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When Being Frugal Embarrassed Me

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The following is a contribution from Brian at Luke 1428. If you’re interested in contributing to Frugal Rules, please see our guidelines and contact us.

 

My parents were masters at frugality. They inherited this mindset from their parents but circumstances also dictated their lifestyle. Raising two children on social worker and private school teacher salaries left little room for extravagancies. Every penny was important to save, every monthly budget vital to follow.

Two of their favorite pastimes were auctions and garage sales. To their fortune, the geographic location of my upbringing in southwest Ohio provided them weekly opportunities to engage in both. Most notably, the auctions drew supreme interest from my father.

Raised by Frugal Parents, I Often Found Myself at Auctions

Every Monday after dinner, he would conduct a hard target search for the weekly newspaper that had arrived earlier that afternoon. The classified section housed the auction listings for the week. He would keenly scan them, noting items that peaked his interest.

So it came as no surprise when he piled us into the car early one Saturday and we headed out of town to a giant estate auction. Little did I realize as we parked in the farm’s pasture how the events of that morning would become part of family lore. Nor did I foresee my role in one embarrassing frugal moment.

To appreciate my typical auction experience, you have to understand my father. He was very generous with his money and time but he loved to pick up items on the cheap. Rarely did my family shop at high-end stores or purchase items at full price. Instead we shopped the sales. Places like auctions, used car lots and Value City Department Store ruled the day.

He had honed another skill that made auctions attractive for him – the restoration and refinishing of wood furniture. He learned it from his father who spent hours creating masterpieces in his workshop.

So when we hit an auction site, my father wouldn’t go for the flashy antiques. He would pass by and look but never with any serious intent on purchasing them. He knew they would be overpriced as people feverishly outbid one another. Instead he would head out to the barns. In his mind, that’s where the real treasures could be found.

At a typical farm estate auction, people keep junk in the barns. Things they plan to sell but don’t want to bother moving out into the open. They know these items won’t bring much so it’s not worth the hassle to display them neatly. When it comes time to sell them, interested parties simply pile into the barn with the auctioneer and bid on the item wherever it sets.

My Father’s Favorite Frugal Find

This Saturday however, the auctioneer’s crew was carrying items from inside the barn out into the open. A good size crowd had begun to gather at the barn door’s opening. This was not good news for my dad because more people meant more bidders and a potentially higher price tag.

That day he had his eyes on a special “piece of junk.” My jaw dropped as they hauled it out of the barn…the most hideous cabinet I had ever seen. My eyes were fixated on its grotesqueness.

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The base of the cabinet and a portion of one side were completely rotted, making it impossible for the cabinet to sit upright. They had to turn it upside down so it could rest on its top. The doors were falling off. The unit was so rickety they held it together with bailing twine.

I could see the wood was tarnished and stained. Years of exposure in the drafty barn had allowed mold and mildew to grow on the surface. To top it off, there was a mouse nest in one corner, with droppings scattered around.

Where Some See Junk, Others See Opportunity

My mother and I saw junk. My father saw opportunity. He possessed the ability to see beyond the imperfections. With his skills at refinishing and restoration, he had a vision of what this cabinet could become.

Positioning himself at the front of the gallery, he patiently waited, bidding number in hand. My mother, too embarrassed to be seen with him, went to hide at the back of the crowd and watch the proceedings from a distance. I stayed up front with my dad.

My young mind viewed the auction bidding process as a competition – a high stakes game of chicken where the weak stomached would flinch first. I loved it when my dad won. So as the bidding started, I was on pins and needles hoping for a victory, despite the ugliness of the prize.

I don’t remember the bidding for this item going on very long. Big surprise, I know. As my dad held the final bid when the auctioneer began the countdown, my anticipation of the win began to bubble.

“Going once. Going twice. Sold for $9.”

I went completely nuts. I ran to the back of the crowd to find my mom, all the while pointing at dad and shouting wildly, “He won! He won! He won!” She tried to shush me but I had completely blown her cover. With the nearby patrons chuckling, she realized her attempt to distance herself from this hideous item had been foiled. My last recollection of that moment was her shaking her head, turning, and walking away being totally embarrassed (I’ve never figured out if that gesture was directed at my father’s purchase or my antics.)

Someone’s Trash Became My Father’s Treasure

Several hours later the cabinet was laid out all over my father’s basement workshop. What transpired over the course of the next six weeks was a metamorphosis of epic proportions. My father transformed a $9 piece of junk into a beautiful cabinet that served as a storage compartment and microwave stand in our kitchen for the next several decades.

Years later, my father would refinish the piece again and combine it with a glass cabinet top – another auction find that required his refinishing touch. The unit now sits in our dining room, still providing value to my family. That’s a nice return on a $9 investment.

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And well worth the embarrassment we…uh…my mother…went through the day of the initial purchase.

 

Have you ever been slightly embarrassed over a frugal purchase? What’s the best deal you have ever found at an auction or garage sale? How did your parents’ spending habits shape who you are today?

 

 

Author Bio: Brian Fourman is a private school teacher, personal finance blogger, side-hustling real estate investor and 2-time marathon finisher. In his down time, he loves being a dad to his 4 kids and husband to his just licensed CPA wife. You can check him out providing encouragement and inspiration on his blog at Luke1428.com or connect with him on Facebook  and Twitter.

 

 

Photo courtesy of: Tax Credits and Brian Fourman

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I'm the founder of Frugal Rules, a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. I'm passionate about helping people learn from my mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. I'm also a freelance writer, and regularly contribute to U.S. News & World Report, Personal Capital, Daily Finance and more. If you're wanting to learn how to monetize your blog, check out my blog coaching services to see how I can help you take your site to the next level.

64 Comments

  • What a great story. I’m impressed with your dad’s vision- I don’t think very many people would have seen the diamond in the rough there! Frugality definitely requires a certain amount of creativity and it sounds like your dad certainly has that. Thanks for sharing.

    • It takes a pretty unique ability to see beyond the ugliness. It’s similar to buying a rundown house and being able to visualize what it could become once you start working on it. Many people miss out on great bargains because they don’t want to deal with the mess.

  • FI Pilgrim says:

    Great story Brian, and I can imagine myself doing the same thing, jumping around and yelling. I’ve got some embarrassing moments like that, but I don’t remember any of them being about frugal shopping. Thanks for posting!

  • Wow that’s incredible he was even able to salvage it, let alone make it into a beautiful piece! It’s always impressive when some people are able to see the potential in just about anything. Good for your Dad for following through! I would have been very embarrassed as well, though, haha.

  • Liz says:

    It’s great that you have a piece of furniture with such a great story behind it. Great read!

  • Thanks Liz! This story is 30+ years old and it still makes us laugh when we talk about it.

  • Karen says:

    Having that beautiful piece in your home outweighed your brief moment of embarrassment, I’m sure. :) it can be something that can be passed down to future generations along with a great story.

  • I was also raised by frugal parents and now I’m trying to teach my daughter how to be frugal. To live a simple and humble but sometimes being frugal is not good at all, my father was a chief mate before but he was very contented with his 3310 cell phone. :)

  • Matt Becker says:

    Haha, I can feel your mom’s pain now but it sure sounds like it was worth it. It’s awesome you dad has such a valuable skill. I can’t think of anything exactly like this but we definitely turn down certain activities with friends because of the cost and it confuses them. I wouldn’t say anyone is embarrassed, but there’s definitely a lack of understanding at times.

  • Great story, I’m sure it will be passed down to future generations. Your father is a very skilled craftsman…that is a lovely cabinet. My father was also very frugal and I’m sure there were many times I was embarrassed, but nothing sticks out. I know that I was embarrassed wearing mismatched hand-me-down clothes, not having cable and not being able to discuss whatever was on TV with my friends, etc. Nowadays, I’m frugal like my dad…well maybe not that frugal but frugal compared to those in my generation!

    • The clothing thing is a big one, especially for teens. There is so much pressure to wear the latest styles. That puts a lot of pressure on parents to manage their wallets and their child’s emotions over the fitting in with friends issue.

  • Wow he did a great job with that! Your dad sounds a lot like my grandpa. I wish I was that handy refurbishing old stuff. Lots of valuable lessons there!

  • Wow, what a transformation! I’d love to be able to learn the skills needed to refinish furniture like he did!

  • I wonder how many “treasures” in the barn could net a fortune on the antique road show?

    Did your Father have a limit on how much he would invest in fixing up a piece (other than investing his time)? It sounds like he had a wonderfully fruitful hobby. This story reminds me of my Mom who loves to figure out how to fix things herself. Rarely did we ever have a repairman come to the house.

    • I’m sure he did. Once you have the tools, most of the costs come from buying supplies like sandpaper, stain, paint stripper, etc. to do the work. I think this piece was one of the few where he probably had to buy a bit more material to repair the damaged lumber.

  • My mother never ceases to embarrass me but it’s never her purchases that do so 😉

  • My Grandma was also a barn auction shopper. Her big thing was old beds and headboards. She didn’t finish them herself, but had always seemed to know a friend of a friend who could work magic for a minimal fee. My Mom still has a few of her refinished finds in her house. It really makes you look at how shoddy new furniture is today.

    • I was continually amazed at what useful stuff my dad would find in the barns. I often slept in one of those old beds with the metal/iron headboards at my grandmother’s house. I always thought they were kinda cool but a little squeaky.

  • E.M. says:

    I wonder if my dad would ever consider doing this. He is currently working on a few projects for things around the house – already built a bookshelf, refinished their old coffee table, and made some fixtures for the bathroom. It seems like it would be fun! My parents’ spending habits were bad, so they influenced me in a good way since I learned what not to do. They struggled with debt the entire time I was growing up, and I was very aware of how much things cost us and if they were truly worth it.

  • My extended family was on one of those “picker” shows, and imagine what was taken from their barn – they had lots of interesting collectable pieces, but the guys running the show chose the barn wood (my family used to have a saw mill so there was nothing odd about having loads of great lumber sitting around).

  • That just goes to show that no everyone can have the vision for certain things. You dad had it and everyone else didn’t. He knew what he could do with the cabinet, while others saw it as complete junk. I don’t have any embarrassing stories to tell though.

    • Right Grayson…if I remember he was only bidding against one or two other people for the piece. They probably would have torn it apart just for the few good pieces of lumber left in it. We’ve received decades of value from it at this point.

  • You’re Dad is very talented, Brian!! Like you, I’m pretty sure I would have just seen junk. But unlike you, I probably would have been embarrassed like your Mom was! Your Dad sure proved us wrong. :) What a great piece to inherit and pass on.

  • What an amazing transformation. To think that a cabinet like that may have just been trashed if not for your father. Makes you think about all the old furniture we throw away each year!

    • Much of the old wood furniture was constructed very well and has just fallen apart with the passage of time. I haven’t seen many things that my dad couldn’t do something with. The cost of repair is less than purchasing new – especially if you DIY.

  • My mom is a piano teacher and taught many friends and other kids from school when I was growing up. Her old piano was from an auction I believe. It didn’t have a bench, so she used what just looked like a square wooden bench. When new students would start she would ask them if they knew what they were sitting on and then she’d show them that the seat lifted and it was actually and ANTIQUE TOILET (inevitably bought at an auction or estate sale)! I was mortified every time!

    Wow, I haven’t thought about that in a long time! Thanks for the walk down memory lane :)

  • Micro says:

    Wow, looking at that original picture, I didn’t think there was much to actually salvage from the original piece. Your dad definitely has some crazy woodworking skills. I hope that I can be half that good when I finally get myself a wood shop.

  • Christine Weadick says:

    You want embarrassing???? When hubby and I were first married we went to an auction and he started bidding on a bedpan….yup a bedpan like they use in a hospital when you can’t get out of bed to go in…. Even worse, he got in a bidding war with some other guy that wanted it for his ‘weird’ room!!!!! I could have strangled him right then and there!!!!! The two of them were laughing!!! They thought it was funny!!!

  • I love the bit about your mom being so embarrassed that she stood apart from your dad, pretending she didn’t know him! Your dad is light years ahead of me in the frugality department. My husband and I are getting out of debt, and my great strides consist of things like looking at the sales racks – a move in the right direction, but pretty basic stuff. To turn a piece of junk into a masterpiece is of a different order altogether. Inspiring story : )

    • At least you are aware of the debt issue and taking steps to correct it. That’s more than what many others realize. Every little, small step is important when you are trying to get out of debt.

  • Cat says:

    Brian is probably sick of me saying this, but I really never get tired of reading his posts because the writing is so, so good. I love this story completely and it sounds like your Dad and I would definitely get along! :)

  • Nice story. The transformation is so good no one can believe it was the same $9 piece of furniture. Lol…You blew your mom’s cover. I guess that was even more embarrassing for her.Where I am from, they used to do auctions to raise money in church and people would bring farm items like bananas, chicken, sugar cane and people would bid on them and trust me I made my dad bid so that I can chew some sugar cane.

  • I tried some sugar cane on a trip once in Jamaica. Very sweet…think I’ll stick to chewing gum though. :)

  • I like the part about “We won!” I would have been laughing, too. I am good at repairing things, but I doubt I would have the patience to repair and refinish an old rotted antique like that one. Kudos to your dad.

  • Am still hung at the “Before” & “After” pics…if the cabinet looked anything like the first pic…the transformation to the finished product is remarkable, certainly testament to your dad’s skill :)
    I remember this one time my mum bought this extra large jacket for me when I was younger…her argument was I’d outgrow it pretty soon. I hated the thing, it looked like an overcoat/dress on me. True to her word though within the year it fit perfectly and was back to beaming with pride. I wore it for another four years and handed it down to my younger brother. She saw quality & value where I saw incovenience. Its a lesson am still trying to internalize :)

    • I can relate to the over-sized clothing Simon. Had that one happen to me as well. It’s great to have parents who teach us these lesson while we are young. Of course, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have when I was younger. Not until I had my own kids did the full value of those lessons become real to me.

  • This made me laugh because it’s SO something my dad would have done. He was always big into auctions, and he loved pieces like that. There were many a time when this would happen and I would be so embarrassed but he’d prove me wrong!

  • Jon Maroni says:

    This is a wonderful story, and I wish I could relate but I’ve never ever been to a estate auction but I’ve been dragged into countless thrift stores with my mom. She is both a bargain hunter and treasure hunter. She used to take us with her to buy clothes for herself. She bought her clothes there so that we could have brand new clothes. I was so embarrassed by her frugality at the time but now as an adult I realize the tremendous sacrifice she was making for us. Now I love shopping at thrift stores and am super proud of what my mom did for us.

    • I can relate to that a bit Jon. We bought so many clothes at thrift stores. I was never embarrassed by what we purchased but at times was jealous of all the other kids who were buying new clothing at high end department stores. You will have to find occasion to take on an estate auction at some point just for the experience. If you ever travel through central Ohio on the weekend in the middle of the summer, you won’t have any trouble finding an auction. Seemed like there were always two or three a weekend around where I grew up.

  • moneycone says:

    What an inspiring story! I have a friend who does something similar – he is always on the lookout for beaten down cars. He buys them dirt cheap, fixes them and sells them for a nice profit! (And he doesn’t even do it for the money.. says he enjoys working on cars!)

  • Great post.. I love hearing childhood stories like this.

    My wife likes doing this now.. Browsing Craigslist to find a great bargain to work her magic on.
    I have no eye for it, and no skills at getting the work done, but I try to be encouraging 😉

  • Brian truly inspirational story.This reminds me of the time I really wanted to start working out at home. It was winter and going to the gym is a little hard to accomplish especially because of the rain. Anyways me and a couple of friends were driving around when suddenly I found a garage sale that was selling a pair of dumbbells, the metal ones, they were rusty and in poor conditions, but I saw them repairable. I stopped at the house and offer to pay $5 dollars for them (They usually cost $60). My friends were laughing because of how cheap I was. Couple of months later they showed up at my house and saw me working out. They were amazed at the quality of the dumbbells after I treated them. They were shining just like new. Now they are asking to buy them from me.

  • I recently got in to restoring furniture. I have LOVED the excitement of auctions and estate sales. But I was extremely excited when my college’s scene shop opened up their doors and were giving away free furniture props! Best day ever!

  • No embarrassing stories but I do like to go to auctions. I am always amazed at the stuff that people are willing to bid on. But as your story points out, those with the right skill sets and “in the know” vision can make it worthwhile.

  • Debby says:

    When I was little, my parents did their grocery shopping at Aldi – now coming up in the States. You could tell the who’s parents did the same: we were the kids who had the cookies that read “Ole” instead of the much fancier (and more expensive) “Leo”. That bugged me much, back then – and even though both my parents worked, we went on holidays and we lived in a nice house, I often feared we were poor.
    I can see now that we probably could afford all other things, just because my parents were frugal, but back then, it sometimes scared the heck out of me.

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