Dad was a Depression-era baby. My siblings and I always assumed this was the reason for his notoriously thrifty ways. But now that I’ve considered it further, I’m beginning to believe that it was a result of both nurture AND nature.
I think Dad was actually born cheap.
While my family had natural financial ups and downs, Dad continued to live as if we were still in the Depression, no matter how flush with cash we might have been.
My family ran a small chain of Hallmark stores. Which was ironic since Dad saw the one-time use of greeting cards a foreign and unnecessary concept (we don’t think he planned to resell them, but no one knows for sure.) Every card we received from Dad, since the opening of the stores in the mid 1970s to his death a few years ago, was signed in pencil. After the occasion, he would erase his sentiments, with the intent to reuse the card.
My sister Julie calls him “The Original Repurposer.”
Hallmark carried a lot of fun notepaper in the early ’80s. It was the dawn of the Post-It, and a time when personalized stationery began to emerge. Oh, how I wanted something with my own name printed on it! But Dad would have none of that. Notes on scratch paper were bound to be thrown away — it seemed unfathomable to purchase something that would almost immediately go into the trash.
His solution was simple: With his cheapo letter opener — or a knife — Dad would carefully slice open all our mail, and we were to use the backs of envelopes as our scratch paper. We could write our own names on it, if we wanted.
A good looking man, but never a fashion plate, Dad would literally wear clothes forever, or until they didn’t fit anymore. If they ripped apart, they were simply sewn back together. Case in point: his grape-colored, worn-through, wide-wale cords that he wore to mow the lawn and do all yard work. At least they were retired from his workaday repertoire, but the reuse was almost more perplexing than purchasing them in the first place. Cords? In summer? Yep.
Some of his best money-saving ideas addressed around-the-house issues. You know when a bar of soap gets so small and thin you can’t use it anymore? You throw it away, right? Not according to Dad, who felt you were being shortsighted. Instead, he kept all the slivers of soap in some sort of home-fashioned tray, piling them up until they had fused together into full-ish bar. In theory, the soap he used in 1980 probably contained soap particles from 1977. Kinda like a good sourdough starter.
Dad hated waste. And he saw waste all around him. But he also saw opportunity, too, and derived real pleasure from his crafty, money-saving solutions.
Vacuum cleaner bags were not a one-time-use item in his book. Dad would cut them open, empty the dirt, staple them back together and get on with the cleaning.
He taught me to get the most toothpaste out of a tube, not just by squeezing from the bottom — he also surgically sliced open the tube with scissors to scoop out whatever remnants might be hiding inside.
When Dad actually did part with things, unusual as this was, he did his best to make sure the item still went to good use. For example, when it was finally time to say goodbye to an old TV set, fearing it would be mistaken for an inoperable antique, he quickly penned and tapped a handmade sign saying “IT WORKS,” to the machine before setting it gently on the curb.
My dad was disappointed when I did not grow up to be as thrifty as he was. He looked away when I wore my Prada boots and carried a Gucci purse. He even made fun of me by putting a piece of masking tape on an old canvas bag and writing GUCCCI (sic) on it with a Sharpie.
Perhaps his unique money-saving skills skipped a generation.
Of course, as these things go, I’d give anything right now to have his amazing, thrifty mind back. To see those purple cords pushing a used lawnmower. To have that old TV back. To get just one more card signed in pencil.
The one thing Dad was never cheap about was his love. He gave in abundance, without regard for the price
So, if you get a note from me written on the back of a used envelope, smile and remember my Dad. And know that at one point in my life, I probably bathed with an old stack of soap chips.