Thrifty, Frugal, or Fast and Loose

My daughter made this catch-all bowl in grade school with the script I LOVE U MOM. We still use it for keys. Money can’t buy better.

My kid brain believed being thrifty and frugal were stairways to heaven and being wasteful and stingy were highways to hell. At least, that’s what I came to believe when I worked on not being broke and not toasting marshmallows with Satan. The Bible has a great many verses about money, possessions, and greed, so there are lots of ways to stumble into the snake pit.

I started out as a stingy seven-year-old entrepreneur who played fast and loose with the pocket change I earned doing chores for neighbors. One of the first nickels I made I wasted on five red-hot atomic fireballs. I didn’t want to share them, but my older brother had an insane talent for finding garbage food hidden anywhere in our house. So, I sealed my fireballs in a humongous wad of plastic wrap, dug a hole between the roots of our giant pin oak tree, and buried them.

Fortunately, there were rowdy kids in our neighborhood who created plenty of profitable work for me. Among other mischiefs, they threw gravel into yards, wrote bad words in the red factory soot that settled on cars, and tossed rotten crab apples or mushy trellis grapes against houses. I’d knock on doors and offer to clean up their property and do yard work for whatever they were willing to pay me.

I loved making my own money! I’d walk to a mom-and-pop store about a half-mile from my house and buy giant salted pretzel rods, Bazooka bubble gum, and all-day suckers that eventually became covered with flies, mosquitoes, and a lightning bug or two. Earning money may have been hard but blowing it couldn’t have been easier. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that the more I spend, the less I have for better stuff.

To my younger me, being thrifty meant using my sticky stash of coins for lots of stuff-not just one thing. Instead of buying a Scooter Pie, I’d get a handful of penny candy. And instead of saving for a pocket knife to play mumbley peg, I bought soon forgotten trinkets like a skull ring and a rabbit’s foot. Whenever I came home with my pockets bulging, my Italian mother would scold, “Why you buy junk? No buy junk!”

I made this dual compartment trinket box out of popsicle sticks I scavenged near a mom-and-pop store. The only trinkets that survived were the ones I earned in CCD class..

But, after an incident with the rowdy kids, my cash flow waned. They threw rocks at my brother and me, so I ran. My brother stood his ground and returned fire at their ringleader. When he finally turned to run, a rock hit him in the back of his head. The instant he got home, Mom exploded like the bombs she dodged during the World War II blitzkrieg of Naples. Their volatility had ignited her temperament like an eternal flame.

“Why you no run like your sister?” Mom asked. “Stop-uh doing what is not smart!” She then dragged my brother, with his head bleeding like a stuck pig, to the ringleader’s house.

When the boy’s father came to the door, she raged, “Look what your son-uh-muh-baitch son did!” Then Mom let loose an earsplitting barrage of colorful words that did not include gee whiz or ah shucks, promising, “I no gonna pay for this! You gonna pay for this!” And he did. My mother never forked out money for what she determined to be someone else’s red ink. Never.

So, for a side hustle, I searched for discarded pop bottles to turn in for nickels and dimes. I also made a pint-sized effort to rein in my fast and loose spending, especially when I wanted to go with my friends to see movies, like The Shaggy Dog, at the local theater. Being thrifty and frugal began to stick in my throat like a glob of peanut butter that just wouldn’t go down.

I also tried not to be so stingy because, as a Roman Catholic, I knew I’d be confessing my selfish ways to a priest. As soon as I’d kneel in the confessional, he’d greet me, I’d ask for his blessing, and I’d rattle off my juvenile sins.

These pages are in my well-worn Welcome Jesus Missal, which I used quite often growing up.

I’d start with my repeat offenses, “I don’t share. I swear a lot. I don’t help when I should.” I’d suck in a deep nervous breath and continue with my latest wrongdoing. “A mean boy punched me in the stomach, so I pinned him down and made him eat road dirt. For these, and all my sins, I’m heartily sorry.”

For my penance, the priest would give advice like, “Share something with someone, even if they don’t ask,” and, “Forgive others like Jesus forgives you.” Then, he’d add, “Say three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers.” Afterward, I always tried not to be such a stingy, foul-mouthed, booger.

Scripture speaks about being mindful of debt and managing money while still being generous (Psalm 37:21). My mother, a gracious giver, followed this to a fault. When I gave Mom new socks because hers were threadbare and snugged up with safety pins, she protested, “No waste-uh money! I no need!” Then she gave them to someone who she thought needed them more. When Mom’s good clothes frayed, she’d wear them around the house until they disintegrated into cleaning rags.

Mom, my money mentor until she passed at age 92, didn’t make frivolous purchases or skimp on food or our health. She paid cash for everything and made sure not one pea went to waste-except the ones my brother flushed down the toilet. When my dad, a steelworker, couldn’t work for two years, we still ate well, in part, because my mom had saved her earnings from her random jobs.

The city school I attended had a farm program where students could sign up for a plot to cultivate. I loved it and my family benefited from the food. I’m holding the sign.

I became motivated to save money to buy clothes when an elderly neighbor died, and Mom got her castoffs for me! I protested, “I’m not wearing dead people’s clothes! They stink like mothballs-and they don’t fit!” As an athletic twelve-year-old, I still had a boyish figure with no bosom and no hips. Apparently, the deceased woman had a well-upholstered body.

Mom countered, “You gonna wear them! You gonna wear them till-uh they wear out!” I attended the first day of junior high laid out in what appeared to be a burial outfit from the Civil War. Believe me, I learned to save and prioritize money at warp speed, and these habits transitioned right into adulthood.

Ironically, as a young adult on a modest income, I wore my casual clothes until they disintegrated. Instead, I invested in camera equipment to photograph professional sports for various publications and a small house my brother helped to fix up. But because I created a shoestring budget, little remained for the church basket. There’s no pleasure giving crumbs only a rat could relish.

Here are two pairs of sneakers I completely wore out. It’s ridiculous, but, as you can see, I kept them as if I had won some sort of personal contest with them.

When I married and had children, my husband and I bought a bigger house for our growing family. Fast and loose spending would not have allowed us to send our three children to parochial school, a priority for us, or later help them with half the cost of their bachelor’s degrees. Early on, these were some of our frugal habits:

  • We rarely ate out, except for church fellowship and fundraising meals. But we did have a memorable dining experience eating from a wild blackberry bush.
  • Children’s crafts decorated our home and still do. I’m talking about the very same children’s crafts.
  • We received hand-me-downs (which included school uniforms) for our kids from their cousins. They were stained here and there, but not with embalming fluid.
  • Our kids participated in library, soccer, scouting, church, and band programs. I’d also shout, “Go play outside!” and they’d open their bedroom windows.
  • We drove used cars-old used cars. Cars nobody would want to steal or steal from. Cars we hoped our children, as teenagers, would be embarrassed to drive.
  • We volunteered as ushers for a local concert hall, so our family enjoyed a variety of free performances. We even got to shine flashlights on obnoxious patrons, which shut them up before anyone ripped out their tongues.
One of my children painted this sunflower in the third grade. It still adorns our wall.

Now, it’s just my husband and me. We’re still mostly thrifty and frugal, but sometimes we’re fast and loose with the bucks. We give more, dine out more, and go to more places that charge admission. Our clothes? They’re like Mom’s socks. Daily life has a way of reshuffling priorities.

God owns the heavens, the earth, and everything on it (Deuteronomy 10:14), so we can share more of His stuff by being thrifty. Even though we’ve exceeded the necessities of life, it’s difficult to stop stockpiling for emergencies. It’s also hard to relax a lifetime of penny-pinching to become fast and loose with charitable offerings. We give for the joy of it and take frog jumps toward quantum leap donations.

Like my kid brain, my adult brain believes being thrifty and frugal are stairways to heaven and being wasteful and stingy are highways to hell. Satan, the pied piper of squandering and selfish sofa-spuds, waits with his three-pronged pitchfork to skewer more than just marshmallows for his hot-as-hell barbecue pit.

And those red-hot atomic fireballs I buried and eventually dug up-they were as hot-as-hell, too! I gave them to my brother.

1 Peter 5:8, NAB

“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for {someone} to devour.”

(1 Peter 5:8, NAB)

Psalm 24:1, NAB

“The earth is the LORD’S and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.”

(Psalm 24:1, NAB)

Proverbs 13:11, NAB

“Wealth won quickly dwindles away, but gathered little by little, it grows.”

(Proverbs 13:11, NAB)

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