones that thrive – perhaps more people at that stage of their lives read blogs?)

    Anyway, this is all getting off topic for this post. But thanks again.

    I have to say again thanks to everyone who took a moment to jot down their thoughts on my article – much appreciated!

  17. Amazing,sounds like my grandfather who pasted years ago and the fun and satisfaction of making and growing everything yourself. Bargaining and buying at pawn shops,flea markets,yard sales and auctions. Grandmother made everything too,patched our clothes,to this day some of the best food I ever tasted was made in a grandma’s woodburning cookstove and I never forget the fun we had with grandpa hand cutting and stacking the wood( we didn’t need machines for execise).They even made their own music during the evenings on instruments,some were handmade,a a a well the piano was bought I think at an estate sale.Everyone respected each other and learned right from wrong and fairness and how to protect our familes,friends ands and neighborhoods.Living,learning by working and enjoying life together with family and friends is not expensive and can’t be bought,its learned and earned. God and our church meetings was and still is a big part of our life and even tho Mom,Dad,Grandma and Grandpa are gone to heaven,their still here.My wife of 51 years is still my beauty queen forever and so much fun to share and be with.Wise and true Grandpa always said “Life should be happy & you can’t buy happiness”and Oh-yeah,have fun and satisfaction saving for small things that you want,and don’t spur of the moment buy and if you don’t have the money don’t buy it.

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