Will This Pandemic Teach Us to Be Frugal?

This is my mom and dad in 1965, on the front porch of their new home in the U.S. Dad probably still owns that rake. Mary Jo DiLonardo

Around dinnertime each day, my husband and I make our way to the kitchen from our respective home offices and stare at a relatively full refrigerator. There's a decent collection of fresh fruit and vegetables, some meat, lots of dairy, and an amazing array of leftovers. Every time we open the door, we're still surprised at the abundance. Pre-pandemic, we cobbled things together and rarely cooked anything of substance. Now, we're taking much more time to be deliberate in our meal planning. We care about nutrition, health ... and not wasting a thing.

I'm watching friends on social media, and it seems that frugality is a common lesson we're learning during this global crisis. They're sharing recipe tips on what to do with leftovers and offering DIY garden bed advice. Some are leaving sourdough starters on their front porches for strangers to pick up and sharing advice on raising backyard chickens.

My parents instilled the importance of reusing, saving, and never wasting. They immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in hopes of better opportunity, and early on that meant that they both worked several jobs for long hours, even when they had a houseful of four tiny children. My dad could fix anything — so rarely did anything get thrown away. They made homemade bread, sauce, sausage, and prosciutto and we wasted nothing. Once in a while our big treat was a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a can of Hawaiian Punch. But most days it was pasta.

For years, my mom kept a coffee can on the stove to keep drippings that were reused over and over again. We saved the ties from store-bought bread wrappers and any leftover bread was made into breadcrumbs or given to the birds. My dad once made a bird feeder from an empty 2-liter soda bottle. (It's history in my parents' hometown of Chiauci that my dad invented the rotisserie chicken grill in his town bar. And yes, we're buying that story.)

The trickle-down effect

Workers at the Atwater Kent Factory in North Philadelphia, 1925.
Previous generations have proven that you can always do less with more. But will those lessons in frugality take hold after the current crisis passes?. Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com

When the pandemic took a firmer grip in early March, my parents hunkered down in their well-stocked home. They had a freezer full of food and two other well-stocked refrigerators. I'm sure they also had plenty of toilet paper.

My dad has been somewhat flustered recently because no one has been able to find yeast for him. He buys his in bulk at one of the warehouse stores and only has enough right now for about 10 loaves. Yes, just 10. (If you know my parents, please drop off some yeast on their porch. My dad doesn't need to stress about bread.)

My siblings and I aren't quite like my parents. One of my brothers is just as handy as my dad. I'm pretty sure he built most of his house and his swimming pool and could duplicate the soda-bottle bird feeder. We don't hoard like they do. But I've definitely picked up some of their habits.

  • I use envelopes and my son's old homework for notes.
  • I reuse wrapping paper and bows.
  • I wash and reuse plastic and glass food containers from salsa, lunch meat, etc.
  • I've used old Christmas cards to make gift cards on presents.

Tejal Rao of The New York Times recently asked people on Twitter which frugal habits of their parents or grandparents have stuck with, and they mentioned some of those and more, like saving the butter wrapper to grease cookie sheets, reusing Ziploc bags, and stocking up on free napkins and condiments from fast-food restaurants.

I wonder if what we're going through now will impact my son's generation. A brand-new college graduate who's going off to a cool new job as a software engineer in a few months, he and his roommates are spending a lot of time in their apartment with not a lot to do. He says, right now, that means they're actually spending more money. One friend bought a bike; his girlfriend bought some cross-stitch patterns.

"Everyone is buying things to try to find hobbies," he told me. "Maybe real adults are being more frugal."

Or maybe he just needs a 2-liter bottle and some birds.