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October 26, 2011

Pinching Pennies

Margaret Maron


“Use it up, wear it out,

Make it do, or do without.”

            — New England Maxim

Growing up, we never had much money, so hand-me-downs were a way of life.  In good years, we got two pairs of shoes:  school shoes in the fall, Sunday shoes at Easter.  And like our clothes, they never really fit well because Mother always made sure “there was room to grow.”  So I would start the school year in shoes and clothes that were too loose and finish the year in clothes that were too tight and shoes that pinched my feet.

I never quite had Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, but Mother was handy with a sewing machine.  She could and did take dresses and  coats apart and restyle them.  When clothes were too ragged to wear, she would cut the good parts into squares and triangles and make quilts. 


 On a farm, nothing ever goes to waste.  Our barns and shelters were full of dented buckets, coils of baling wire, scraps of lumber, and odd pieces of ironware because “you never know what will come in handy.”  It became such a way of life that it’s a wonder I haven’t wound up on one of those reality shows about hoarders.


My first impulse is still to see if I can’t make it myself from stuff on hand rather than hiring someone to do it or buying it in a store.  Over the years, I taught myself to build stone walls, lay blocks, frame in a window, and repurpose kitchen cabinets.  I’ve caned chairs, resized doors, reupholstered furniture, wired junked lamps, and reglazed windows. 

100_1947 When we finally added a real office onto the house a few years back, I wanted a big—a REALLY big—bulletin board, but the prices were shocking. A 4 x 6′ cork board cost five times more than I was willing to pay and it wasn’t as big as I wanted anyhow. After rummaging around in a DIY store, I came home with a sheet of brown fiberboard. It was as ugly as homemade sin, but it was half an inch thick, measured 4 x 8′ and cost only $6. It soaked up four coats of white paint before all the brown disappeared. But when I nailed it up over my work counter and edged it out in scrap molding, I finally had the bulletin board I’d always dreamed about.


100_1886Recently we paid several hundred dollars to have a professional take down a 40-year-old sweet gum tree that endangered the foundation of a rental house we've acquired—a case of spending money to save money, I suppose. Actually, I wanted to cut the tree down myself, and twenty years ago, I would have.  I also wanted to try my hand at sculpting a couple of the resulting logs with a chainsaw, but for some reason, my husband objected to that as well; and these days I try not to give him a heart attack. (Hospital stays are $$$$$)




My all-time favorite money saver came when we were very young and nearly broke and still lived in New York.  My husband was getting his master’s and we had just had a baby. An elderly childless friend was going into assisted living and offered to sell us her homeplace:  an 1880s wooden farmhouse with a turret and fifty acres of land only a few miles from the farm I grew up on.  Her price?  $5000.  We didn’t have $500, but I so wanted that dilapidated  house.  It had stained glass windows in the turret, heart pine flooring, and wraparound porches with gingerbread molding. But it had no indoor plumbing, the roof was shot, the wiring was pre-WWII, and there was extensive termite damage. It was only later that I came to realize how lucky we'd been because that house would have been a time and money pit. If we had bought it, I would have done most of the restoration myself and I would have poured every ounce of creativity I possessed into it, not into writing.  Not all bargains are bargains, and sometimes an unanswered prayer can be the most economical thing that every happened.

What's yours?


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Bread. I love to make bread from scratch, but it only makes sense to do it at the holidays. Then I take a couple of mornings away from my desk and roll around in flour.

By new years, I'm sick of it, so it's a good thing it will be another 10 months until I do it again.

Margaret, we really are kindred spirits. I grew up the same way, except that my mother didn't sew (so I learned how to), and the aunt that did sew handed down her much larger older daughters' clothes to skinny me and my even skinnier sister. That was probably just enough of an impetus to keep me sewing my own clothes, and those of my kids and both husbands, for most of my life. I can honestly say, too, that I've paid for premade window treatments once or twice in my life, and have recovered our kitchen chairs at least six times since I first got them in 1971.

Since I retired a few years ago, and since we bought our farm, I've added a few more "skills". You'll laugh, but learning to make butter was such a revelation! And after canning with friends a time or two I've been doing it on my own this summer, mostly with produce from my own ridiculously productive garden.

Where is Mary Lynn? She's the queen of do-it-your-own-self!

Well, co-queen with Margaret!

By the way, the YouTube imbeds remind me of the talking newspapers in the Harry Potter tomes. It's so cool that JK Rowling envisioned those long before they were invented.

Margaret, I hear you, I hear you! My sister is the most talented writer I know, but she's always had day jobs involving writing (ad copy, Cliff's Notes, grant-writing) and when she goes home her idea of unwinding is stripping wallpaper, refinishing old furniture, and painting. And she moves a lot. So the world is missing out on some great novels, but filled with delighted landlords, as she always, as Grandma used to say, "leaves a place better for having been there."

Me, I clean a lot. You have to pry the sponge and mop from my hands when I'm in that mood. I also love painting. I so relate to your bulletin board story, and as soon as I saw the photo, I thought, "Margaret's doing a lot of stuff besides writing." ]

I used to sew but now, while I have a sewing machine, I've forgotten how to thread it. I sewed to save money on clothes, not for the love of sewing, so now I don't do it.

Sewing is a challenge for me. Here's the project. Now figure out what to make it out of and how to construct it and then the easiest way to put it together. Fun? Maybe not but very satisfying.
I've told you for years I sewed with my mom and my grandmother before I took home ec in jr. high.
They actually sewed up the side seams before they put in the sleeves and the zipper. Nothing like telling your teacher she's crazy when you are 13 years old. (AND right!)
I did not do well in that class.
And now I have bins and bins of fabric. You need a pirate costume? I can whip one up in a day with out leaving my house.
Didn't people make braid rugs out of worn out clothes? If those rugs could talk.
My mom made baby clothes for me out of cotton flour sacks.
There is a project runway show right there!

I'm preparing for a big move: next door. Yes, we are giving up the 320 sq ft chicken coop for 800 sq! ft! There are no appliances in it yet, so I have been busy on Freecycle and Craig's List getting cheap -- or better yet -- free appliances and furniture and hardware. When we get in, I'll be sewing insulated shades and making rugs and pillows -- I'll have ROOM FOR SEWING! I'm so excited.

My grandmother used to make her own scratch pads by cutting up used envelopes and cutting busiess letters in quarters and using the backs. I thought she was cheap. Now I do the same thing -- but call it recycling.

"ugly as homemade sin"

Margaret, I love that, lol.

I'm nowhere near as ambitious or persistent or talented in the homemade sin department as you guys are, but I do dearly love to achieve little "constructive" things on my own. Even just oiling a squeaky hinge gives me a thrill. And a cheap one, at that.

I wore hand-me-downs not because my parent's were very poor, but because they were very cheap. I did rebel one year when I was given clothes from our ass. principal's older daughters and other students kept pointing this out to me! In the long term, it made me a penny pincher and gave me the resourcefulness and creativity to put myself through college a single parent after my first divorce. I met my current husband during my last semester. He is a senior aeronautical engineer, but grew up on a farm, and attempts to keep everything - broken irons, worn out rugs, blow dryers, etc.....(because he wants to fix them or maybe we can use the parts later...) I grew up in an extremely cluttered home so I have a strong need for order and neatness! We have learned to use our respective baggage to the advantage of our family. Our children are good managers of money - they save, tithe, and take weeks or months pricing and comparing before making purchases! One day at the mall, my daughter sighed and said, "I know I know - only stuff on clearance!" A woman overheard this and asked, "How did you get her to be so smart?" ........we practice what we preach! With the history of America's economy repeating itself, we try to be smart with spending and plan for rough times.

Growing up was an adventure in dichotomies.
I was adopted and was not aware of this until after my adopted mother died.
She was the most resourceful person that I have ever known.
There was never a sign of misery in my home. Only hard working people who knew how to manage and create an atmosphere that would belay any textbook on parenting.
I often shared dormers with other kids and one time I had a Harry Potter type space under the stairwell sans door where I share a large room with a temporary boarder.
I related some of these stories lately to my husband and daughter. My daughter didn't say anything.
I blithely commented to my husband that I felt happy and did not even think that I was not rich maybe as others but he said that I had a happy existence unlike some of his childhood that was fraught with misery.
So there you have it. Sometimes it's not the material possessions but the sense of belonging that counts.
Both of us are pretty resourceful but DH is a master of solving problems.
I made a little robe for my daughter on the sewing machine and that I was so great at sewing and I still have joy in most things that I do.

Margaret, I'm very impressed with all your skills, and glad you didn't take on hazardous tree-duty.
My mom sewed most of our clothes growing up, and I loved being able to request the fabric and pattern I liked . . . plus she was good at tailoring to fit. I only sew a bit, mostly mending, but when I first got the latex allergy, and there were no latex-free undies on the market, Mom helped me make some "adult onesies" so I could be decently covered -- and later when I found latex-free elastic, she helped me make better garments and a swimsuit. Yeah, Mom! Now Decent Exposures does it, so I don't have to. http://www.decentexposures.com/
I try to be mostly frugal, of the use-it-up and make-it-do mentality, and eating at home more is both thrifty and more healthy . . .

Kathy, I used to make bread every week for years, but after passing that skill onto my son, he shares with us.

Karen, we do seem to have backgrounds that overlap in so many areas. As for sewing, it's like working with wood, isn't it? Very forgiving . . . as long as it's not satin or corduroy, which aren't.

Happy moving, Holly!

Ack! Mr. Typepad refuses to let me respond, so I'm going to have to rely on some of the other tarts if....aha! Even as I typed this, he snarled and turned on the posting button.

But yes, all of you who have mentioned sewing, I think that's one of the best ways to save a bunch of money: curtains, napkins, tablecloths, cushion covers, etc., etc,, etc.!

I'm impressed with everyone's skills...wow. As a child, I took a few 4-H classes: sewing, cake decorating, and other domestic niceties. None of them stuck.

I dream of owning a house. But, like you mentioned, Margaret, not owning one is probably my best economical move for the moment. Why? Because homeownership would mean I'd need a real job (I'm single; no spousal support), which would mean less time for writing. Choices, choices...

I have one potentially useful domestic skill: gardening, growing veggies. Of course, I gots me no backyard! Dreams, dreams...

All this talk of sewing is raising my guilt level. I used to do a lot of it, even a lot of costume sewing for the local community theater. And it's not that I don't enjoy it -- I do, very much, and really appreciate being able to make clothes in styles I like and colors the suit me when, as happens almost always, the styles and colors are not what's in fashion. But it's this electronic dark angel that has lured me away, either with the fascinating discussions that go on here or the desktop publishing/website management I wound up doing for a couple of local nonprofits.

Not getting your wonderful old house reminded me of a quote: "Anyway, you never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from." - Cormac McCarthy
I'm glad your creativity has been channeled into writing instead of restoring crown molding.

I have no skills of any kind whatsoever that would help me to save money - completely incapable of sewing, knitting, "fixing" things -- I am speaking from experience here. Sigh...

However, like Elaine, I recycle paper to use as scrap paper. A great source is the direct mailers that come in the mail with advertising for local businesses. Most of these coupon-type advertisements are blank on the reverse side. I cut them down and put them near the phone for messages. I also use them as bookmarks.

It's been fifteen or more years since I last purchased trash bags. I recycle the plastic bags from the grocery stores. To a lot of people it is not "politically correct" to use plastic bags - I get "the look" sometimes from other people in the stores because I don't bring my own bags, but in my condo complex, trash must be disposed of in plastic bags ONLY. It gives me great pleasure to tell people who ask that "I recycle my grocery bags"! (And you may now remove that disapproving frown from your face!)

Funny, Deb! But wise. I, too, cut down old manuscripts to make shopping list pads stapled at the top. It's fun to turn them over while waiting to check out and try to remember which book they came from.

Lisa, even a sunny windowsill will let you grow herbs. Wish I could share my weedy gardens with you. My husband goes out, looks at all the yard and garden work that needs to be done and yells, "STAFF!!" Unfortunately, no staff.

There was a time when I made most of my own clothes, and if it isn't on sale, it doesn't come home. I face a quandary with my books-do I buy them on Amazon,cheaper than my local, or on Kindle which is cheaper. What is better for you authors? Might as well do some good which my addiction :) Anyway, very little goes to waste here; I think it left over from childhood where the money simply wasn't there. Unfortunately, that also means I save a lot, and I don't live in a large space. Oh well.

My mistake and young disappointment has been the family joke for years. It started with a comment by my Auntie-Mom who was just trying to keep me going - not to give up, that is. She was living near San Diego at the time and had encouraged me to apply to Cal State there. They turned me down. God-awful devastation, white fog, and black clouds happened. Auntie-Mom smiled and said, "If Cal State turns you down, apply to Harvard." I didnt know that was a play on words. I dutifully practiced my essay writing and rewrote my essay for the Harvard application. And I got in. So now when anyone in the family gets divorced, loses a job, or their car breaks down everyone tells them to apply to Harvard.

Deb, now I only use either reusable bags for shopping, or get the paper ones, since we use paper in our trash can. But when the kids were little they went to the local Baptist church for their wonderful day care. Ohio state law says that disposable diapers must be placed in individual plastic bags, sealed, and then thrown away. For heaven's sake, what a horrible waste. So for 25 years I save plastic bags and donated them to the day care. They were always glad to see me coming, until the director retired. The new director spent good cash money to buy bags, for heaven's sake.

Some people have no sense.

Reine, what a wonderful story and hilarious family "saying"!

Wow, Margaret. You are an accomplished woman. I wish I knew how to do all that stuff. Though I am more handy than my husband, thanks to my father, who could build or fix anything, and used me as his gofer. Said husband is great with computers, though.

I am a fiend for recycling - I hated so much that we had no recycling of bottles and cans at work, that I made my own receptacle in the lunchroom, and I bring it home every week and put it out with my recyclables. My daughter is trained well too - she did the same thing at the store she works at, and she'll carry a bottle forever rather than throw it in the trash, lol.

I did learn to sew when I was a teen, and made a few things for myself and my daughter. It did come in handy for Halloween costumes, and I still make curtains occasionally, and hem pants. But that's about it. I am taking up knitting again, and I'm really enjoying that.

Karen, your story of the bags reminded my of my sister's former pastor. He had a dog (which he brought into church on Sunday!), and would ask the congregation to bring him the plastic bags that the newspapers were delivered in when the weather was wet, so he could use them for poop bags. :)

My mom used to always write notes and letters on the backs of envelopes,junk mail or anything else that was handy even though she had stationery available. Birthday and other occasion cards were always a hoot because she would include a note written on some piece of scrap paper. I used to laugh and joke about it and I find myself doing the same thing. Even though I have notepads, post its etc. all over the house I end up using the back of an envelope or junk mail more often than not to make a list or jot a note.

I like building small pieces of furniture (bookcases, cabinets etc) and I keep small pieces of scrap lumber and trim. I quite often find a use for that scrap piece though.

Even though I have several reusable shopping bags I sometimes end up with plastic ones. I also use them as trash can liners. I used to take plastic bags, material scraps, and all kinds of things to our school day care center. They used them for all sorts of projects.

NancyP, I think what really makes it funny is that my school grades were so poor that I had to go to 4 community colleges before I could even qualify for entry to Calif state colleges. At the time (maybe still) it was actually easier to transfer to UC than Cal State, because Cal State had a higher GPA requirement for transfer students. I went to UCR and CSU Bakersfield as well (my families and I moved a lot back then). I really I wanted to go to San Diego (UC or Cal State). But Harvard was great. Funny life, huh?

I'm a sewer, too. And I've even re-upholstered furniture that came from dubious sources. (Once I figured out how to use that round needle, I coulda gone into business!)

I read somewhere that wood framed Victorian houses are the most expensive to renovate, Margaret---everything's crooked--so you really dodged that bullet. By I can see why you loved that house. It was a beauty!

I almost cried when we didn't get a lovely brick house on a shady street with a pretty swimming pool in the back yard. Someone out-bid us. Oh, I was so sad! Then I heard the roof blew off in a storm that knocked trees into the porch and the pool cracked and leaked into the basement. Etc. etc. Whew.

Sewing: check. Homemade scratchpads: check. Recycling everything: check.

Dating was interesting, since I'd learned from my brothers and uncles to adjust the carburetor, rotate the tires, etc. and I always wondered why a perfectly intelligent and capable man would tell me with a superior smile that his conception of car repair was to take his car straight to the mechanic. That was supposed to be attractive? No opportunity to admire the capable biceps, there!

One of my favorite moments is when I am standing in my kitchen (or living room, or bedroom, or garage), trying to do something for which I don't have the exact tool or resources . . . and I think about it for a moment and figure out how to get it done, anyway.

We SO need to teach our children and their children this sort of adaptability and resourcefulness. IMHO.

This is more than you want to know-- but I save tissue paper and packing material. ANything that aarrives packed in something, I save the something. Beautiful white tissue paper, or all the colors, I smooth out the wrinkles and carefully fold it in quarters and then stash it in a closet.

Blue bubble wrap, clear bubble wrap, the kind with big bubbles and the kind with little bubbles. That goes into the baement. When the cardboard boxes are still pristine, I keep those, too. Shopping bags--oh, I have SO MANY.

For a time, I even kept packing peanuts, but they kept sticking to me.

And then, when I pack a a suitcase or send something, I have the packing stuff. I always feel so virtuous!

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