Friday, August 13, 2010

Pinching pennies

In today's shaky economy, pinching pennies is talked about a lot. Thriftiness is almost in vogue. New and used stores are popping up all over. There's even a publication called Cheapskate Gazette. Everyone is pinching pennies.

When I was a newlywed; then the mother of one; then two, pinching pennies meant survival.

Like many young people, my then-husband, Gary, and I, he twenty-one and me nineteen, were giddy with the freedom of being on our own for the first time. Credit came readily and we were easy prey.

And, after all, we were both working and it was fun to spend money on all the things we wanted to furnish our new apartment. Department and furniture store shopping was a regular activity for us.

When I became pregnant, I was told I would need to resign my job when the baby was born as my employer, a railroad company, didn't keep new mothers on the job. They claimed to experience "potential high absentee rates" among mothers. This wasn't acceptable.

Can you imagine any employer getting away with this practice now? But this was the mid-60s. Times were different.

So we found ourselves with little money and in debt. We owed much more than we made. We precariously juggled the bills each month, holding our breath as we sent in all the minimum payments. What was left was what we lived on. And there was a baby on the way.

Then we learned my pregnancy wasn't even covered by my former employer's hospitalization. Our newly-purchased insurance called it a "pre-existing condition" and denied coverage as well. Now we would also owe the hospital and doctor.

So we learned very quickly about pinching pennies.

We moved to Ohio where my husband was offered a job at a sandblasting company. There were promises of advancement there.

We loaded a U-Haul and away we went. Gary's boss co-signed a loan so we could buy our first house, a former carriage barn converted to a small home.

I went to work part-time at the local hospital, working evenings when Gary was home with our two little children.

We lived on next to nothing. But the lessons of economizing come back to me now:

Using a half-pound of ground beef in a recipe that called for a full pound. And a half-can of mandarin oranges in Jell-O, saving the other half can for another day.

Packing lunches of stewed tomatoes and peanut butter sandwiches for my working husband. Making and freezing homemade Spaghetti-Os for children's lunches. Seven cents to make vs. 17 cents to buy.

We had friends that gave us pears and cherries from their trees, if Gary would pick them. From his boss, we got free tomatoes for the picking. I canned everything I got my hands on. How rich I felt looking at my stocked cupboards of home-canned goods. How gratifying to know I was contributing to the well-being of my family, financially as well as nutritionally.

Today, as I'm writing this, I'm making a double batch of spaghetti sauce to put in the freezer. Tomatoes from our garden. Onions from our garden. Garlic from a neighbor, swapped for some of my fresh basil. As the sauce simmers, I'm feeling thrifty.

Pinching pennies, once again. My lessons of economizing coming in handy. This time, more out of wisdom than necessity.

But either way, it feels good. And gratifying. Things money can't buy.