THE MOST FRUGAL person I’ve ever known was my Great Aunt Beatrice. To all the family, she was just Aunt Bea. Never married, she was the sister of my paternal grandfather, a man who passed away 14 years before I was born. She was a dignified lady, proper and pleasant, and not given to bursts of laughter. Still, I felt closer to her than to any of my living grandparents or other relatives from that generation.
When I was growing up, Aunt Bea lived in the same town as us. She would usually be present for our family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and would occasionally be present for other gatherings. Every Christmas, she’d give each of my three sisters and me money envelopes that contained exactly two crisp $1 bills. Although I liked getting the money, back then I couldn’t appreciate what a sacrifice those gifts must have been.
Aunt Bea was born in 1891. I remember that because I inherited the silver dollar bearing her birth year that she kept throughout her life. Although it’s not an especially valuable coin or in particularly good condition, it was probably her most valuable possession at the time she passed away.
While I have some old family photographs from when Aunt Bea was young, I don’t know much about her early life. I do know she lost her brother Willits in the great influenza pandemic of 1918. I wish now I’d paid more attention as a youngster when we all got together and she held forth about family history. Being a typical kid, I was bored by stories about people I’d never met.
Aunt Bea’s last job was as a milliner. She sold ladies’ hats during a time when women increasingly went hatless. Her income steadily dropped, while the rent on her shop increased. She stuck at it too long, my mother once told me, and the landlord wanted her out of the space she rented.
Aunt Bea was always hoping fancy hats would come back in style. They never did. Eventually, she was forced to close her little business.
While I was never privy to the details of Aunt Bea’s finances, by the time I knew her, I’m pretty certain she didn’t live on much more than whatever she got from Social Security. I also don’t know whether my father discreetly helped her out financially from time to time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
Aunt Bea rented what would charitably be called a studio apartment, in an older house on the outskirts of town. It was a single large room with the tiniest kitchen area I’ve ever seen.
Aunt Bea didn’t have a car. Her apartment was within walking distance of the local ACME grocery store. Did she have a television? I don’t remember one. I’m guessing she might have had a radio, but I can’t be certain. I really don’t know how she passed her days.
The reason I remember Aunt Bea’s apartment is that one time my parents dropped me off there when they needed an emergency babysitter. With three older sisters, the need for outside babysitting rarely presented itself.
I remember being bored at Aunt Bea’s place. No TV, no games, not much to do. Aunt Bea was a kindly lady, though, and wanted to take good care of me. She boiled some water, and we sat down for a proper tea.
Now, I wasn’t much of a tea drinker, but I had indulged in it before. I saw that for the two cups of tea that she made, she only used one tea bag. When I complained that I should have my own bag, she exclaimed, “Why, I can get four cups of tea out of one bag.”
When asked about my visit with Aunt Bea, I told my parents the tea bag story. My mother burst out laughing—probably mostly due to my imitation of Aunt Bea’s voice. She also explained that Aunt Bea didn’t have much money and had learned to be frugal.
As Aunt Bea aged, her financial situation worsened. Even the rent on her small apartment was a strain. Then, one day, I heard that Aunt Bea—now well into her 80s—was accepted into a church-related retirement home a few towns over. She would assign her small Social Security check to the home, and they would take care of her.
For Aunt Bea, this was like winning the lottery. She had her own room in the large, ancient facility. Her meals were taken care of, and she no longer had to worry about finances. In addition, after living alone for so many years, she was now part of a community. For her, these truly were the golden years. She was so happy to be there.
Aunt Bea continued to appreciate the small things in life. During my high school years, at Christmastime, I would make her a batch of chocolate chip cookies and send it to her at the home, usually with a handwritten letter. Whenever I visited her with my parents, she would rave about the cookies. She would allow herself only one a day to make them last as long as possible.
My letters were a source of amusement for her. The envelopes addressed to “Aunt Bea Cutler” were particularly popular. She loved talking about the letters, even to staff and other residents. I don’t think she received a lot of mail at the retirement home.
Aunt Bea passed away in 1986 at age 95. She had no funeral, and my parents were the only ones present for her burial. She had little to pass on except a box of family pictures and her silver dollar, both of which are now in my possession. Aunt Bea never had much in the way of wealth or possessions. But in the end, she had everything she needed.
Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.