by Patience Domowski, LCSW
I grew up poor. Not like dirt poor but certainly we didn’t live the way most people might assume we should with two parents with Masters Degrees and professional careers. My dad worked as a maintenance man, despite having a master’s degree in elementary education. With his background in education, he homeschooled us and my mom stayed home with us when we were babies, later working part time as a nurse.
There were 6 of us kids and in order to survive financially we had to be pretty scrupulous with money. We did care about recycling and the earth, but mostly we were eco-friendly due to finances. My dad’s old clothes became washrags. and if it was too threadbare for use as a floor rag, it was finally tossed. We also used cloth diapers— the old kind that were just a white rectangle and fastened with safety pins. Other recyclables were re-used such as cans and jars to store food, newspapers as table coverings for craft projects, unneeded paper with writing only on one side was used as scrap paper for kids to draw on, egg cartons became great places to store ‘collections’ like shells and rocks. My sister and I turned some clothing gift boxes and shoe boxes into little houses for our small dolls.
We never bought new clothes and rarely shoes. Everything was donated to us by friends, cousins, neighbors, etc. We loved diving into a new bag or box of clothes and finding what fit us and what clothes we liked. We also passed down clothes to each other. My sister, who is closest in age to me, and I often shared our clothes. Our brothers shared clothes too and certainly passed them to each other when they outgrew them. We were always getting ‘new’ hand me downs from people and because we didn’t attend school, we didn’t know or care about the latest fashions. This was our ‘norm’ so it wasn’t weird or embarrassing to wear each other’s former clothes. We thought it was cute to see someone else wear our clothes and mom even has pictures of us in the same outfit at the same age.
We also rarely bought new paper products. For example it was a luxury to use a paper towel. We were supposed to use the cloth rags to clean up spills, etc. Unless we were washing windows: for some reason that was the only exception to being able to use paper towels. This was such a treat and we all liked washing windows… go figure.
We enjoyed drawing and decorating our own construction paper holiday and birthday cards for each other and we often hand-made things for our siblings and parents. Once we made our own construction paper jewelry and paper picture frames and sold them yard-sale style (like a lemonade stand) on the street to raise money to buy gifts from a store. I’m sure no one actually wore our large yellow construction paper and yarn earrings that looped over the tops of your ears, but we sold a few to neighbors who probably felt sorry for us.
Rarely was anything purchased new and when it was it was thoroughly researched using consumer reports magazine and discussed before buying. Most of our toys we got as gifts from other people or as hand me down toys. My sister and I made our own paper dolls from cutting dolls/people out of magazines and gluing them to cardboard, or we drew and designed our own dolls and clothing on paper. We made clothes for our small dolls and baby dolls out of pieces of leftover cloth a lady at church used to give us (she worked in a cloth factory or as a seamstress). We were very creative.
Growing up this way didn’t seem unusual; it was just the way our family was. It was our normal. We found new ways to use old things, and repurpose things we had. We learned to be thrifty, economical, ‘green’, and super creative.
Do we all keep these standards now as adults? Sadly, no. I like to buy new clothes and things, and don’t really cook much so I have a lot of packaged food items. I do re-use many things for crafts and give cardboard boxes and toilet paper tubes to my pets to play with. I am pretty diligent about recycling and feel guilty if I ever have to throw away a bottle or box (such as at work where they don’t have recycling), and I made my ex-boyfriend start recycling at his home. I teach kids to re-use scrap paper and make crafts out of old cardboard items. I feel a sense of satisfaction throwing out/recycling things as it feels like I accomplished something by being done with it and getting rid of the packaging. I hope when I have kids I can teach them to be more green and thrifty however and maybe I’ll only let them use paper towels for washing windows too!