Lessons In Frugality From My Immigrant Mama

 

I am proud to be the child of an immigrant family. My parents left their tiny Mediterranean villages and all their families back in the 70’s with the intent to gain a good life, but also to invest their livelihoods into contributing and giving back to this nation and its fabric in return. I believe that is a common wish for all those who come here seeking a new start.

I have a lot to say on this topic but I hold back; if I began the outpour, I wouldn’t even know which of all the points I should start from, and I don’t think I would ever be done. My heart is sick since the attack in Quebec City, and I feel broken that in 2017, we still haven’t realized that the differences between us are miniscule compared to the overarching unity we share by all belonging to the human race.

What I will do, seeing this blog is about my journey with money and frugality, is write this post in honour of my immigrant mother, who has been the best financial role model for frugality and conscious spending that I could have asked for (woe has befallen me for not having followed in her footsteps!)
My previous life of flagrant consumerism has always been a source of confusion and worry and likely even insult to mom, who has taught me by both example and admonition how to save and stretch a dollar. To date, she has never made more than 30,000 a year, and managed to single-handedly raise 2 kids in a paid off home that was always full of delicious food, lots of guests, and all the important creature comforts that kept us happy. I didn’t even realize we were a low-income family until I turned 18 and worked for a bank and realized how much other people make. That’s how richly we lived on so little, thanks to my mama’s money principles. To this day, she will tell you she’s always been blessed with more than enough.

I by no means am saying these qualities are exclusive to immigrants; I just want to highlight that many of my mom’s frugal habits are due to her life experiences, her family, and the culture and environment she grew up in. My grandparents have lived through world wars, civil wars, and sickness. My mom’s dad has built up a fortune three times to have it robbed three times: by invading forces, by communist rebels, and by his government when the borders changed. Growing up in another place has given her perspective and appreciation for the non-material goods that make life rich. With that, I give you frugality lessons I’ve learned from my immigrant mama:

1) Don’t incur debt. My mother views debt as most view house fires – as something to never be experienced in life, to safely guard against, and if you should so befall it, treat it as an absolute, all-consuming emergency. There is no such thing as “just slap it on the credit card” in her world. If you don’t have the money in cash to buy an item, you don’t buy it. End of story. No negotiations. Spending money you don’t have is simply not an option.

2) Always have a large cash reserve for emergencies. Yes, we come from a part of the world where the younger generations tease their parents and grandparents that money goes in the Bank of Under the Mattress, but the truth is mama was always able to hold up the no credit rule by always having money to draw on when an unexpected circumstance arrived. She taught us cash flow is important, and having easy access to a savings account that has an “in-only” policy is pivotal to financial health.
3) Meals are – without exception – prepared at home. No food from a restaurant will ever be as healthy as what you make, and the money you spend on dining will get you much further being put towards groceries. When I lived under my mom’s roof, the making of lunches was a routine that occurred every night without fail – it was the only option for eating come lunch the next day. There was no lunch money as a kid and no extra pocket change for sugary packaged snacks. I don’t even think I used a vending machine until I was 14. As for dinners out, we would go once a year every June to celebrate the end of school. Because it was a special event and not something that was part of our regular living, it was something us kids looked forward to and cherished for weeks after.
4) Avoid getting in the habit of indulging in your weakness. I’ve been an obsessive bookworm since I was a child, preferring reading above any other activity. However we didn’t frequent bookstores as kids. My brother and I are the youngest of a string of cousins, so we were lucky enough to be the recipients of oodles of books and encyclopedia sets as my cousins got older, moved to university or into their own homes, etc. The beauty of the classics we got as hand-me-downs is that they are always relevant, and always loveable. For newer fiction and research, no matter how much mom worked, she always found time to take us to the library. Because of this, the library is still one of my happy places to this day.
5) Regular maintenance of the things you own will prevent you from needing to replace them as often. Growing up, we didn’t have a clothes dryer and didn’t have a dishwasher. To this day, my mother has neither. Although I do cherish my dishwashing machine, my mother always felt the water wasted was unnecessary, and a better clean was achieved by hand washing. After all, that’s how she got everything done when she was one of 7 children in a house with parents and grandparents – let alone just having me and my bro to look after! As for our clothing, we had two clothing lines in our backyard to use in warmer months (air dried sheets – swoon!) and a line in our basement for the winters. Mama was (and is still) convinced our clothing looked near new all the time because of this. It helped that the rest of my family (in particular my aunts with older children than us) also adhered to this when I bring up my next point.
6) Function prevails over fashion. We were always well-dressed, tidy and dare I say adorable kids, but little do people know is I wore my older cousins hand-me-downs almost exclusively until I was 14 or 15. My aunts and uncles also had the same pastoral village living my mama comes from, so they also eschewed dryers, knew how to hem and repair any tears or lost buttons, and can de-pill a sweater until it looked new, so when my older cousins grew out of their clothes, they looked untouched by the time they got to me – and I may have been third in line on that item! the result is we got by without having to spend much on clothes, but more importantly, mom never established a pattern of going to the mall to browse through clothes, just for fun. Function prevailed, and when it was met, we were free to spend our energy on the important stuff and not shopping.
7) DIY everything you can. My mom is infinitely better at pretty much all life skills than I am. She can build you a shed and sew you a gorgeous wedding dress. Growing up my mom cut our hair, sewed our fancy occasion ware, knit us sweaters, gutted and redid our kitchen (twice!), grew our vegetable garden, and cooked every meal. And she was darn good at all of it, too. Granted, she grew up in a time and place where that’s just how everyone lived – everyone was the steward of their own home and all of its needs – but she sticks to this principle to this day, even after over 40 years in Canada. Not only was it obvious she felt pride and satisfaction in doing things herself, but she knows this has resulted in her saving a lot of her hard earned income.
8) Keep a positive money outlook. Even when things got really tough – raising 2 kids on her own, the ebbs and flows of self-employment, an expensive divorce – she never stressed about money. Even though my mom has a permanent “save for a rainy day” mentality, she always had the conviction that things will be more than alright. I believe her level-headedness and positivity helped her always make good and stable money decisions, as she was never acting out of worry or panic.
For anyone who’s been reading my blog for a while and knows some of my habits and history, feel free to shake your head at me right now for shirking the good lessons and stellar example right in my own home! I would be in a much different place if I followed in my mom’s footsteps and lived by some of the frugal lessons listed above.
My goal is to start where I am, as I know it’s not too late to learn from my mom and the example she’s set. Although I’ve grown up in a modern city, I come from a long line of people who lived in a pastoral setting where industriousness, frugality, and a focus on health, family and connection led to rich lives; lives focused on sentiment, and not shopping.
I wanted to say that above all else, I wrote this post to express how grateful I am to not just my mom but to all those who have brought their collective experiences, wisdom, positive values and good examples into the mosaic of where I live, teaching me by example, and teaching me with their lives.

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8 Comments

  1. Fantastic post!

    You summed it up–this is the almost exact way I was raised (but by farmers in Saskatchewan!)

    My dad can weld, wire, build, repair and generally design anything he needed on the farm. He did things like build his own grain roller after looking at one at a farm implement dealership. Of course, this was back in the day. He’s in his late 70s now and beginning to slow down. But we were raised to use what was on hand before we thought of buying new. Seeing the world fill up with garbage and pollution makes that advice just as relevant today. Your mom sounds like a remarkable woman 🙂 Don’t beat yourself up for not following in her footsteps the whole way. You are aware of the example she set, and you are drawing on that example now. Because of the path you are on you are also helping to show others an alternate route out of debt and consumerism. What a lovely read! Thank you 🙂 Jill

  2. And a PS: most all of us (excepting the Indigenous, obviously) are the descendants of immigrants to this country. There has always been a level of distrust and disdain for immigrants and we would do well to remember that today. I used to work at a university archives and in the microfilm and microfiche there were terrible headlines in Saskatchewan newspapers about the “yellow, slant-eyed devil”, “the dirty Irish”, “the ominous, dangerous Ukrainians” etc. People used to fear Catholics, for goodness sake!

    Canadians have generally always been fearful of what is new and different. But our communities have grown, thrived and, in may cases, survived due to the hard work, dedication and ingenuity of immigrant families here to make a better life. I hope we can all think of the experiences of our own ancestors when we consider the plight of families looking for sanctuary. hugs xo Jill

    1. I wish more of us remembered that! I saw a “meme” recently where the picture is divided in two: the top half shows a white man with the caption “immigrants need to go back to where they came from.” The bottom of the picture shows an image of an Indigenous man with the caption “Great! So when are you leaving??” I thought it was brilliant!! As a society we need those reminders!

      Those headlines make me ill – it’s remarkable how horrible people can be to each other, especially to those we perceive as different. Those headlines remind me of a time in grade school I came across an old fiction book (maybe from the 50’s or 60’s) about a young boy from Southern Europe that was teased mercilessly after arriving in Canada. The dialogue contained taunts like being made fun of for his tan complexion, how the meat and cheese in his sandwiches smelled strongly, how deep and dark his eyes were. I remember being really confused and thought maybe the book was a parody – he was being made fun of for all the things I grew up receiving compliments for!! I went home and asked my mom if it’s true that Mediterranean people were prejudiced against in the past and was totally floored when she said yes. If we are capable of looking back on these old mentalities and seeing how absurd they were, why can’t we see the absolute absurdity of the prejudice we see today and cut it out now? What happened to learning from the past?

      PS. I read in the paper this morning that the prairies are receiving refugees coming in from the states bordering them and no one has been turned away! Finally something positive in the daily news!

  3. Beautiful, beautiful post. I love your writing.

    NZ is such a young country and here we are basically all immigrants. To see some of the hatred that has sprung up (probably mostly in the US) breaks my heart. Unless you are Native to a land, you have no right… NO right. Seriously, WTF.

    1. Thank you! I’m a fan of your writing as well.

      I don’t even know where to start on wrapping my head around this one. I get it that the powers that be might not embrace the “love everyone” ideology that I do, but from a bare bones, logical, policitcal science kind of level, humans have been doing this hate thing forever and it has NEVER worked out for the better; it’s a guaranteed lose-lose situation, for everyone. You’d think they would learn by now. You’d think we’d all learn by now.

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