The Frugal Olympics

August 2, 2012

By Pat Detmer

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It occurred to me the other day — as I methodically scraped peanut butter out of a jar that most people would’ve thrown away several sandwiches ago — that if there was a Frugal Olympics, I could win a gold medal. Except the medal wouldn’t be gold. It would be made from saved tin foil and ribbon from last Christmas.

My mother was my trainer in thrift: Scraps of material could become a braided rag rug. Clothing and socks could be mended. Soap could be used until it was so small that it was in danger of being inadvertently lost in a body cavity. She never tore into a wrapped gift with abandon, because if one was careful, the paper could be used again. And again. And speaking of paper, it has two surfaces, which means that Mother’s recipes have stories from the past on the backs of them: mid-century letters from her mother, church bulletins and school announcements.

As we explained Mother’s child-of-the-Depression prudence at her funeral, my sister Susie held up a rubber band ball that we’d found while clearing out her kitchen drawers. Why buy a rubber band new, Mother believed, when they could be saved and re-used? Susie accidently lost her grip on it, and the ball fell from the podium and bounced across the floor towards the attendees, spewing dust and spent, wimpy rubber strips all the way.

That reminded me of my mother’s mother (the Obi Wan Kenobi of Frugality) who always walked us through the neighborhood cemetery when we visited her. While there, we got the free thrill of viewing the fenced burial sites where hair-raising explanations for group extinction were carved in granite (and really, what child far from home doesn’t want to read about 21 innocent school kids perishing in a roaring classroom fire?) As payment for this thrill, we were forced to collect the rubber bands that careless newsboys had dropped while wrapping their papers.

True to my bloodline, I re-use foil if meats haven’t previously been involved with it, I scrape jars, I take the useless pump out of the lotion and shake out the unreachable balance, I print on the back of my Simon & Schuster Royalty Statements (it’s all parenthetical numbers anyhow), I nuke stale oyster crackers to crisp them, and as I brush my teeth, I mourn the fact that the old toothpaste tubes were stiffer and stronger, making it possible to more efficiently squeeze out the last precious dollop of paste.

Nature, or nurture? Genetic or learned? I’m not sure, but I know that when I win that medal in the Frugal Olympics, I’ll proudly fasten it on the workout suit that I’ve worn for the past five years using the straight pin that I kept from the corsage that The Sainted One gave me for my 47th birthday as I play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on our record player.

That’s right. You heard me: record player. I am soooo gonna win this!


You can reach Pat Detmer, who has also won a silver in Lazy Gardening, at 

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