My husband grew up thinking he was poor – and if you’d merely taken stock of his family’s possessions, you likely would have agreed with him. He and his three siblings lived with their parents in a double-wide trailer for more than 25 years. Each child had to work his or her way through college (with the exception of my husband, who earned an athletic scholarship). They drove old, beat-up vehicles that often hit 250,000 miles on the odometer before reaching retirement.

My husband thought his family belonged to the lower class – and if you’d merely considered his parents’ occupations, you likely would have agreed with him. His father was the postmaster in a town so tiny, it was absent from just about every Texas station map. His mother, who never attended college, worked as an informal bookkeeper at the local lumber yard, which just happened to be adjacent to that double-wide trailer.

Yes, my husband never believed his family would live anything but a modest life.

Turns out, my husband thought wrong.

The Secret to Saving Money

By the time I met them, my future in-laws had already married off their two oldest children. Their youngest two – including my future hubby – still lived at home at least part-time, although my husband was only under their roof temporarily while transferring from one university’s football program to another. Yet, despite weddings and college expenses, my in-laws had already perfected the art of saving money.

Come a little closer, and I’ll fill you on on their money saving secret:

They didn’t let anybody know they had money in the first place.

It sounds strange to say, but that’s really the secret to their frugality. Where others flaunted what they had – or made a big deal of what they didn’t – my in-laws lived a quiet, unassuming life in a quiet, unassuming place. It was obvious to anyone to who took the time to look that they lived modestly. However, many assumed they were living up to their means, while in reality, they were living far below them. They managed to fool just about everybody, even their children. My husband was so convinced of his family’s apparently limited financial capacity that he rarely asked for new clothes or toys; his siblings, for the most part, followed these same rules of frugality instilled in them by their parents. They wanted not and asked not. My mother-in-law, the bookkeeper, instituted a strict monthly budget for the family, while the kids learned to wisely budget any birthday or Christmas money they received to pay for a new pair of Nikes or the hottest video game.

While Nobody Was Looking…

With everybody from the neighbors to their children thinking they were more or less poor, my in-laws scrimped and saved every penny they could. That isn’t to say they deprived their children of the necessities, or even of certain luxuries; the children were always enrolled in sports and other activities (usually thrifty ones that didn’t require a lot of up-front costs) and the family always took a summer camping trip (again, a measure of their frugality).

But at the same time, they limited their extravagances and minimized unnecessary expenses. Christmases and birthdays were modest, with a homemade treat by mom instead of a store-bought birthday cake. Everything from cars to clothes came second hand. The kids didn’t mind, because they had each other, and – they thought – money didn’t grow on trees.

And they were right, I suppose – money didn’t grow on trees… rather, it flowed from the ground… from oil wells in the ground.

Because, yes, while my father-in-law toiled in a low-paying government position and my mother-in-law managed the books at a local business, they were earning a passive income through several oil wells on some property they mutually owned along with several other relatives. This oil money always went directly into the bank, along with the majority of my mother-in-law’s modest paycheck. They rarely spent a dime of it, and when they did, it was only for emergencies (like when my youngest brother-in-law managed to crash his car not once but twice in the span of six weeks the year after he learned to drive).

Their Frugality Paid Off

In 2009, my in-laws made an announcement that shocked us all: they were moving back to the old family farmhouse. This farmhouse, in which my father-in-law had been born and raised, had been vacant since my husband’s grandmother had died more than a decade earlier. At first, we worried that my in-laws’ financial situation had gone from bad to worse – now they had to live in a ratty old farmhouse?

But we’d underestimated them.

They’d been working with a contractor to completely rehab the property. They were going to gut the entire inside of the old farmhouse and give it a modern, open layout. They were going to bring in country touches with an oversized country sink in the kitchen and a clawfoot tub in the newly refurbished master suite. They were going to add an expansive wrap around porch to the structure, giving them 360-degree views of the 82-acre property. They were going to run HVAC, electricity, and plumbing up to the musty attic and turn it into a “camp-style” room for all the grandchildren.

And they were going to pay cash for it all.

My in-laws had been saving money for so many years, thanks to that monthly budget, that they were able to shell out what by some estimates was more than $100,000 in cash to turn that piece of falling down family history into the home of their dreams. They proved that having a budget – and sticking to it – can make any goal a reality. They showed that by living below their means, and by investing their passive income wisely, that they could ultimately live like royalty.

Libby Balke

Libby Balke