As I try to simplify my life, spend less and focus more on sustainability, I am often reminded of the way my mom used to do things.

We’ve come full circle, in a number of ways. It seems like every new thing we do to save money or the planet was being done by my mom years ago. For my mother, that was a way of life.

For me, every thing I do is a new discovery and sometimes an effort. When I thought about my childhood, I wondered if the secret to living a frugal and green life might be in our ability to recreate the life our parents and grandparents lived.

These are what I remember from my childhood. If all of us lived the way our parents and grandparents did, we might recreate a simpler, more frugal and sustainable life.

1. Use cloth for everything. Paper was not an option.

My mother used cloth (or just water) for everything, including cleaning, diapers, and receiving blankets. Old towels and saris were soft and made perfect receiving blankets. Floors were cleaned with a wet cloth dipped in a bucket of water (with just a little disinfectant). No waste, paper or harmful chemicals to worry about.

And today, I am trying my best to use as little or no paper in my kitchen. It was not easy in the beginning, but now it seems rather effortless. I have about 30 little color-coded washcloths and napkins for various purposes, and stick them in the washer with my other clothes as they get used.

2. Reuse, reuse, reuse.

Growing up, we had very little trash at home since we almost always reused everything. We reused clothes, toys, books, plastic bags – pretty much everything we had. Even the fruit peels and older food was picked up by the milkman to feed his animals the next day.

And today, I do my best to reuse, give away, donate or recycle everything at home. Giving gently-used toys away to a child in the neighborhood helps me get rid of the stuff AND starts friendships.

farmer's market
Photo by Tony

3. Eat locally and seasonally.

We did not have a vegetable garden growing up, but the farmer’s wife brought the produce on her selling cart every second day. My mom bought almost all her vegetables directly from the farmer.

Today, we love to shop at the local farmer’s market. My girls LOVE to talk to the old farmer at our local farmer’s market and enjoy his stories about the farm. He sometimes even walks them back to the flower garden as he picks the sunflowers for his flower shop. Reflecting on my own childhood, the connections with the farmer and his stories are what my children will cherish for years.

4. Call the milkman.

While the farmer’s wife sold my mother the vegetables, the milkman directly delivered milk at our home every single day. He lived less than a mile away and delivered fresh milk to most people in my neighborhood.

Today, my husband and I are exploring local farms that deliver organic milk once a week.

5. Live actively—one family, one car.

Exercise was never a factor when we were young — people just had a more active lifestyle, took the bus often, and walked from place to place. Living in the United States, integrating physical activity into my day has been extremely hard, especially with a desk job.

I do try my best to take walks with my girls everyday, go hiking, walk to the store, and just integrate ourselves into an active lifestyle. I have a number of friends who do not own cars and use car-sharing services like Zipcar regularly. Besides taking away the pain of owning and maintaining a car, they claim the best part of it is meeting so many like-minded people all over the city.

6. Use stainless steel lunch boxes.

We did not have disposable boxes growing up — we used the same steel lunch boxes for years. Today, I am exploring steel lunch boxes to send to preschool with my little one. I love these.

sarah jane studios
Beautifully hand-drawn by Sarah Jane at Sarah Jane Studios

7. Use handmade.

Clothes, bags, gifts, greeting cards… Almost everything we ever used was handmade. And we never thought of it as being friendly to the earth — handmade was just more thoughtful and pretty.

And today, I love shopping on Etsy to support artists and handmade. My kids are old enough to make cards and gifts for people. Our favorite activity is to bake together for family and friends.

8. Bargain, haggle, or negotiate.

No matter what you call it, it is important to explore the best deal on everything. My mom taught me that and I am grateful.

9. No credit cards.

My parents had no concept of credit cards. Even as very small kids, we understood that if we do not already have the money for something, we simply cannot get it. I know that having no loans or overdue credit card payments has given me the courage to work on my start-up and forgo the big income from my previous corporate jobs.

10. Eat out less—eat simply at home.

We rarely ate out as a family — it was usually reserved for a celebration. Today, as a family, we reserve things such as eating out and eating ice-cream for special celebrations.

11. Take your own bag to the grocery store.

My mom had a cloth bag she carried with her everywhere. Few stores even had plastic bags or offered them, and when they did have them, we would have to pay for the bags. My mother never wanted to pay for anything she did not have to.

I carry my reusable target bags in two sizes along with me all the time. I have to say, it is a great feeling not to need bags when we go grocery shopping.

12. Focus on quality and simplicity.

Perhaps the most important thing I remember about the way my mom did things years ago was her focus on quality and simplicity. A lot of the things families did years ago had to do with leading a simple life, rather than on saving money or the planet.

With so much consumerism and being a target for marketing, it is hard to keep the focus on quality and simplicity. Perhaps traveling back in time might make it easier for us to lead lives with less stuff.

What lessons on simplicity can you share from the lives of your parents and grandparents?

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