The Frugal Family Guide

Last summer I was at my parents' cabin in rural Virginia and I noticed a dead mouse in a rusty old trap. I tossed it in the trash. Later that day I told my dad about the mouse, and he asked, "Where's the trap?" I told him it looked as though it were falling apart, and I'd thrown it out with the mouse still attached. He looked at me as if I'd punched him in the face. My mom chimed in: "We've had that trap since we got married!" I wasn't sure she was joking, and they got married almost 50 years ago. I sheepishly dug it out of the garbage and loaded it up with cheese again. Now it's become one of those perennial things they bring up every time I go home: "Remember when Steve threw out the mousetrap, mouse and all!?" This is followed by shuddering and head shaking, as they silently wonder where it all went wrong.

In today's cratering economy, my parents are looking pretty smart all of a sudden. President Obama talks a lot about personal sacrifice, and we all need to look for ways to cut costs these days. Maybe he ought to consider Bill and Joyce Tuttle as the nation's first thrift czars, because when it comes to pinching pennies and saving for the future, my parents are extreme.

Here are some real and true examples: my mom does not use a clothes dryer. "Why would I ever need that as long as we have the outdoors?" she says. (I'd like to answer that: there's nothing like pulling on a pair of frozen Fruit of the Looms straight off the line on a sleeting January morning. Thanks, Mom.) They don't own a credit card. They buy a new car only when they've saved up enough cash to pay for it in full, about every 10 years or so. They have never had cable or satellite TV, even though where they live they get only a handful of channels over the air.

They heat the house with wood from trees that my dad cuts down himself. They don't have air conditioning. They buy almost all their clothes at thrift stores. Mom was angry last week because Dr. Phil did a show about shopping at consignment stores. "Oh, no. They'll be all over the Goodwill now," she lamented.

My parents definitely don't have the Internet or a computer, and caved on a cell phone only recently. They of course bought the throwaway pay-as-you-go kind for $15 at Wal-Mart so they're not locked into a monthly bill. (When I reached my mom on their cell phone recently, I could hear my dad shouting in the background. "Hurry up. Don't use all the minutes!")

During my sophomore year at college, my dad made a special trip down to William & Mary to see me. I thought he was coming to help me buy my first car. I had my eye on a little red Volkswagen. When he left town two days later, I was the proud owner of a blue five-speed bicycle. He persuaded my brother, Chris, not to waste his money on a color TV. Black and white was just as good. We learned not to take him shopping after that.

Now this might make them sound cheap, but they are most definitely not. They are thrifty. Know the difference. Last year they treated seven members of our family to a full week at Disney World. They give very generous gifts and collect expensive antiques. But my dad would rather gouge out his own eyes than spend $4 on a latte at Starbucks. Or say the word "latte," for that matter.

Our family built the house I grew up in, one section at a time, as my parents saved up enough money. I was about 10 years old when they bought those five acres. After school we'd clear brush and burn it in piles. When it started to get dark, we'd sit on a log in front of the crackling fire and celebrate with little green bottles of Coke and Tastykakes, the chocolate-éclair kind. That has nothing to do with my story, but man, were they good.

My mom, who is in her 60s, has been a hairdresser most of her life, and my dad, 72, was a game warden for 38 years. Neither of them ever made giant salaries, yet they've amassed a shocking pile of savings. I would ask exactly how much, but my dad would refuse to answer, and instead would offer to kick my ass for asking. And he could, because he's so ripped from chopping all that wood.

They put two kids through college, and they don't have much in the way of expenses now. Groceries cost less because a lot of what they eat is homegrown vegetables and game my father kills.

Come to think of it, maybe my parents shouldn't start packing their bags to join the Obama administration just yet. The truth is, you couldn't do a lot of these things unless you live in the mountains, and you like hard work and lots of it.

But there are still valuable lessons to be gleaned from their example, which boils down to this: the people who have been living the thrifty life all along, doing the right thing—crazy stuff like buying houses they can afford and saving up money for things they want to buy—are the smart ones now. And they'll be the ones who adjust most easily to a leaner time. While the rest of us watch and worry, my parents, with their paid-for house and their old rusty mousetraps, have peace of mind to spare. It reminds me of the line from "Sharecropper's Son," a bluegrass song I knew growing up: "Landlord told me that hard times were near/Didn't mean a thing 'cause they're already here."

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