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My Mom Was An Extreme Frugalist–Here’s What I Learned From Her

I grew up on Long Island (so, in the NYC metro area). I was one of nine children. My parents were a professor (i.e., not paid great) and a stay-at-home mom. So we didn’t have a lot of money.

My mom was the spender of money in our house. She handled our small income with what I now know was extreme frugality.

Not even $1 per day

For instance, in 1999, I saw an article in Taste of Home that highlighted a meal for only “$1.10 per person!” I ogled over the food in the picture. The meat entree glistened underneath its unctuous fat, and the sides looked ample and savory. Honestly, it looked way better than the brothy soups, carb-y pastas, and beans and rice we regularly ate. “Mom,” I called out. “We should make this! It’s only $1.10 per person.” My mom looked at me and said, “Sarah, we can’t afford $1 per day per person.”

That’s when I realized that, though I knew our lives were tight, I had no idea what we were really dealing with. The watery oatmeal, white sugar, and No Frills Brand fat-free powdered milk we ate every day for breakfast began to make a lot more sense.

I spent a lot of time as a kid looking in our kitchen cabinets and thinking, “Those red and blue lines look like frills to me…”

(Note: She may have been exaggerating for effect, but if so, not by much. Her grocery/household item/school supplies/school trips/music lesson budget for our family was $500 per month for many years. This was in 1990-2000 money, but a basic calculation tells me that would still be around only $800 in today’s money. For food AND all that other stuff!)

I asked her once how she decided what to serve us for dinner. She looked at me like my brain had fallen out of my head.

The secret meal pattern

“You haven’t noticed the pattern?” she asked. Um, no, I hadn’t. She explained it to me:

  • Sunday–chicken teriyaki, frozen vegetables, and rice
  • Monday–ground beef
  • Tuesday–“something fast with eggs or cheese”
  • Wednesday–pasta
  • Thursday–beans
  • Friday–homemade pizza
  • Saturday–pancakes for breakfast, leftovers or hot dogs for dinner

My mom is a genius. Also, kids can be oblivious.

Frugal eating, 1990s style

My mom made our bread (often using the leftover oatmeal we had failed to eat for breakfast), twelve loaves at a time. She lived for the once-yearly grocery store can sales, filling up cart after cart with the max quantities allowed of $.47 green peas, black beans, corn, and tomatoes. She’d wheel through the check-out counters, going through again and again, if they’d let her. She’d buy the mega packs of ground beef, cook it with chopped onion, and then freeze it in plastic baggies, to be used as “the protein” in chili, pasta sauce, stroganoff, minestrone.

She didn’t believe in coupons. She found them to be too difficult and wasted too much gas spent going from store to store. But she did believe in buying and cooking in bulk, in hard work, and in generosity. She never said no to inviting people over, even though our budget was small or our food was limited. She added more water, another can of beans, cut portions smaller, made a sugary/floury dessert, and said, “Come on in!”


I have spent many years trying to eat differently than I did as a kid. I eat more fresh fruit, more fresh vegetables, more whole grains, lean proteins, calcium, and way less white flour and refined sugar. And I’ve been pretty sad about how many years as a kid I went without those things.

But now that I’m actively trying to trim my grocery budget to pay off debt and reach FI, I better appreciate the miracle my mom was able to work. She fed so many of us! On so, so little.

I may not want to be a frugalist in the same way my mom was, but I need to say–my mom deserves serious credit. She was rocking extreme frugality HARD, way before it was cool. And with no online community to give her #groceryhaul likes or #mealplanning ideas.

So I’m giving it to her now: Thumbs up, Mom!

My Mom Was An Extreme Frugalist--Here's What I Learned From Her

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