Living Standards and Frugality

Throughout the majority in time in the history of the United States, the need to be frugal (thrifty) for the average person was a necessity not a lifestyle choice as many are choosing today in our post-scarcity society in order to:

  • Improve their personal finances
  • De-clutter their lives from materialistic consumerism
  • Live a more eco-friendly life

Being 63 years of age, I remember the lives and lessons of my grandparents — on both sides of the family — who were born just prior to the 20th century. Both sides of my grandparents were poor … poverty poor.

I can remember my paternal grandfather shelling corn by hand to make feed for his chickens, cows and pigs. Every kernel that fell to the ground was picked up and put in the large bucket with the other kernels. Not a single kernel was wasted.

I can also remember that one of our annual family outings was to pick strawberries from grandpa’s half acre truck patch. After the men and boys picked the strawberries, the women and girls canned strawberry preserves. This day of labor typically produced over 100 jars of preserves of which a quarter was kept for family members and the rest sold to a base of customers accumulated over the years.

Due to the price of coal, I can remember my paternal grandparents sitting down to eat lunch in the winter with only a loaf of bread and butter because every dollar they had was needed to buy coal for the potbelly stove that sat in the middle of the living room. This was the only source of heat in the 2-story house.

Potbelly Coal Stove

My grandfather, who passed away in 1970, was still driving a 1947 Plymouth Coupe (the only car he ever owned) and farming 120 acres with on old Farmall tractor with steel wheels and an old Allis Chalmers tractor at the time of his death.

1947 Plymouth Coupe

One of the fondest memories of my maternal grandmother was her crab apple and vinegar pies. She had two large crab apple trees in her yard. She canned, made jelly and vinegar with the crab apples. She didn’t have the money for “rich folk” pie fillings.

Long after my mother had a modern electric washing machine, my grandmother was still using a old wringer washing machine because she knew it worked and she knew how to use it.

I can remember my grandmother saving everything that could possibly be used or needed in the future. A few examples are string, rubber bands, glass jars, fabric, metal containers and tin cans.

There is no doubt that since the end of World War II that the standard of living has improved significantly due to new inventions and technology. While many of these have made made life much easier and faster, some of these have made life more complex and consume an unbelievable amount of our time. Just two examples are computers and smartphones. As a personal example, I still find an annual planning book (calendar + appointments + to-do list + follow-up + notes) much faster and easier to use than any of the apps or software programs available today.

Another issue is the income needed to just meet basic needs. I can remember when a one-income family was the norm. Furthermore, that income was sufficient to raise two or three children and send them to college, take a nice annual vacation and drive a nice car.

Now, for many families, it takes two income earners in the household to just meet the basic needs of shelter, clothing, food, transportation and health care. And because of this, many people need to have a second job or “gig”, budget every single dollar or live under a crushing load of debt that prevents them from ever obtaining financial freedom.

While the standard of living is much higher today when compared to the 19th or the early part of the 20th centuries. It comes with the price of a huge level of stress to each person and their family. The demands for our time, attention, money and the need to always “measure up” leaves many in a position where they cannot visualize a future of personal peace and fulfillment. This is the why the interests of being thrifty and living a more simple life are growing at a break-neck pace. The need to get off the hamster wheel and out of the cage far outweighs the advantages of an ever-increasing standard of living.

I once heard that the greatest threat to capitalism isn’t socialism … it’s contentment.


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Published by W. M. Brown

I am a retired U.S. expat living in Ecuador. I was a business owner for 32 years before retiring in 2012.

3 thoughts on “Living Standards and Frugality

  1. I wonder if the Great Confinement of 2020 will change that desire to seek that higher standard of living as we collectively learn to live with less for a time.

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