Extreme Frugality: Twenty Memories of My Mother

255/365Wisebread wrote about her parents’ extreme frugality, leading to an  interesting discussion on the difference between being poor and frugal. When I was growing up, my parents were able to purchase good quality food, clothes and furniture. But my mother did not believe in wasting resources.

Here are twenty ways my mother was frugal:

  1. Cooking with little water. Using less water preserves nutrition and saves on cooking costs. But my mother always burned the potatoes, while everything else was cooked to perfection.
  2. Same with the kettle. It always held enough for only one or two cups of tea, to save on cooking gas. Forget teabags, there was always tea steeped from whole leaves.
  3. Using margarine or butter wrappers to grease pans. Frugality aside, this works great.
  4. Scraping out the last of the egg white from inside the shell with an index finger. I still do this; you can get about a teaspoon that way.
  5. Setting the heater thermostat to 62 degrees Fahrenheit, when Gerald Ford recommended 65. She claimed that the kitchen, where we mostly sat, was warmer because of the pilot light on the stove. The thermostat was located in the living room. I think she set it to 55 at night. Once when my parents went out for the evening I turned it up to 64.5 and reset it just before they got home. As soon as she walked in the door, my mother ran to check it. My sister recalls getting caught for changing it to 63.
  6. Hanging blankets over the windows to keep out the winter air and making the house seem unoccupied. Once, when the car had sat in the driveway for a few days, an intruder tried to enter the house through the garage. When my mother called to ask who it was he ran away.
  7. Using the barest amount of anything including soap, tape, butter, oil, sugar, paper towels, water, and electricity. I remembered being appalled when a school friend wrapped a package with an excessive amount of tape. She laughed when I suggested using less, and the teacher praised her because it looked nice.
  8. Saving wine left in glasses after the Passover seder to cook with (but only from family members).
  9. Saving barely used Chinet fancy paper dinner napkins for cleaning up spills.
  10. My Mother’s Re-Recycled Meat Soup.
  11. Making a menu after seeing what was on sale, and the price and quality of the produce.
  12. Hanging clothes year round. She set up lines in the boiler room (another pilot light) and in the backyard. No dryer.
  13. Filling the hot oven with several batches of food, rarely turning it on for just one item.
  14. Collecting cold items next to the refrigerator so they could be put away at once. I just suggested this in my posts, tips for saving on your refrigerator bill.
  15. Making one pot of coffee in the morning and reheating it in a saucepan throughout the day. Wisebread’s mother did that for several days. I never thought of this as so frugal. Maybe my parents drank more coffee.
  16. Throwing out a jar of cooked rice every few months, and nothing else (unless it was inedible, rarely, or had been leftover on a guest’s plate).
  17. Scraping off the bottom layer of burnt cookies.
  18. Cutting off mold on cheese and serving the rest (also on Wisebread’s list).
  19. Making gribenes, or rendered chicken fat, from fat and wings. I guess that’s the kosher equivalent of bacon grease. But my mother discarded most fat from soups and was more health conscious than most 70’s moms.
  20. Putting half the loaf of sliced bread in the freezer until it was needed, saying, “A slice of bread takes no time to defrost.”

My sister reminded me of two more:

  1. Using half a paper towel. Tightwad Gazette suggests cutting the whole roll in half.
  2. Saving energy when making Jello by heating up only half the water to dissolve the powder. Use cold water for the rest.

If you enjoyed this post you may also like:

My Mother’s Homemade Baking Mix

Putting Food in Perspective

Do You Admit to Guests that the Food Isn’t Great?

Feeding Babies Frugally (Four-Part Series)

Microwave Myths

Prepare and Store Leftover Meat Drippings


  1. I LOVE your list of memories! Thank you for sharing!

  2. When I was growing up, my parents could afford good quality food, clothes and furniture. But my mother did not believe in wasting resources.
    My mother is lke that and I recognize a lot of your memories as being things my mother will do. I wonder if it is generational. My mother is 70.
    Some personal memories:
    – my mother rolls her toothpaste tube to make sure she doesn’t waste any toothpaste.
    – She puts all the cold items in the same bag so they don’t go warm when shopping.

  3. You’re welcome, Tikva.
    I-D, the toothpaste and the shopping sorting are familiar to me. My mother was born about 15 years before yours. Even store baggers do the second thing, no?

  4. the thing about the thermostat is that it has a cost sometimes – i discovered that if my kids are too cold, they don’t sleep as well – waking up more times at night. Other parents I know have noticed more bed-wetting if the room where the kids sleep is too cold. Having to wash an extra load of sheets – in the middle of the night, no less (when it can affect one’s work performance the next day) – is not necessarily the most frugal thing.

  5. LeahGG: I agree that when kids are too cold, they do wake more and/or wet the bed. There are many solutions besides raising the house thermostat: Extra blankets/pajamas, flannel sheets, an electric blanket (we used them at home) or a safe space heater.

  6. He have unheated bedrooms here in Ma’alot and we just love our down comforters!!! My youngest wears long underwear and pajamas and has a down comforter. Toasty warm!

  7. Great post!

  8. I love this post. My parents weren’t quite as creative–just alot of scolding about turning off lights when leaving the room, which my husband does now.

    As for me, I hate leaving the last bit in shampoo and dishwashing liquid bottles. I turn them over and practically suck the last drop out of those babies. Same goes for soap bars (stick the tiny little bit left to the fresh bar) and toothpaste.

  9. I recognise margarine wrappers (I still do it sometimes) & toothpaste. Packing the shopping – we always try to pack like with like, eg veggies together, cold items together. Makes it easier to put things away. And there’s always sliced bread in our freezer (as well as a bag of milk). That way we never run out.

  10. From your response to Ilana-Davita, I gather that your mother lived through the Depression? My mother and I were recently discussing how many people who experienced the Depression (and their children as well) were/are more likely to tend towards frugality, even after their financial circumstances improved. In contrast, many Holocaust survivors (and their children) were/are happy and grateful that they no longer had/have to economize – especially with respect to food.

  11. I’m glad you all enjoyed it. Mrs. S., my mother came to the US in the late 30s as a refugee. Her parents were refugees to Germany from Eastern Europe in the 20s. I don’t know how her background affected her, but as far as I know they were never starving. My father’s family, though, had little food.
    I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There was always enough food at our house, my mother was just very careful with it.

  12. I grew up with all of these, or most of them, plus probably many others. My father grew up in Brooklyn during the Depression, but I think my mother had more deprivation growing up in wartime and postwar England. You don’t escape your upbringing. I am almost sure that one night I was the last one to go to bed, and my father told me that when I went upstairs I should set the thermostat to 49 degrees F.

    • 49! Wow. It seems that some of these things are more common than I thought. Or these are the kind of people attracted to this site.

  13. How about:

    – Drawer full of rubber bands, paper clips, etc
    – Steaming stamps off envelopes you received in the mail if the post office hadn’t stamped it as sent
    – Saving orange and lemon peels of the consumed fruit to use as zest in baking

    I have a friend (Chinese, for the sake of comparison) whose family soaks and dries paper towels to use multiple times. That made an impression when I saw paper towels all over her kitchen and asked why.

    I can’t see anyone in current (modern?) times going to the trouble. The newer generations are lazy and don’t have the impetus.

    • Maya:
      “I can’t see anyone in current (modern?) times going to the trouble. The newer generations are lazy and don’t have the impetus.”
      It’s also the barrage of marketing we’re subjected to on a regular basis, reminding us how badly we need all of these comforts.

  14. After reading the Wisebread.com post, I realized that I didn’t include a number of things that I consider completely normal like reusing tin foil, plastic wrap, plastic and paper bags, all plastic food containers, squeezing shampoo, soap, and toothpaste to the last drop, avoiding credit cards at all costs (although there are major drawbacks to this), etc.There’s a lot of frugality that helps the environment as well when it comes to conserving packaging and resources.

    Thought that post was a bit jumbled between poor and frugal, as you pointed out. Also, bacon and butter seemed to be the primary points of interests.

    • Maya:
      Wisebread mentioned at the beginning that she avoids bacon fat and butter. There’s one food blogger out there, though, on a campaign to get people to eat more saturated fats. She has a point, but saturated fats, especially from dairy and beef, are very high in pesticides and a concern for children and women of child-bearing age. I like to describe my mother as a conservationist before it was in style. She was also on a committee on the League of Women Voters regarding land use.

  15. I loved reading this. I grew up in Queens, New York. My mother Z”L was born in the Bronx in 1914 and raised me with what I see as sensible frugality. We frequented thrift shops, which I love to this day. We did not live in luxury although we were financially comfortable, and I have no recollection of feeling that I lacked something material. Phrases like, “Waste not , want not,” “There is a place for everything and everything in it’s place,” are part of me and I find myself passing it all on to my children. I think that people like us were ecologically minded before it was called that and before it became fashionable. I read about barter communities in Israel ( I think it’s called Shitat Ha’charuzim or something like that ) and wonder if I should get involved with that….. thanks for this blog , it is great Hannah. Shabbat Shalom to all from Jennie

  16. my point isn’t that the only solution is to raise the thermostat. It’s that sometimes people are “penny-wise and pound foolish.” For example, my dad had bought some fish a few months ago, had things come up a few days in a row, and didn’t eat it, and decided he couldn’t waste it even though my mom was pretty sure it had gone bad. He ate it, and then spent the night regretting it. To be honest, it would have been more frugal to dump it directly into the trash. (more frugal yet would have been to put it in the freezer when they realized they wouldn’t eat it immediately, of course)

    Sometimes, in the name of frugality, people do things that end up costing them more. It’s worth examining frugal habits you got from your parents to make sure they don’t have hidden costs.

  17. True. We don’t have a TV and I don’t have a chance to read English language magazines much in Israel, so I’m probably less aware of/susceptible to those things than other people.

    • Maya, but you do go into stores, see billboards, hear the radio, ride the bus, and surf the internet. The messages are everywhere in Hebrew and English. Not just text, either, images as well.

  18. I will add that I don’t have fond memories of all of this. It was very different than how my peers were being raised, and I resented it. I haven’t inflicted most of this on my own kids, though I do get after them to at least turn off the lights.

  19. I do #9 too! Actually, I do it with all our not-very-used napkins. It’s rare for us to have fancy napkins!

    I thought everyone squeezed the last of the toothpaste …

    Half a paper towel isn’t always adequate for spills, but it is a great size for greasing a pan (if you don’t happen to have a margarine wrapper hanging around, of course).

    Many store baggers do *not* separate cold items from other items. I always do. Freezer stuff together, fridge stuff together, produce together. When my twins were little, I would only bring in the urgent items when I came home from the supermarket. Later that day I would get the produce. And the rest of it often waited until another day or until my husband got home.

    • Ilana, agreed about the toothpaste and paper towels. But I don’t keep the towels around anymore at all. Kiddie fingers for greasing, or baking paper that I reuse is one of my disposable expenses. I guess the stores I go to don’t have baggers much anyway.

  20. I was one of 8 kids with a social worker father- we did lots of these! Now with 7 kids, on part time jobs, we do lots of these. Not the heat, though, with a story and a half the unheated second story, with 4 girls, gets up to maybe 55 when the downstairs is set to 72. The little girls, and my son, get the warm bedrooms. With one bathroom, we save on water with quick showers and shared baths.
    In the kitchen growing up and now, lots of breakfast for dinner, pancakes or french toast. I serve baked potatoes or noodles all the time, I remember having two strawberries each, oven toast with cinnamon sugar or powdeered sugar broiled on white bread, having dinner out maybe twice a year. We go less and less, our resources get tighter and twighter. Our income this year is a third what it was in 2007. Time to get even more serious about saving money!

  21. Elianah-Sharon says

    I am basically a frugal person. I keep our heat at 60 during the winter nights. The upstairs is VERY warm although when your feet first hit the LR tile in the morning, it certainly wakes you up! I shop for bargains but also what we like to eat. If it’s a bargain and it’s not eaten, well, not a bargain so much. I find this especially true since we went kosher and DH went GF. I lost 90lbs this year and got my new wardrobe at the Salvation Army…love it there. I have a few things I got at a store but usually ALWAYS at a deep sale. I am hoping when I make aliyah my frugal ways will pay off!

  22. I’ve used leftover rice for congee (rice porridge)–is a Chinese peasant’s way of saving (and expanding) food. It’s 1/2 cup of rice : 6 cups water, or 1 cup rice : 2 cups water, can be scaled up. I used a slow cooker , though I imagine you could also use a rice cooker. My mother served it with omelettes, I prepare it with chicken. I think my inlaws reuse leftover rice as fried rice (another Chinese specialty…).

    (I was your little one’s biggest fan in Roslyn 🙂 )

    • HI rivkayael,
      Thanks for the idea! I’m confused about the proportions. You serve it in a soup bowl, alongside the omelette or chicken?

  23. Hi Hannah,

    I’ve had congee or very soft rice (some restaurants even call it rice soup) with bits of chicken in it. In Taiwan I had it in soup bowls surrounded by little dishes of savory condiments (some salty, some spicy) that people could add. It was served for breakfast.

  24. I put chicken into the slow cooker–however I’ve seen it both ways (food alongside, or in the congee). My mother serves the omelette on the side. I actually miscalculated–it’s 1 cup cooked rice + 1 cup water (or 1/2 cup raw rice + 6 cups water). The consistency is variable, and Cantonese and Teochew people have very strong opinions as to what the “right” consistency should be.

  25. Eran (Aran) Ariel says

    Was your mother a holocaust survivor by any chance?
    Not limited to concentration camps… if you get my drift…
    If so, then we have more than enough in common…

  26. This sounds so familiar! My grandmother lived by the motto: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. One of the ways her daughter (my mother) embodied that was by allowing us as kids only 1/2 a paper napkin at dinner — as we got older, we were switched to only cloth napkins with personalized rings, and they were washed once a week! Thanks for a great (and useful!) post!

  27. So many of these were just normal when I grew up – i was always amazed at the waste and extravagance I saw in my friends’ houses. As children, we always shared baths and then recycled the water, pumping it out into the garden – in my grandmother’s house the water was never more than a couple of inches deep and usually cold.
    My mother only uses half a stock-cube each time, and adds water to the dishwashing liquid to make it last longer. She also counts potatoes and slices of bread so that there is exactly enough for each person, and no more! She has never bought a sandwich bag, but re-uses breadbags and the plastic wrappers that magazines come in. Also, envelopes are re-used with an address label on top of the original address.
    Now the 3 of us girls are married and our husbands complain that we are stingy – it is just against our nature to be wasteful. One husband keeps repeating “the war is over now!”

  28. When I was a young child (and I’m only 30 now) my old Polish babysitter gave my sister and I two sheets of toilet paper! Now that is being frugal!

    I think another tip is to not fixate on expiry dates. Milk smells off when it is off not when the date has expired. Obviously this shouldn’t be done with some food items (ground meat, fish).


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