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