My grandfather grew up in a rural setting during the Great Depression, and for much of his young life had no running water or electricity. Actually, he jokes that they did have running water–he ran to the well with a bucket and ran back. During particularly lean summer months, he didn’t even have shoes.
Since my parents divorced when I was a young boy, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents while my mom was busy trying to provide for her and her young son as a single mom with no support. My grandfather shared many stories about his youth; some good ones, and some that made you feel for him and his eight brothers and sisters (and his parents). He often jokes that he doesn’t know why people refer to those times as “the good ol’ days,” because there wasn’t much good about them.
Photo courtesy of DEEJKEOKI
Of course, I cherish these stories and the time spent with my grandparents because they made me the “frugal dad” I am today. When I feel myself pining for a new gadget I think back to stories of my great-grandmother searching the cupboards for a missing dime that meant a can of soup for her kids’ dinner.
We are in tough times these days too, no doubt about it. But those who compare today’s standard of living to the times my grandfather faced, have little appreciation for how hard life was back then.
A visit to an electronics store with my grandfather is always amusing, as he marvels at the advances in technology, particularly the miniaturization of devices. I have to say he’s pretty well connected though, as he owns both a computer and a digital camera (two things he probably couldn’t have even dreamed up as a boy).
We also share a laugh at the things people spend money on to make life seemingly easier. With that in mind, here are a few things our grandparents (or great-grandparents) lived without, but we consider a necessity. As a disclaimer, I’m not advocating that many of these items have not made life easier. In fact, I own or have participated in a few on this list. I’m just making the point that there are many things out there we consider required goods that people got along without for many years, and probably could again in a real crunch.
- GPS Devices. For me, the jury is still out on GPS devices for your car. I hear about more people arriving late because they took the “GPS directions” than I hear success stories. I don’t know what’s wrong with a road atlas – I just bought a new one from Sams Club for a few dollars. Besides, some of the best discoveries are found when you are lost.
- Cell Phones. Yes, people can live without a cell phone. In fact, many still do, as hard as that is to imagine. If you are concerned with safety while traveling, consider a prepaid phone and keep it charged. Heck, even a cell phone without a calling plan, but a charged battery, can call 911 in an emergency.
- Microwaves. I’ve yet to taste anything out of a microwave that tastes as good or better than stove top or grilled. Still, it’s a time saver, and since we all have so little of it these days I suppose it helps.
- Credit Cards/Debit Cards. The concept of borrowing has been around for centuries, but it has only evolved into plastic over the last century. Speaking of plastic, my grandfather didn’t use an ATM card until he was in his 70′s, instead opting to enter the bank, walk up to the teller and do “business eye-to-eye.”
- Electronic Book Readers (Kindle). Why would you spend over $400 to read something on a screen the size of a book when you could simply…read a book. They even let you borrow them for a couple weeks at libraries for free. Yes, I know toys like the Kindle do other stuff, but it’s primary role is an electronic book reader.
- Digital Cable. Even I can remember growing up with seven or eight channels from rabbit ears on top of the television. My grandfather can remember times before television! Imagine getting all of your news and entertainment from a radio, instead of Fox News and MTV.
- Plasma Televisions. Up until 2004 my grandfather owned a decades old, 27-inch floor model console television. He eventually got rid of it when the picture began to have problems around the edges, and now has a basic 19-inch screen on a shelf. When I asked him about a plasma screen once he said, “There is nothing wrong with the picture on my screen now. Besides, I’ve heard those plasma things cost as much as a small car.” Indeed.
- iPods. Pay for a device to store music you had to buy when same music is readily available via the radio for free (and available for purchase on CD). Most of my grandfather’s favorites are on cassettes, and his Sony cassette Walkman serves him just fine. Over time he has upgraded to CD, since most classical compilations can be found for a couple dollars in the bargain bin.
- XM Radio. Along the same lines at the iPods, why pay to listen to something that is available for free? I did get an XM satellite receiver for my grandfather’s car he did find one feature worth paying for – no commercials.
- Xbox, Playstation and Wii. I remember one Christmas while staying with my grandparents I got an Atari 2600 game system. I hooked it up to the television and ran through games like Combat, Frogger and Pole Position. He thought it was interesting enough, but those little game cartridges sure were expensive!
- Tanning Bed Salons. Why pay to cook your skin when the good Lord shines a sun over your head that does the same? I’m paraphrasing, but I think I’ve heard close to those same words in response to spying a tanning bed salon.
- Health Clubs. Why pay to pick up heavy weights and walk on a 10-foot belt that runs underneath your feet? You can get the same workout walking outside, lifting things in the garden, etc.
I wonder what things we’ll make fun of when we get older? What things have not even been invented yet, and are beyond even the most creative imaginations today? For me the lesson is to think about the things we spend money on to make sure they are a real necessity, while making room for a few wants, too.