There are many verses in the New Testament from Jesus about money. His message was consistent – help the poor, don’t store up riches for yourself, and never put money before God. More recent was John Wesley’s paraphrase, “Make all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” Growing up in a small Mississippi town with my thrifty parents did not exactly jibe with Jesus’ teachings. My mother ascribed to all three of John Wesley’s admonitions; my father only to the first two.
Examples of Extreme Thriftiness
Small town southern life is the 1950s revolved around two major national traumas – the Great Depression and World War II. I recall no memories from my parents about World War II. Instead, my parents recollected scenes from the Great Depression to emphasize the fragility of wealth and the threat of poverty. I recall cleaning up items stored in a closet and discovering a document from my great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran, who had applied for public assistance from the state of Mississippi. My parents were mortified and destroyed the document viewing this as a family disgrace. My father reminded me often of depositing his schoolteacher pay on a Friday in a local bank back during the Great Depression. He asked the bank official if his money was safe. He received strong assurances only to have President Roosevelt close the banks the following Monday- likely March 6, 1933. Father never forgave Roosevelt and kept his savings thereafter in his underwear drawer. He kept and reused everything – pieces of wood, old brick (unfortunately a black widow spider habitat), rusty nails, DDT (nothing organic survived under our house after he finished dusting it), and old envelopes. He suspended kettles of water over our space heaters in the winter to reduce use of the water heater and to save on the gas bill. He diluted the dishwashing liquid. To my wife’s amusement, my mother simply used twice as much. He had his own large vegetable garden, his own chicken coop, and the neighbor’s cow to milk. At night no lights were allowed in unoccupied rooms. My mother finally drew the line with him when he deposited on our front porch a “perfectly good” commode he had found abandoned on the curb. The commode quickly disappeared. My father’s maximum salary before he retired was $7200/year. He told me that I was not worth my salt if I could not save half my salary each month.
A few doors up the street lived an elderly lady whose husband had invested heavily in J.C. Penney stock. She was left a millionaire. She would spend three days each month sitting at the bank clipping coupons from the municipal bonds she owned and complaining about the arthritis in her hands. She was as frugal as my father. I recall selling soap in the neighborhood to raise money for our high school band. She took one look at my product and told me she could buy it more cheaply in a discount store downtown. Her one indulgence was owning thirty Persian cats. She lent me a heavy steamer trunk to transport all my belongings including an old Royal typewriter to medical school. Four years later she called my parents to remind them to return that trunk.
The Rewards of Parsimony
My father’s frugality did pay off in a number of ways. We had a secondhand television that picked up only two channels and lasted only three years before permanently dying. Our time in the evening was instead spent reading together – books by Booth Tarkington, Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot, and others. Mother also read a Bible story every night. She was a dramatic lady who had taught Latin and English in high school. Her students would beg to be taught more than one Shakespearean play each year. Listening to her read was more entertaining than seeing Leave It to Beaver or the Donna Reed Show. My father’s favorite book was Silas Marner by George Eliot. Marner is a miser whose life is changed for the better through adoption of a small child. Though the irony may have escaped him, my father identified with Marner. The money my father saved gave my mother a comfortable life for over thirty years after his death. She lived frugally but managed to give small gifts to her church, to French Camp Academy, and to graduating high school seniors (along with a personal letter). As a schoolteacher for a decade, my father valued education and shared payment of my college expenses without complaint. Though he did not give his hard-earned savings away, my father inadvertently lived out the New Testament advice through my mother’s generosity.
The lessons from Jesus, Wesley, and the Great Depression were reflected in my parents’ attitude toward money. We need to constantly examine how best we can carry out the work of the Kingdom by saving and spending our resources wisely. From Matthew 6:19-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”