Learning Frugality from Immigrants

DH = Dear Husband

As a Canadian, I probably have no business saying it, but I’m nervous about the prospect of President Trump. I’m anxious about the possible rise to prominence of an ethnocentric subculture in the U.S. – one that looks with suspicion upon anyone who isn’t white. Is that too simplistic? Maybe it is. Maybe it’s the media portrayal of Trump and his supporters that I’m exposed to.

I grew up in a very white-bread community, and as it diversified over time, it became richer – in the best sense. As I see it, there are many advantages to multiculturalism:

  • Food: Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Lebanese, and East African dishes are delicious!
  • Clothing: African wrap dresses; Indian saris; Japanese kimonos . . . They add welcome splashes of colour to our Western scene.
  • Languages: It’s fun to learn basic words and greetings in different languages. Here’s one for you: “Subax wanaagsan” (pronounced subah whanaxen) is Somali for “Good morning.”
  • Frugality: So many immigrants have to manage on very little. If you open your eyes, you can get a crash course on frugal living by taking in the way of newcomers. I have come to observe that if what I am doing is also done by immigrants, it’s a wise, frugal thing to do.

Here are two of the frugal habits we’ve adopted that line up with this way of seeing things:


DH and I used to grocery shop with hardly any care about price. But when the high-tech bust happened, and we were living on one income – mine – our grocery strategy changed. We started getting almost everything at a no-frills-type store – and at first I didn’t like it. It was drab. No care was put into the displays of food. Lighting was dingy. But since our primary motivation in shopping there had nothing to do with lighting or aesthetics, we went – and we saved so much money!

One thing I noticed almost as soon as I first set foot in the store was a distinct demographic mix that I hadn’t seen at other grocery venues in the neighbourhood – the ones that were artfully appointed and brighter. There was more diversity in the no-frills store than there was in the community outside its doors, and many of the customers were clearly fairly recent immigrants.

DH and I are no longer living in the financial stranglehold of his years of under-/unemployment, but we still grocery shop at that store (which has actually become more attractive over the years). In our journey out of debt, we know that the purchase of frugal food is one of the most effective means available to us to spend less – and to free up money to put against debt. We keep shopping where our community’s immigrants shop – because it’s a wise, frugal thing to do.

Public parks

Two Saturdays ago, the weather was perfect, and DH and I wanted to step out. In the old days, we might have taken a walk to a nearby ice cream place – or perhaps a restaurant – but on this day, DH suggested a bike ride. There is a big public park by the water just over 11 km (7 miles) away. We’d cycle to it and toss a frisbee for a while.

It was a gorgeous bike ride, and the park was beautiful – as you can see above. (That’s a tiny DH with the frisbee. Can you even see him?) Hundreds of people were enjoying the day – walking along the water, gathered at different picnic tables, or playing at the play-structure.

With DH’s home business being as demanding as it is, we can’t often take a day together at the cottage or house-in-the-country of friends or family members, but we can steal a few hours at the public park. And it costs absolutely nothing. Again, we always notice a greater diversity among the people in that park than in the community outside of it. And again, we’ll keep going to public parks – like the immigrants of our city – because it’s a wise and frugal thing to do.

My grandparents were immigrants

My dad’s parents were both immigrants. His father left the family farm in Ireland to sail across the ocean on his own at the age of 16. He sailed back again and fought as a soldier of The Great War a few years later, and when he returned as a war veteran, he had the option of accepting a tract of land in the prairies. He encountered some fear, resentment, and prejudice in his new country – and he brought some with him from his homeland. My grandfather was an Irish Protestant, and he had nothing good to say about Catholics. He and my grandmother, a woman from England, worked hard, made each penny stretch, lived a DIY lifestyle, and raised a family through the Great Depression in their adopted homeland. I didn’t know my grandfather well. I remember being vaguely fearful of him. He seemed short-tempered and distracted. In hindsight, we’re pretty sure he suffered from PTSD. He had lived through the horrors of years of battle and life in the trenches – about which he never spoke.

Fiercely independent, yet poor; admirable, yet imperfect; building a new life, yet scarred by his past . . . In many ways, my grandfather was the quintessential immigrant.

The next U.S. President? 

Whatever the outcome of the American election later this year, I hope that my neighbours to the south don’t build too many walls. “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” America has reaped a bountiful harvest from that offer and promise over the generations.

Not least among the benefits of the open “golden door” – in the U.S. and in Canada – have been the lessons that newcomers have always had to teach. As DH and I continue in our journey out of debt, we’ll keep taking cues from some of the most frugal people out there: immigrants.

Have you ever learned a frugal tip from immigrants? Do you know stories of frugality of the immigrants in your own family tree? Your comments are welcome.


20 comments on “Learning Frugality from Immigrants

  1. Great post Ruth. It has certainly been a interesting election season here in the United States. I appreciated your opinion on it. I often wonder about what other counties think about our politics. I think Trump’s V.P. selection will be extremely important. He really needs a strong selection.

    I’m not sure if I learned any frugal tip from immigrants, but I grew up in a diverse neighborhood and school district. I believe it was so key for me to know people from many different cultures and backgrounds at an early age. It has helped me keep an open mind as an adult.

    How’s your arm? That’s a long frisbee throw. 🙂

    1. My arm got pretty tired after a while! DH is better with the frisbee than I am, but I did my first successful catches with one finger under his coaching that day : )
      I don’t have a strong opinion about the U.S. election – other than a belief that it’s got to be the most interesting one in history. No one around here thought that Trump would get as far as he has.

  2. I’m not sold on Trump, but it seems to me that his concern is not immigrants, but illegal immigrants. My great-great-grandparents were immigrants too, but came here legally and filled out all of the appropriate paperwork, followed the rules and laws, etc. I think this is important. As far as their connection to frugality, I think the prosperity here in the U.S. and the acceptance of debt as a way of life has ruined the blessing that is frugality. Now that we have made a commitment to live without debt, I notice we have that same appreciation for life and its provisions that my great grandparents did. Frugality is important to us because we have learned to be good stewards of our money, remembering that it’s not solely for our use, but God has given it to us to help others as well. It’s been in that realization that we’ve learned to be appreciative of what we have and not care so much about bells and whistles, but remembering that basics like food and clean water are a precious blessing. Great post, Ruth!

    1. I understand a need to confront illegal immigration. I just hope that not all immigrants get painted with the same brush. I think you’re right about the debt lifestyle spoiling all that is wholesome about frugality. I believe there is a turning of the tide ahead though. I think growing numbers of people are backing away from debt and simplifying their lives – even getting back to basic skills like knitting and gardening. We might just tap into the “blessing that is frugality” that our grandparents and great-greats lived by.

  3. Well, if you’re white and in Canada or the USA and not an immigrant, than it just means that your ancestors were somewhere along the way, so while I agree about getting people out that are threats, I think that generalizations are completely ridiculous in this day in age.

    1. And it’s people who make those generalizations who get captured on videos that go viral on Youtube. Your viewpoint, on the other hand, is completely rational. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. During the 2000 election, I lived in Canada and remember my friends lamenting a Bush presidency too. I don’t think it would reflect well on America to elect Trump, but keep in mind that a President doesn’t have absolute power and there are a lot of checks and balance to keep things from getting too out of control. Having said that, I hope our next president is one that reflects the best side of ourselves, not this ugly shameful display that we have been seeing thus far.

    1. I think that electoral campaigns in every country have their ugly, shameful elements these days – especially with so many video devices capturing every move and every word. “I hope our next president is one that reflects the best side of ourselves.” Well said, Jolly Ledger! I hope so too.

  5. My grandfather and my grandmother’s parents all immigrated from the Netherlands (and were cheap/exploited farm labor before launching dairy and then flower businesses of their own). They struggled but were good at scrimping and saving, had a lot of entrepreneurial drive, and were extremely self reliant. The immigrant mindset seems to be “I’ll do what I have to do to survive, and then I’ll do what I have to do to succeed.” Immigrants also tend to see opportunities because they are viewing our society with new eyes and take fewer things for granted, which along with their work ethic is why so many of them are successful entrepreneurs.

    1. We could all benefit from taking fewer things for granted. There’s a lot of inspiration to be drawn from the immigrant experience – of others as well as from our own lineage. It sounds to me like you are very connected to your heritage, Emily. That’s a great thing for all generations of your family – especially your daughter.

    1. Got it, Kay. And no one can argue with the importance of safety and proper vetting. That is a growing need for all countries.

  6. I recently read the book “Self-Made” by Nely Galan. She is the child of Cuban immigrants & one of her favorite quotes in the book was “Think Like An Immigrant.” By this she means work hard & work even harder to advance. I believe there is some truth that non-immigrant Americans will not do low-pay entry-level jobs because we have seen enough other people live comfortable lives by going to college, etc.

    Immigrants come here because they might do the same job in their own country for pennies compared to what they make here. They don’t know anything else & are willing to bust tail to make a better life for themselves while the rest of us essentially try to maintain the status quo. That’s my theory at least.

    As far as Trump goes, I feel he’s mostly hitting on the vein of illegal immigrants & the how federal laws are not being enforced. Several news reports went out earlier in the primary cycle about how he only hired low-wage immigrant labor that legally acquired work visas that were cheaper than native laborers to employ to build his businesses in Florida. So I’d like to see him put his money where his mouth is.

    1. “Think like an immigrant.” I like that quote too. Self-Made sounds like an interesting book. I agree that Trump’s focus is upon illegal immigration, but unfortunately, there are some among his fans who are using that focus to berate legal immigrants and visible minorities in general. But he can’t be held accountable for the extreme views of some of his supporters. Interesting about Trump’s businesses in Florida. There are certainly many layers to the whole immigration issue. Thanks for your comment, Josh.

  7. My great great grandparents were immigrants and I had the pleasure of hearing their stories from my great grandmother, who utilized the frugality she learned from her parents on their farm. Their work was hard, and sometimes it was a struggle to put food on the table, but there is so much to learn from them. I’ve been accused of being just like my great grandmother – I love to DIY, make things myself, grow and preserve my own food. Thankfully I enjoy it and have the luxury of it actually being a choice and not a means of survival.

    1. “I’ve been accused of being just like my great grandmother.” I would take that as a great compliment, Amanda : ) You make a very good point in saying that you are able to pursue DIY options out of choice, not necessity. I think your great-grandmother would have loved to be in that position. And she’d be proud to see you making those choices even though you don’t have to.

  8. I loved the part that said “if what I am doing is also done by immigrants, it’s a wise, frugal thing to do.” I have to say that holds up in my community as well where we have a lot of migrant farm workers. In school I noticed their kids lived a bit differently than the white kids did and as I got older I saw that their ways were very smart. You want to follow the path of those who’ve made life and money work in a foreign land because you can bet they have some great techniques

    1. That must have been an interesting school environment for you. Elsie. You must feel a personal connection to all of the attention that’s being focused on immigration in this campaign. I’m glad that yours has been a positive experience, and that you’ve been wise enough to learn from the immigrants in your community. Thanks : )

  9. Great post! I agree with your take on American politics, as well as that we have a lot to be learned from immigrants. I’ve had most contact with international students. They aren’t necessarily here to stay, but they often live a simple, student lifestyle in college-quality, single-bedroom apartments, even though they may have children. Most come from relatively well-off families in their country but make do on small stipends while pursuing doctoral degrees here. I have learned a lot from their friendship as well as their example.

    1. University really does offer an opportunity to see all kinds of cultures and social classes coming together – at least for a while. I have no doubt that the people with whom you come into contact learn as much from you as you do from them : )

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