On Frugal Living

Shared on a Facebook frugal living page, originally, but it’s long and it got good response, so I’m also posting it here. Because it is, after all, my own original content:

Reading conversations in this page over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of disparity in how people view frugality. Some seem to see it as looking for the cheapest way to get whatever you want, while others have a more wholistic view on the subject. 

I was raised by parents who grew up during the Great Depression. My mother’s family didn’t suffer so much because of my grandfather’s town business (he owned a gas station and was a mechanic) and their farming background.  Mom was a bit of a spendthrift, in fact.  She liked brand labels and shopping in nice department stores and having her hair done every week at the salon.  If there was something she wanted, she bought it, if it fit within certain categories (clothes, groceries, books, etc.)  Of course, she also saved everything — when my sister came along when I was ten, she wore my old socks. I kid you not.

However, my dad’s family had it considerably rougher; my grandfather died a year before the Crash, and the family lore is that Grandma had a dime in her purse — just a dime! — when she got word that the local bank had failed. They had the farm, several miles from the nearest town, but Granddaddy’s estate was in probate and . . . things were a mess for them.   The rule in Dad’s family was that you took the cheapest route possible, within reason: if you were buying a couch and a really lovely one was $25 more than a plain brown, uncomfortable one, you bought the cheaper one and put aside that $25 — even if you hated looking at that sofa every day for the rest of your life.  

So I grew up between two different mindsets, and I’ve been torn by the inner conflicts all my adult life. All this to give you some sense of where I’m coming from in this reflection. 

Frugality isn’t on a continuum, somewhere  between avarice and parsimony. It’s about developing a set of values that influence how we use all our resources, including money. Yes, living within our means is part of that. Not so long ago, society was scandalized by anyone who got into avoidable debt. Then homes had to be built by professional builders to meet ever-tightening code (some of which are not really necessary), leading to debt, and cars were marketed as a necessity, leading to debt, and credit was established first to cover emergencies or to simplify bookkeeping, but then luxuries were marketed as necessities. . . leading to more debt. And things snowballed. 

The old saying “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” is unheard of by a younger generation that’s being stuck with a truckload of debt and no savings. And too often no skills. Back in the day, money was HARD to come by. Farming tobacco is exhausting, dirty labor. — if that’s how you earn your main income, farming with mules instead of a tractor (with milk and egg money and maybe the sale of a bit of produce rounding out the corners), you have a lot more respect for that money than what we — okay, I confess:  I — have earned while sitting comfortably beside my piano in air conditioned and centrally heated comfort, teaching piano, or even teaching school or working in an office.  You used what you had rather than buying a new convenience or “Bigger and Better” “New and Improved” because you based your spending on need rather than want or convenience because the money for those things was bitterly hard to come by, so much of the time.  And, back then, you took great care of your possessions, because although repairing an item was a lot cheaper than replacing it, it was still an avoidable expense. So that’s what responsible people did. 

Now, Madison Avenue is telling us that we’re not attractive or socially acceptable if we don’t possess certain THINGS. Obsolescence is built into our appliances, cars, even our clothes. It costs more to repair a broken toaster than to throw it out and buy a new one at Wally World, even if overflowing landfills are a moral quandary that challenges our conscience when we toss items out so carelessly. The talking heads tell us that we are being environmentally irresponsible not to drive an electric car, even though those cars are outrageously expensive, the lithium for the batteries is mined by child slave labor in environmentally disastrous conditions, and the cost of replacing the battery compares with the cost of a brand new car. 

Who do we believe? What values do we embrace? 

 I remember Gramma Lottie for her feisty temper, her habit of trotting rather than walking everywhere she went around the farm, and her whistling, more than from that ugly brown sofa. And she had the sweetest face and twinkling blue eyes, even if her clothes sometimes hung on her like a sack. And I remember Mama more from watching her make and decorate beautiful cakes, and her sewing, knitting, and tatting, and letting me “help out” in the church nursery, not from the beautiful china she served Christmas dinner on. And I thought she was a handsome woman, even if her only cosmetic was Jergins lotion, religiously applied to hands and forearms and elbows immediately before bed, each night. 

If I cherish the memory of my grandmothers for these things, rather than their possessions, I am challenged in what I base my own life on. How do I want to be remembered by my own children, grandchildren, friends? Frugality has to begin with a deep self-assessment, what we value, and why, and where have we let our values and spending habits be dictated by artificial and frivolous standards (there’s a reason I mentioned Mama’s Jergins lotion; I have a weakness for makeup, as well as for books and music and flowers and. . . .)  

When we start with trying to save pennies on frivolous expenditures, without having consciously evaluated what is important to us, and what is reasonable and responsible, then we’re getting the cart before the horse (or mule, for my family) and we’re just going to be frustrated by recurring failure.  Pennies here and there can’t compensate for absence of a clear vision of the authentic people we are, and the life we want to live. 

People are more important than things. A 1-year old baby doesn’t care about how many different refreshments or decorations you have at her party; she just wants to get her hands in that CAKE!!!  YUMYUMYUM.  And the adult guests aren’t going to remember those things, either; rather, they’ll remember the laughter and the conversation and how much you all love one another.  So don’t waste money on disposables and trying to impress anyone; We aren’t trying to out-Martha Martha Stewart, here! Make a regular cake for everyone to have a clean slice, but a special small one for Baby to get her eager little hands and face in (ad have a couple of wet washcloths close by for an easier clean-up!).  And get some store brand ice cream to go along with it.  Maybe some nuts or mints. And serve it in your real bowls, even if washing them will take five extra minutes, instead of using disposables, because the people you love are worthy of your “good dishes” even for a baby’s first birthday.

Or you’re worried about keeping costs down on a wedding, but the standard you’re trying to meet apparently comes out of Bride’s Magazine — more marketing influences telling us what we “need.” When my cousins got married, they started a couple weeks ahead of time, making and freezing sandwiches, the cake, special cookies and so on.  Nothing was hired out. Even the flowers, they picked at home, and they were gorgeous.  And it was so very personal!  A generation ago, a “nice” reception included cake, mints, nuts, maybe cookies . . . and a punch.  No one had a full catered affair!  You don’t have to impress anyone — what really matters for your wedding is that you and your Beloved are publicly declaring your intention of being and making a family together; everything else is nonessential, no matter how much fun it is, so you can make do and have a lovely, homey reception without breaking your budget — you can create your own memories liberated from the artificial Brides Magazine standard.  One of the most fun weddings I’ve been at, the reception had live music by three friends of the couple, and we all enjoyed New England Contra dancing.  Guests who’d never heard of this old folk form picked it up quickly and were dancing away and laughing  at themselves and having a wonderful time right off the bat.  

The point is that we don’t have to out-Martha Martha Stewart (I liked that so much I’m saying it twice!) in order to create an environment of love and warmth and hospitality and joy, or to make memories that will make people smile for decades ever after. 

It’s the attitude that comes first. God bless y’all. 

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