Why Were Our Grandparents So Good at Saving Money?

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After my granny’s death, my mum and her sister took it upon themselves to clear out her closet. To their biggest bewilderment, they found unopened packs of tights and a few never worn long johns that belonged to my grandfather, who passed away long before my granny did. Both items were from the ’80s; my granny never threw out anything. 

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

When I think about her, I think about the lovely chocolaty sweets she gave me every Sunday morning after church service. Sweets in the 80’s Poland were a luxury, but somehow, she always managed to have enough saved up. I can still taste their sweetness in my mouth. None of the sweets I’ve eaten since have tasted so divine. 

When my mum was growing up, only my grandfather worked. Granny was busy looking after their four kids. When I was born, she looked also after me, and after my cousins were born, she looked after them as well, which allowed my aunty to go back to work.   

Money was always tight for my grandparents and never in excess. But still, they were able to pay all the bills on time, buy food, have a bit leftover for emergencies, or pay for coal to heat the flat in the winter. My grandparents came from the war generation, and from an early age, they knew what was essential and what wasn’t and never spent any extra money on the non-essentials. 

Every summer, my granny made lots of preserves that had to last until the spring. I don’t remember her ever buying pickles in a jar when I was a kid. Whatever food was possible to turn into preserves, she did that. She was an excellent cook and very skilled at preserving food.

Take-away food or restaurants weren’t a thing in the 80’s Poland (maybe in Warsaw and only amongst particular classes. The communists wanted to erode the class system, but that was impossible, even though the class system didn’t exist in the feudal sense. New classes and divisions popped up, comprised of:

  • intelligence (university-educated individuals became prominent in Poland between the two great wars. The Nazis and the Soviets tried really, really hard to destroy them. Still, it’s impossible to build any society without people with education.),
  • the working class, of course
  • the artists/creative class, and
  • the party members (that was a class in its own right). 

The bakeries were prominent and present on every street corner from what I can remember. But we rarely bought cakes or pies, and the bakeries usually sold one type of bread. (there was a division between the bakeries that strictly sold bread and rolls, and cake shops that only sold cakes and pies). Granny baked cakes once a week, usually every Friday, to have something sweet to eat at the weekend.  

During the wintertime, I ate a lot of warm ice-creams (that’s what they were called), because the real version wasn’t available. I have no idea if any other Soviet-influenced states (countries in Eastern/Central Europe) had warm ice cream as treats for kids. But I can assure you that my generation thought those were the most delicious treats in the history of treats. This is how easily pleased we were.  

If my grandparents’ allotment didn’t produce enough veggies and fruits, my grandpa bought them from the farmers’ market, where real farmers sold their food in bulk. If, for instance, my granny was making sauerkraut, we would buy two bags full of cabbages and drag them home on a tram number 11. We would go back and forth until she had enough. Grandpa and I repeated the same shopping routine for scouting cucumbers, beetroots, and various fruits. 

The jars for picked fruits and veggies were always kept for the following year. Nothing was ever wasted in grannie’s household. My grandfather was also a big fan of linden flowers. In season our local parks had an abundance to choose from. He dried the flowers out on the tiled stove, making it ready for the winter blues. 

My grandparents bought their first set of furniture when they got together, and they never changed those. Their beds are still in my mum’s house, as well as the wardrobe, both made from solid wood. 

Indeed, they never went on holiday, and my granny never saw a seaside in her life, neither they owned a car, never went to a coffee shop or a restaurant on their own (I’m pretty sure we took granny out a few times.). They could never afford holidays or a car; coffee shops and restaurants were reserved only for a selected few. But they always perceived all those things as not essential. 

Once I took my granny to Ikea to buy bits for the short film I was making. She was honestly surprised that I was willing to spend all my money on such trivial things. She wasn’t at all charmed by Ikea’s prices or choices. 

My grandparent’s mindset didn’t accommodate an expensive lifestyle. They wanted to provide for their family all the basics, which they did all their lives. Whatever my grandparents bought was driven by necessity and need rather than want and desire. They lived modestly in their large but minimalistic flat, which was perfect to help my imagination thrive.

During the ’80s in Poland, we only had two TV channels, and no cable TV to pay for. Of course, nowadays, we have so many options and channels to pay for that it’s easy to lose track of what we are paying for if we aren’t careful. (This alone can drain lots of money and quickly).

I remember granny always fixing everyone’s clothes. Mending was what her generation did, and it wasn’t even perceived as some extraordinary shift towards a circular economy. It was just part of life, and everyone did it. How many of us can fix clothes or pride ourselves that we can do that?

For my grandparents catering to their basic needs was what life was about. Even after the collapse of communism, my granny wasn’t that keen on buying all the new gadgets democracy introduced us to.  

An eco-minimalistic lifestyle driven primarily by necessity was what pushed my grandparents into saving whatever they could. In their case, the mindset pointing towards minimalism and long-term sustainability of resources they already had was the key to be able to survive.  

PS. My grandfather won some money playing lottery a few times in his life. Smoking and lottery was his thing. But that money was never enough to invest; I’m not even sure he would have known how to do it or buy a property with. 

PS2. My granny got financial compensation from the German government for her years spent in the concentration camp, and then work camp. Still, that wasn’t heaps of money, but she indeed didn’t spend it frivolously left and right. 

Conclusion

Rather than spending on whatever you think you should, budget and make sure you know clearly where your money goes. Budgeting and tracking your spending are essential. While trimming down your spending, you might be surprised how much money goes out of your account to pay for totally unnecessary staff. 

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