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1940s mom penny-pinched her way into LIFE

In the mid-1940s, "Budget Queen" Ann Cox Williams' extreme couponing skills earned her a spot in Life Magazine.

In the mid-1940s, Ann Cox Williams was the original extreme couponer. Through savvy shopping and adherence to a budget as tight as a corset, the Atlanta housewife saved money,  penny by begrudgingly spent penny—and earned 15 minutes of fame in the process. For free.

After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story about her, Life magazine ran a feature on Ann’s uncanny budgeting prowess in November 1947. Then the wife of high school teacher Hamilton Williams, Ann fed a family of four (plus a cat) on a mere $12.50 a week, recalls her daughter Kappy Bowers of Lithonia, Georgia.

Along with scanning grocery store advertisements in newspapers and promotions in store windows, her mother accomplished this feat by eliminating meat for lunches and serving entrees like hamburger, meatloaf and chili.

“Back then, teachers barely made enough money to live on,” Kappy says. “So Mom became a tight budgeter and a coupon clipper. She liked to tackle every problem full speed ahead. So if she was going to save money, she was going to save as much as she could.”

Being a 1940s budget queen required discipline and time—and comfortable shoes. But Ann was a child of the Great Depression. Pinching pennies was pretty much ingrained in her DNA.

“It required a lot of time to make out menus for what she was going to cook for the week, then ferret out the good deals by hitting two or three grocery stores during her weekly shopping trip,” Kappy says. “Back in those days, stores didn’t match each other’s prices, so she had to do a lot of footwork.

“I accompanied her with my twin sister, Marcy (above). I remember the shopping trips with pleasure. She made it fun. At no point did it become a chore.”

Kappy says her mother, who passed away in 2011, was very proud to be featured in that 1940s issue of Life. “She was not a shrinking violet,” she notes. “She wasn’t showy, but she was proud of what she was doing, and happy to participate. Her only surprise was that some people didn’t think it was so wonderful.”

Kappy’s mother received some disparaging letters from other housewives around the country whose husbands were pressuring them to work the same budgetary magic in their homes. “We just laughed at those letters,” Kappy says.

As time went on, Ann—who had earned a chemistry degree in college—went back to school to get a master’s degree in education. Then she became a kindergarten teacher.

“Back then, they wouldn’t hire women for jobs in chemistry,” Kappy explains. “So she got a teaching degree instead. After she became a full-time teacher, she was a little less frugal because she simply didn’t have the time to go to such extremes.

“But she loved a good deal and shopped at discount stores. She was always looking for a bargain and loved to call to tell me about the latest deal she found. She taught us that the first thing you do in a store is head for the sale shelves. It was a long time before I ever bought anything that wasn’t on sale. Her frugalness made a very strong impression on me.”

And, in 1947, on housewives across the country.

By Ken Wysocky

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

kim July 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm

LOVE this story! I found it through pinterest.

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Virginia Kessinger July 10, 2012 at 4:20 pm

My parents also were raised during the depression. When we left the farm in Fremont, MO and moved to the city of Vancouver, WA, my parents had the equivalent of two lots and one was used for our garden and raising our chickens. Everything was grown and canned with effort made to grow just 2 or 3 things in large quantity so they could can 3 years worth of those things. The following years, 2 or 3 different things were grown and canned and over time, we ended up having a large variety of foods available in jars, even canned chicken. Grocery purchases required only one small bag as cornmeal, flour, sugar, lard, butter and coffee and milk were pretty much the only purchases, since the canned and garden fresh foods were mostly what we ate.

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Siobhan July 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Love it!

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Lyn July 10, 2012 at 5:55 pm

In the late 1960s early ’70s, my mother was just like this and she taught me all about it. (She could make a meal for the 5 of us for $1.00!) I have to admit I still use the skills, except now I can compare prices online!

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andrea July 26, 2012 at 7:40 am

What would be today’s dollar equivalent? Anyone?

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helen July 26, 2012 at 9:27 am

I was born in 1952. My mom was a stay at home mom and dad was a farmer. Neither had more than 2nd grade educations. My mom (when she was young) had to stay at home and help with her 13 brothers and sisters with her mom. We had a BIG garden, fruit trees and we raised our own pork. Not much beef unless we swapped our pork for a neighbor’s beef. About all we bought at the grocery story (Humpty Dumpty at the time) was coffee, sugar, flour and cornmeal. My mom made homemade bread, three loves at a time. I thought all homes had bread like we had. My mom would can everything: beans, peaches, pears, cucumbers, peas, corn. If we grew it, my mom canned it. I did not know beans came in a can in the store. My brother and I had a great country life. We shared all things and had hand-me-down clothes.

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Katz July 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm

The 2012 equivalent of $12.50 is $128.63! That small amount of food was expensive!
I used the government calc to figure the inflation:
http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm/

Fascinating article

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barbara September 20, 2013 at 9:40 am

I can remember my mother feeding four of us plus a few cats during the early 70s for $ 100 per months. I try to use as many of the tricks her mother (my grandma) taught me from living thru the depression. My family is pickier. What I cut corners with, they won’t eat. That’s why I am over $200/ wk!

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Rev BJ Friley October 21, 2013 at 9:36 am

I was born in 1978. I just looked up on the Inflation Calculator of what $1.00 would be compared to 1978. It was $3.59 – I would rather live in the good old days when $1.00 actually was $1.00 – GOD Bless Yall

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Pam February 24, 2014 at 11:01 pm

In the early 1970′s my mother was featured in a story about frugal cooking in the St Louis Post-Dispatch. I wish I still had the article. She had written the food editor asking for ideas on how to feed a family (5 children and our father) on a school teacher’s pay. Our family had a huge garden, foraged for things like wild mushrooms, greens, and nuts. About all I remember was something about a Boston Butt roast. No idea what the budget was but bless her heart for keeping us all fed.

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