Soup and Clocks: A Meditation on Frugality

Today, as I was making a pot of chicken soup, I suddenly remembered a conversation I had over 15 years ago about a grandfather clock. At first blush, soup and clocks might not seem to have much in common, but to me, they help frame and define what it means to be frugal.First of all, making homemade chicken soup is a tremendously rewarding exercise in frugality. After basing two dinners around the whole roasted chicken, amply rounded out with vegetable side dishes, the remainder is ready for the soup pot. I throw everything– bones, skin and all–into the pot.

Soon, the warm aroma of frugality fills the kitchen, and I am ready to start tossing in everything else I have lingering in the pantry and refrigerator. I start with a lonely potato, an onion and a less-than-perfect carrot. Then I throw in some dried barley, leftover tomato paste and some rosemary from the garden. After that, a few more herbs go in, as well as a handful of diced string beans that need to be used up.As I was extracting the boiled-clean bones from the pot, the apparent non-sequitur of the grandfather clock popped into my mind. I wasn’t actively thinking about frugality at the time, but a few synapses deep in my thrift lobe must have made a connection. In a twinkling, the long-forgotten clock memory floated to surface.

Picking Sides

Years ago, I was working as a consultant for a large corporation with offices up and down the East Coast. I was doing some training in the Philadelphia office and was chatting with a clerical-level employee during a break. The woman was lamenting the fact that her mother wanted to buy a grandfather clock.The woman had a low-level job, but had excellent benefits and job security. She was from an inner-city environment where she probably enjoyed more stability and financial well-being than many of her neighbors. In other words, she was dong fine but probably still saw poverty as a threat.

Her otherwise-thrifty mother was fixated on purchasing a grandfather clock. The whole idea exasperated her daughter, who saw the idea as a useless extravagance. Even though I am frugal by nature and shy away from showy purchases, my immediate gut-reaction was to side with the mother.

I could envision the mother as a child, growing up poor in a big city where opportunities were scarce. Did she visit a more successful relative with grandfather clock? Did she pass one in a shop window as a little girl? Did she see one in a movie? Whatever the origin of the desire, in her mind, the clock represented something much more significant that a simple timepiece.

As we go through our lives, pinching pennies by driving old cars, passing up the latest electronic gizmo, or making soup from a three-day-old chicken, we should remember the lesson of the grandfather clock.

Extravagant vs. Frugal vs. Spartan

We all carry within us some desires that are important in an elemental way, important to our idea of self. For the clerk’s mother, some significant ideal was represented by her desire for a grandfather clock. For you, the desire might be a trip to Paris, a piano, a huge fish tank or a beautiful piece of artwork for your home.If you decide to spend money on a meaningful item that touches your soul and makes you happy in an enduring way, then it is not extravagance. Extravagance should be avoided, while keeping in mind the distinction between being frugal and being Spartan.

To be Spartan is to deprive yourself of things that nourish your sense of well-being.
To be extravagant is to see every new gadget as essential to your existence.
To be frugal is to know the difference and to act only when the item demonstrates its value, regardless of whether that value is emotional or practical.As I stirred the soup, I weighed these concepts with a little smile. I don’t know if the clerk’s mother ever bought the grandfather clock. But I like to think that she did.

This article was written by contributing author Laurel Gray.


  1. Laurel, very astute post. Sometimes when we really want something it goes way deeper than merely the item itself.

    One more thing–Can I come over for dinner;-)

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. Nicely written article. Loved the way you started with chicken soup and then went on to conclude three different mentality of human beings. Even though many of us are frugal but at times we become extravagant and at some other times we act like spartans, don’t you agree?

  3. I agree, we should be able to indulge in a long-cherished idea. Unless it is really a budget breaker, of course. I think it might be foolish to trade security for a luxury, then again if one is 99 years old, why not eat potatoe chips?

    I was curious about the chicken soup, however. What happens to that skin and the joints and gristle? Bill turns his nose up at whole chicken leftovers because he dreads encountering these. A bad childhood memory I guess.

    • Hi Shelley,
      Thanks for your comment! I boil the chicken leftovers for about an hour then carefully extract all the undesirable parts-gristle, skins, bones, unidentified icky things–before adding all the other ingredients.

  4. My husband got a reward that he earned at work, the kind that you picked out of a catalog. He had reached his 10 year mark with the company. He wanted to pick out fishing junk that he would use and then toss eventually or it would break more like it. I told him to pick out something that would last forever… to remind him of his company doing something nice for him. He actually listened to me(doesn’t happen often!) and picked out a lovely wood mantle clock. We have it hanging in our dining room and look at it everyday, and has been on the wall for 5 years now. A clock can last a really long time over 100’s of years if taken care of properly, I would consider it an investment, as they are likely to increase in value. I hope she got her clock as well.