Caring Currents

Think Like Grandma and Reap Even Bigger Savings

Last updated: Apr 16, 2009

New bistro table and chairs
Image by *Susie* used under the creative commons attribution license.

Some weeks ago I wrote what turned out to be a very popular article about money-saving tips from our Depression-era family members. It makes sense; now that we're in the midst of what feels like Depression number 2, we can learn a lot from those who survived -- and, in some cases, thrived -- during the Great Depression.

It seems, though, that I wasn't too original; other financial advice columnists also have turned to the Depression for inspiration for today's tough times. One of my favorites, ShrinkageIsGood, got me thinking about how we need to change our mindset about money using our Depression-era grandparents or parents as role models.

I started thinking about all the ways I've started to "channel" my Midwestern mother and grandmother, and how when I make choices like the ones I know they made, my bank balance starts to build without my even worrying about it. Here are my top "think like Grandma" strategies:

  • Plant a vegetable garden. Think of the four or five veggies or herbs you buy most often and grow them yourself. This is the season; tomato, bean, lettuce, and herb starter plants are available everywhere right now. You don't need a big yard; a few containers will work just fine. Ask your local nursery (or a neighbor who's already got a garden) which varieties grow best where you live and need the least care. Not only will you cut your grocery bill, but home grown food tastes way better too. And it's really fun to harvest the evening's salad ten minutes before dinner.

  • Don't spend money to "entertain" yourself. Develop a few free hobbies and beef up your social life, and you'll be surprised by how easy it is to eliminate this category of spending altogether. Hiking, picnicking, and reading are all entirely free. Organize movie nights with friends using DVDs each family already owns. Make it a party with popcorn and other treats and you might find it's more fun to laugh together over last year's hits than it is to spend $10 on this month's mediocre offerings.

  • Rethink the meaning of "vacation". Did our parents and grandparents consider a week at a lake cabin (much less two weeks in Hawaii) an expected annual reward? No, they did not - my mother often told me that during her childhood, if they managed a summer family visit down South, they considered themselves lucky indeed. Think about it. Do you have friends you lament seeing too infrequently? Go visit them! Take a fishing trip to a local river -- and camp out. Better yet, turn your garden into a relaxing haven and hang out there with a fruity drink or some minty homemade iced tea and a good book. Isn't that what you'd do on your exotic vacation anyhow?

  • Do it yourself. Like everything, this is a time vs. money calculation we each have to make. But if cash is really what you wish you had more of, then the more you do yourself the less you'll need to pay others. Start with the obvious: Mow your lawn yourself, clean your house yourself. But go a step farther -- teach yourself to upgrade your computer, replace a washer in the faucet, clean out the furnace filter. Last weekend I set aside a few hours and slowly and painstakingly fixed my watering system, repairing each leaky tube and loose valve. It took about four hours, but it made for a pleasant afternoon in the garden and in the end I saved $200 that will come in very handy.

  • Make it yourself. This tip tends to get tossed around a little too freely; we're not all going to suddenly become master quilters. But you'd be surprised at the skills almost anyone can pick up. Instead of ordering a new coffee table from Pottery Barn, pick one up at a garage sale and refinish the top with sandpaper and oil. Wish you could start the season with some new garden furniture? Revitalize yours with a new coat of paint. Visit a discount craft store for ideas, but don't get carried away. Confine yourself to simple projects that save you money by eliminating common purchases. In my household, for example, we've started making cards by collaging with magazines and tissue paper, and wrapping gifts in brown paper bags decorated with sponge painting or stickers.

The added value? You might find this simpler, more old-fashioned life is actually more fun as well.