To say that my dad was a tightwad and my mom was a spendthrift is a little bit like saying the sun is hot and the moon is cold. My dad was a tightwad extraordinaire. He was able to squeeze nickels until they bled, eat leftover turkey down to the wishbone and use hot water in the washing machine only under the most extreme of circumstances.
Mom, on the other hand, loved nothing more than spending money she did, and didn’t have. Mom believed in living and spend now because tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Her birthday gifts were always extravagant and her charge cards were always charged to the hilt.
My siblings and I learned early on that if you wanted something material, go to Mom. If you wanted something emotional, it was also a good idea to go to Mom since Dad was typically as stingy with his feelings as he was with money. Dad’s mood-ometer was apparently set at the same speed around the clock and that setting was neutral.
The only time I can remember seeing my father truly delirious with joy was the day the local supermarket introduced generic labels and also began selling, of all things, undergarments—underwear, socks and hosiery. Dad set off for the market one bright day and came home with enough food items—labeled in black and white and spelling out GENERIC—to last the family well into the next decade. He also brought home a present—one of the very few I can remember receiving—for all his darling children.
“I got you kids something,” Dad told my sisters and me after finding us in the living room sprawled on the couch and watching Phil Donahue. He set what looked like a stack of paper napkins on the coffee table.
My sister picked one of the paper napkins up. It was quilted and had what appeared to be openings for…legs? “What are these?” she asked. My other sister and I picked one of the items up too. They were made out of what seemed to be extra strong paper toweling and stitched together with what looked like dental floss.
“Underwear. I got some for your brother too. Twelve pairs for two dollars. I got twenty-four of them. Isn’t that something? We won’t have to buy any underwear for at least a year.”
Thrilled with himself, Dad went out to the kitchen to brew up a pot of watery generic coffee. Christmas had indeed come early to our house.
My sisters and I exchanged glances without saying a word, dropped the underwear back on the coffee table and returned our attention to Phil Donahue, who, I was sure, would never gift his children with paper underwear. When our mother got home we showed her Dad’s present. After rolling her eyes and making several loud and pointed remarks about wasting money on items that weren’t meant to be worn by human beings, Mom made a point of spraying the underwear with Windex and using all twenty-four pairs to polish the windows. She then made an even bigger point of buying everyone in the house—with the exception of Dad—brand new underwear from the nicest and most expensive store in town.
Dad watched as we delightedly opened Mom’s present, disappointment clearly on his face that his own children didn’t understand the concept of thrift. It was the last time he ever bought anything for any of us.
As I grew older I was better able to understand my father’s obsession with frugality. It didn’t take long for me to realize that yes, life is expensive and there are few thrills greater than getting a seventy percent discount on anything. On the other hand, life is also very short and it’s just as big a thrill to pay full price for something I really love.
It’s all about balance, something my siblings and I have somewhat achieved simply by having a cheapskate for one parent and a compulsive shopper for the other. I like to think that in some ways it’s the best of both world since we’ve always been able to enjoy both ends of the money spectrum—the joy of making soup out of navy beans and six cups of water tempered with the bliss of ordering something completely unnecessary and lace trimmed off Amazon. In their own peculiar way our oddly paired parents taught us how to enjoy it all.