- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2000

I love to shop. I come by the trait honestly. My Nana Ellie was a passionate shopper and kept the family adorned in clearance-sale boutique fashions. My father inherited the shopping gene, but he sniffed out his bargains at discount stores.
I have the gene but not the disposable cash. I get my thrillshunting for bargains at the grocery store.
My grandmother lived at a time when few women worked outside the home. She turned her shopping hobby into a 9-to-5 career (with Wednesdays off for bridge, of course). She would fix my grandfather breakfast, kiss him goodbye, straighten the house and then carefully dress herself for her retail safaris.
She would stalk Fifth Avenue stores in Manhattan, ready to bag a bargain and haul it back to her Long Island home. There she would proudly display it to her bridge buddies, who would croon in admiration not at the item itself, but at the amount of the discount. Anyone who commented on any component of her wardrobe was destined to hear a re-enactment of the entire shopping expedition from the item's discovery in a picked-over clearance bin to the final-sale checkout.
Not all her bargains came with happy endings. One day when my mother was visiting, my grandmother proudly showed off a pair of white kid gloves. This was in the days when gloves were an important fashion accessory. My mother was congratulating her on the 50-cent find as my grandmother proudly pulled on the gloves for a mini fashion show. The fashion show came to an abrupt halt, however, when every seam suddenly disintegrated, leaving my grandmother with a dozen tiny pieces of white leather in each hand.
My father picked up bargains all over the world, but his favorite shopping venue was much closer to home. When I was young, he delighted in the relatively new concept of discount stores. He was in heaven there and roamed from department to department, buying items based not on what he needed, but on how much he could save. To my mother's nearly constant dismay, he would proudly bring home surprises, such as four cases of apple chutney. His explanation was that no one could resist such an obvious deal the chutney was only 10 cents a jar.
My parents' home was so filled with unneeded gadgets and triplicate appliances that every trip home felt like a visit to "Let's Make a Deal." One Thanksgiving, I casually mentioned I was thinking of getting a popcorn popper. The next moment, I found a still-boxed one in my hands. On another occasion, I bemoaned the loss of the diamond from my engagement ring, which had fallen out while I had been swimming laps in the pool. My father jumped up from the table and returned with a diamond ring.
When I tried to deflect his unexpected generosity, he dismissed my protests with a wave of his hand, insisting that the ring which he had found during a business trip to Singapore "was a really great deal."
Barring a successful visit with Regis Philbin on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," I doubt if I will be able to be so generous with my children.
I'm hoping, though, that they will pick up some thrifty habits as I content myself with buying half-price breakfast cereal and coupling coupons with specials to bring a $4 item down to a soul-satisfying $1. I take it as a point of honor to reduce my total, through coupons and other discounts, by double-digit amounts. My goal is to get the checkout clerks to come out of their work-induced stupor long enough to comment on my savings. I still get a warm glow when I recall my personal best, which brought my total from $207 down to $124. The clerk actually made eye contact long enough to congratulate me on my shopping prowess.
I have been waiting to see who among my four children would inherit Nana Ellie's shopping gene. Until recently, they all exhibited more of their father's free-spending habits than my never-pay-full-price credo. Until now.
The older of my two sons has just taken on his first job, and the early-morning paper route has given him a sudden appreciation of money. We were out late one evening soon after he had begun the route, and I suggested we stop and bring home a pizza.
"But Mom, there's one in the freezer that would cost a third of what you'd pay at a pizza parlor," he said.
"You're right," I said as I headed home to heat up that low-cost pizza.
Nana Ellie would have been proud.
Paula Gray Hunker, who works from home, is the mother of four children, the bemused wife of her amazing (but true) husband and a staff writer for the Family Times. She welcomes comments, suggestions and stories from her readers. She can be reached by mail at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave., NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; by phone at 202/636-4897; by fax at 610/351-1791; or by e-mail (hunkerc@erols.com).

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