How to Live Frugally: Lessons I Learned From My Grandparents

Following is a guest post by Tammy Stobel.

My Grandparents actively practiced frugality. They both grew up in very large families and lived through the Great Depression. Saving for a rainy day and avoiding rampant consumerism was integral to their life philosophy. Rather than seeking fulfillment through material items they chose to spent quality time together, with family, and in nature.

A little background…

My Grandparents built and lived in a small 600 square foot, 20′ x 30′, cottage for most of their adult lives. Countless family members encouraged my Grandparents to expand their home. But they didn’t want a bigger place. They loved their little home and were content with what they had. For instance, they gardened, repaired their own clothes, and drove the same car for over 15 years. I still remember riding around in their old, green Mercury beast and sleeping in their super tiny guest room.

Over the years my Grandparents noticed dramatic changes their community. Every year more farmland was devoured to build larger and larger homes. As real estate prices rose many of their neighbors sold their little homes and lots. Soon they were the only small house on the block. McMansions outnumbered cute little cottages.

In many ways, I’ve modeled my life after my Grandparents. Through their example I learned an important lesson: it is possible to live a frugal and fulfilling life. In this article I’ll talk about some of those tips.

1. Save extra cash by living small.

Home-ownership is one of the largest expenses in America. By living in a small home, you can save a lot of extra cash. Here’s what David Crook, a Wall Street Journal columnist, has to say about home-ownership:

“You can easily end up spending three times the purchase price of a house. Today’s buyer of a typical $300,000 single-family home who takes out a 30-year loan will end up paying the price of the house again just in interest. Add 30 years of property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, regular maintenance and a couple of big-ticket repairs or improvements, and the total cost of buying the home could easily top out at well over $1 million.”

2. Plant a garden.

My Grandparents lived in a small home, but had a huge garden. They loved gardening because it reduced their grocery bill, improved their health, and gave them an excuse to be outside. So even if you live in a small home or apartment you don’t have to forgo gardening. Vertical gardening, community gardens, and window farming are all options to consider.

3. Avoid lifestyle creep.

Lifestyle creep is when we try to keep up with the mythical Joneses and end up unhappy and in debt. My Grandparents avoided lifestyle creepy by paying for their own home in cash and building it themselves. They also reused and recycled everything. For instance, they drove the same car for over 15 years and didn’t buy anything new until the item in question was complexity worn down.

4. Living well on less isn’t about self-deprivation.

My Grandparents taught me that living a small, but frugal life isn’t about self-deprivation. Instead, it’s about giving yourself the time, freedom, and money to pursue your dreams. Becoming debt free, downsizing to a smaller home, and going car-lite are a few ways to take control of your life and start pursuing your dreams.

5. Take action.

If you’re thinking of living a simpler lifestyle take action! Below are a few tips to get you started:

  • Consider starting a vertical gardening project or join a community garden in your neighborhood.
  • Add up the amount you spend on housing and transportation every month. Brainstorm ways you can cut those expenses.
  • The next time you have the urge to go shopping ask yourself if your really “need” the item in question. Be mindful of your consumption choices and remember your priorities.

How has frugality improved the quality of your life?


Tammy Strobel blogs at RowdyKittens about simple living and is the author of Simply Car-free: How to Pedal Toward Financial Freedom and a Healthier Life.

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Sravaka - June 3, 2010 Reply

Great post! Thanx

Brand - June 3, 2010 Reply

Frugality has tremendously improved the quality of my life. After a decade at the same company, I finally got laid off last year. Many of my colleagues were in a state of near-panic, but I experienced very little pressure. They were facing mortgage payments, car payments, credit card payments and crazy insurance laws. I had savings, a minimal consumer lifestyle and good health. I rent a small apartment in a community that I enjoy, and last year I put a total of 20 miles on my car. I read books, play cards and toss back a few pints with my friends. My daily entertainment is a latte and a new $1 iPhone app.

Good ol’ Spock said it best: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Amanda Brinda - June 3, 2010 Reply

Great post Tammy! Just wondering how many kids your grandparents raised in their little home? Mostly stuff I know, but it’s always a good to have a reminder.

Laura - June 3, 2010 Reply

Nice post. Our lives are greatly enriched by our frugality. We drive old vehicles (which my husband maintains & fixes himself), we live in a 400 square foot mini-home in the backyard of a larger house that we are renovating with our own hands (and paying cash to finance the project). Our mortgage is $187 per month, and we generally overpay it. We don’t make much money by today’s standards, but it always seems to be enough because we are very good at spending it wisely & carefully.

My husband and I own our own business, and we work very hard at it, but we also don’t always work full-time (though some times of the year we do work much more than 40 hours a week). Sometimes, when we’re taking a nice hike together in the middle of a weekday, I feel guilty, and feel like we’re “getting away with something,” because we’re not slaving away in front of computers all the time. But our frugality allows us to focus on providing our customers with an excellent product & excellent customer service, which means that we have great relationships with our customers, and all our business is a result of word-of-mouth. Our business goals are to get interesting, unique, & stimulating work– not to grow by leaps & bounds or double our income statement every year. And we can focus on that because we’re not always worrying about how we’re going to pay the bills. If business is a little slow one month, we enjoy more time together, and work on our beloved house-renovation project.

I must note, however, that this is generally possible because we are healthy. It is easy to drown in debt if medical bills start creeping into the picture. We pay very low health insurance bills because we carry a very high deductible. To some extent it is a self-reinforcing cycle– we’re not too stressed much of the time, we eat healthy food at home, we do a fair amount of physical labor, and it helps to keep us healthy. But if we did have something go wrong medically, it might change this picture drastically.

In general, frugality is a life-skill that has a huge impact on lifestyle and quality of life. And unfortunately, it is a skill that many many people just don’t seem to have any more.

Tammy Strobel - June 3, 2010 Reply

Thank you all for leaving such thoughtful comments and reading the post. I appreciate it. 🙂

@Amanda – my grandparents had one child (my dad). They started building their little home when he was 11. I wish I could share photos of my Grandparents little home, but a majority of our family photos were lost in a fire. (My Dad’s house burned down about three years ago).

@Laura – thank you for sharing your story. I’m in a similar boat with my own little business. I’m not making a lot of money but that’s okay. My goal isn’t about growing or making a boat load of cash. I want to pay my bills, work on interesting projects, and have extra time to spend with my husband and family.

It’s serendipitous you brought up the point about medical bills / insurance. Originally my Grandparents little cottage was supposed to be their garage. They had planned on building a slightly larger cottage. But my Grandmother got sick and because of large medical bills they couldn’t afford to expand. I’m sure they could have upgraded their little house later in life, but they were happy with what they had.

BudMan - June 3, 2010 Reply

Would love to see a sketched floor plan of your grandparents house…great post

    Tammy Strobel - June 6, 2010 Reply

    @BudMan – my mom is working on a sketch of their little home. (My sketching skills are horrible). I’m hoping she will share it with us.

    WOW – thank you all for the beautiful comments. A number of you mentioned you are car-free or car-lite. Very awesome! We’ve been car-free for about 2 years and love it. The money we saved helped us pay off our debt and focus on our physical health. 🙂

    Have a awesome Sunday!

    Thanks again for again for sharing your stories.

alice - June 3, 2010 Reply

This reminds me of my own parents, who managed to teach me frugality without my really noticing it. It just seemed like the way everybody I knew lived. There used to be an old expression, something like “make it last, made do, or do without” that was our family motto and got trotted out regularly. My 6 year old granddaughter is a great scrounger and maker too so the tradition lives on. She gets it right from the source as all 4 generations currently live in our own apartments in one house. It’s great being able to run up or down stairs to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar if you run out and between us we have all the tools we need. Lots of help for canning season too.

    Debra - July 11, 2015 Reply

    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” I heard that a lot as a kid. My parents grew up during the Depression/war years with the rationing, etc., and have always been careful with their money, but I think as a reaction to the shortages in their childhood, have always enjoyed being able to own “stuff.” They drive their cars for many years and have owned their home for more than 30 years, and are set up to be comfortable in spite of the many medical bills. Unfortunately, I only learned some of that financial wisdom, a condition I’m working to correct.

wendy lion - June 3, 2010 Reply

What a happy life!I appreciate for your article!

Jeremy - June 3, 2010 Reply

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Many simple things have made my life better, but nothing, besides getting married, has had such a dramatic, positive impact in the last 3.5 years than the moment when I sold my car. My wife and I are a one car family, but I’m the one who took the plunge to go without a car. I’m in a car about 10 times a month, and when I need “wheels” I work out public transportation or carpooling (which is part of the ~10 times in a car).

The affect on my “mental health” and ability to cope with stress is astounding, not to mention that it’s incredibly easy to never go to the gym and yet easily maintain my weight while not skimping on the food I love, and never needing to diet.

    Amanda Brinda - June 4, 2010 Reply

    Jeremy – I too have been the one to take the plunge in my family. I drive a car about 4x/mo (grocery shopping for our family of five – the local store is about twice the cost of the one a few neighbourhoods over and on one income… well – although the farmer’s market is right outside my office on Wednesdays so I do do some of my shopping on foot!) and I ride in a car maybe twice a month? Usually for special events that we go to as a family. I don’t miss it at all and found myself cringing when my husband was talking about getting a second car again the other day. Right now the biggest battle that we have is that we are renting currently and I want to buy in the neighbourhood we live in even if it means a bit more money for a smaller house and he wants to buy a cheaper larger house. I feel that we are good in what we have (around 1000 sq ft) and that I would rather put an extra couple a hundred a month into a mortgage payment than $5-600 into a car payment and gas and maintenace, insurance, etc. Ah well, hopefully it will sort itself out.

    As far as frugality goes. We’ve always been frugal, but in school swe still aquired some debt, which we are now working to pay off. Other than that, I grow a garden, I can, I bake our bread, I fix clothing rather than replace it. I am gradually trying to acquire the skills to do more and more of what we need ourselves. It’s a fun and rewarding process really.

    I did not have great examples growing up. My parents are definitely consumers, so I’m starting from square one as far as learning all this.

Cortney - June 4, 2010 Reply

Great post and so true. I only wish I had learned these lessons before I went to college and got in debt. But living small is and will help get me out of debt quicker. Keep up the great work you do!

Colleen Peltomaa - June 4, 2010 Reply

I have my first ever vegetable garden and I rent out rooms in our overly large town house which covers the mortgage, and Hubby has a business that more than covers the utilities and other expenses. I have a lot of time to pursue my spiritual clearing work for myself and for a few select others (for free), and Hubby has time for his chosen spiritual clearing modality.

We enjoy the bountiful parks here in Toronto. We still have back debts to pay off but we have certainly learned our lessons about credit cards 🙂

Anne B - June 4, 2010 Reply

I enjoyed your post. I, too, was raised with a frugal philosophy. Living a frugal life has allowed me to “retire” at 53. I went to college in mid-30s with a child to support. Using work-study (and a frugal lifestyle) to support us while finishing school, I was able to graduate without student debt AND right into a great job due to the experience and connections made thru my student job. I worked for 13 years, either full or part-time, while saving for retirement. I can live on my “pension” because I bought a low cost house in an area with a moderate climate (low utilities) and low cost of living (SE Arizona). I am now pursuing a new “career” in volunteer work. My live is wonderfully enriched!

Debra - June 4, 2010 Reply

THANK YOU! My husband and I lived in South America for 9 years, pre-baby. We came back when our son was to be born. Almost all of dear friends from there live in one room, which serves as family room, kitchen, and bedroom. I promised not to forget them, but ‘lifestyle creep’ got to us. We had the 2,800 sq ft home, and barely made it. How crazy is that? We are happy now, we are in a small 800 ft apartment, waiting on our home from Scott Stewart (featured here It feels so good to shed this weight! Thank you all for your work and keeping this movement alive.

Walt Barrett - June 5, 2010 Reply

Thank you Tammy for a great story, and the responses were wonderful too. My late parents built a 480 square foot home in 1929, and lived in it their entire lives. We always had a large vegetable garden, and seldom had much money. In 1998 I totally restored their home, and the living room is decorated with many of their most treasured items.
I also added a 1250 square foot addition in 1998 which serves as a residence, and the offices for our companies. I drive my car one or two times a week and love working out of my home offices. If we lived in the city I would not bother to own a car. If I needed a car for vacations etc. I would rent one. Owning a car or cars today blows a major hole in anyone’s budget when you add up all the costs. Realistically, it isn’t worth it.
My parents went many years without a car and we walked everywhere. They always enjoyed good health. No, at age 77 I have decided that we really were better off in many ways. In my mind’s eye, we were much better off in the early nineteen fifties.
Thanks for a great story,
Walt Barrett

Cheryl - June 5, 2010 Reply

I can so relate to this story. My mom and grandparents were frugal but dad wasn’t. Learning from their examples my choice was to be careful with finances and is tough but worth it.
My little truck is 22 years old and my place isn’t much to some but the bank doesn’t own them or me.

Joe3 - June 6, 2010 Reply

Wow…….I’m not as frugal as some but more so than others. Great article, I enjoyed it.
I live frugally in a 500 sq ft house I’ve almost fully remodeled, work two days a week at a job I love(it pays well). Living frugally allows me the two day a week position. I use the library, keep my utilities to a minimum, but don’t think twice about going out to eat or having a few beers, bowling or taking a 3 day trip. I’d love to be car free, but enjoy kayaking and that requires travel…someday I’ll go back to riding my recumbent full time. My life wasn’t always this simple, but age and experience have taught me to live below my means…and that allows time to hike, bike, kayak, travel…and do whatever I choose. It’s a lovely time in my life…..

Tina Smith - June 6, 2010 Reply

such a great story. Loved the pictures!

100 Lessons You Should Learn from Frugal People - August 18, 2010 Reply

[…] How to Live Frugally: Lessons I Learned From My Grandparents: You can save cash by living small, as in, living in a small home. […]

di - August 19, 2010 Reply

You can never be fully prepared. Eventually, any type of frugality can quickly be reversed with a disability.

Even with medical insurance, a $50,000 debt can quickly become a reality – there are many costs beyond the monthly premiums.

Security and peace of mind are momentary…

    Marie - July 14, 2015 Reply

    Wow – Debbie Downer

47 Stories About Making Small Lifestyle Changes to Save Big - August 30, 2010 Reply

[…] Lessons I Learned From My Grandparents: Our grandparents may have been the best at teaching us just what living frugally means. […]

javaking - September 21, 2010 Reply

To help my inlaws out of a bad neighborhood in Chicago I moved them into a house with my partner and I about 2 years ago. I find that they have helped me in more ways than they will ever know. They are both in thier mid 80s and have a very minimal lifestyle. They have no car, no fancy eletronic toys, basic cable ,they have turned the back yard into a vegetable garden and only do a major grocery shop monthly. They seem to be the least stressed out and content people I have met. I aspire to have that kind of serenity and control of my life.

A Day of Positive Action! « Eremophila’s Musings - April 29, 2011 Reply

[…] to support the claims that gardening is good for one’s health – have a look here and here.  After all, there’s more to it than putting food on the […]

From Large to Little: My Tiny House Saga - August 20, 2011 Reply

[…] also have to give credit to my grandparents. They taught me many valuable life lessons. I just wish I had started listening to them […]

Mark - February 27, 2012 Reply

Frugal living can easily be done from day to day. Making savings on shopping by using things such as discount vouchers online or in magazines on shopping is a great way to save a few quid when doing shopping, also there are plenty of places to get your hands on freebies and samples or products such as at

frugal living - April 13, 2012 Reply

Living simple is a challenge when your family is not on board with consuming less and strategies for reducing debt.
What are some tips on getting buy in from family members on frugal living?

crykat - June 18, 2012 Reply

its not making me rich but every little bit helps

shaun - July 28, 2012 Reply

What a great article. If more people today lived like our grandparents and great grandparents did, I think we’d be better off financially and health-wise. My wife and I are in our early 30s and have3 small kiddos, and we are starting a more frugal lifestyle. Nothing extreme, like cutting off the electricity lol. But we are gardening,ad saving the seeds. Every year our garden is bigger and better. We are canning. We take advantage of the millions of blueberry, blackberry and raspberry bushes that grow in the wild around here and make our own jam. Instead of cruises or trips to Europe or Mexico, we drive up to the Finger Lakes for a day or two, or take tons of day trips to free or cheap places like the beach, the mountains, state parks, museums etc…. the kids love it and so do we. In addition….and this is the biggie…we got rid of our cell phones. The two smartphones we had were costing over $180 a month. What a waste. We were wasting over 2 grand a year, for what? To play angry birds and text like there was no tomorrow? No thanks. We dropped them and have never been happier. We spend more time together without distractions, and we have real conversations with real people. Twenty years ago absolutely nobody had a cell phone. Yup, “smart” phones are actually a dumb idea.

Michele - August 2, 2012 Reply

I search on an almost daily basis for articles and posts about saving money and living more frugally. My husband had a wonderful job that paid well for 8 years, then his hours were cut about 6-8 months ago and recently he got laid off. When his hours were cut I QUICKLY realized that we could not pay all of our bills on so much less money. I learned to make my own laundry detergent and cleaning products, etc….learned to coupon effectively, learned to make more cooking and baking items homemade and less expensively…then I began learning how to lower utility bills as much as possible. I rethought our grocery shopping needs and adjusted to save money. I lowered all of our “extra” bills to smaller amounts…a lower land line package…downgrading from smartphones to regular cells (my husband and I share 1 and our teenagers have 1 each). We are hanging on and making it. What I have learned is that while we THOUGHT we were “doing all we could” BEFORE the layoff…NOW I understand that we really were not….we just hadn’t researched and concentrated on saving money…hadn’t made it a priority. Our lives are really much better now since we have come to understand what is important and what is overboard. We spend more time together, we enjoy the times when we do go to a movie or out to dinner since they are more precious, being fewer and farther between. I made the statement, “Before his (husband)hours were cut we could afford our debts! Now we can’t.”…and before I finished the sentence I realized the truth of the matter…We could NOT “afford” the debts (esp. credit debt…our home and vehicle loans are not horribly high in today’s standards)…If we could have really afforded the things we had charged, we’d have just paid cash for them and not charged at all. It is a HORRIBLE idea to think that, if you can make credit card payments, then you can afford to make the debt. Just buy what you can pay cash for…period. Part of our credit problem came from the pressure in our extended family to give lavish gifts for holidays and occasions. I have drawn the line….we will now do what WE can afford and not feel bad about it. We will let family members know that we do not expect ANY gifts in return or on occasions…but we can no longer “play the game”. If someone doesn’t appreciate our efforts in gift giving…the fault lies with them, not us. I want to learn as much as possible about frugal living. I want to be content with an inexpensive life and be free to enjoy the occasional expense within our budget. The borrower is servant to the lender (from the Bible)…I have found this out the hard way and don’t want to revisit that lesson!

Jesusa Lana - February 2, 2013 Reply

I really liked the idea of living frugally so I thank this website for coming up with this topic.

kathryn - March 16, 2013 Reply

To the person asking how to get family members on board with living frugally.I think if you show by example, it will be a start.Instead of buying new clothes, buy nice thrift clothes, and show how excited you are for the money you saved.Talk about using less toothpaste, and how using more is really such a waste..and more of a marketing scheme for consumers to use more. Have a goal for the money saved.Either paying off bills, or a inexpensive family vacation. Turning bottles upside down to utilise every drop, or cutting open a tube. Many times there is enough for another week.
If this still doesn’t work, consider having an “allowance’ for you and others. Spend or save it, the choice is yours.
I love being frugal.It is a way for me to be creative.It allowed husband and I to travel 8 months of the year. We housesit overseas, so it is very cheap.When we are home, we also live in a 5 unti apt building with our adult children. It is great if you want to borrow a cup of sugar, you only need to just go downstairs 🙂

jewels - January 19, 2014 Reply

I try to live frugally just because I was raised in that manner but during my raising I and my siblings had to endure the other side of frugality….when the parents become obscessed with saving and pinching every penny that it becomes the priority and over rides the needs and cleaniliness of the family. So in everyone’s quest to save please also be realistic in the difference of wisely saving one’s resources as opposed to hoarding money at the expense of your spouse, children, and welfare and communities resources.

beachmama - July 11, 2015 Reply

Loved reading this post Tammy . . . I long to get back to living more simply. A small cottage like your grandparents sounds heavenly. I would LOVE to see the layout sketch.

I have never purchased a new car. I drive a 21 year old (Volvo wagon) with 270,000.We live on the rural coast so a car is necessary. Our current home is half the square feet and 5+ acres less property of our prior home but still more than we need or use. I lived in a 30 foot travel trailer for 4 years while building my prior home and it was one of the best experiences in my life. Living mostly outdoors, no TV, no life distractions. I’ve not had TV since 1989, and still have no smart phone. My first home was 850 square feet with a 2 car garage on a big lot. It was more than we needed but when we sold in 1989 we were near mortgage free. Same with my second home.

My son is off to his own life now and it’s just two of us. I’m 60 years-old and I believe that my generation is looking for a simpler life. I’m continually pairing down but I live in a 1,600 square foot home. The continual challenge is to keep it simple even though I don’t need to. Living with a spouse who doesn’t have the same mindset can also be challenging. His business is equipment heavy so until he retires we need storage and space.

Your blog keeps my desire to live a more simple life ever present. Thanks so much for sharing your life with us Tammy . . .

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