Friday, September 08, 2006

When the old rules change

This post started out as a conversation--actually many conversations, many of them with Mr. Fixit. Then it graduated to scribbles and arrows on the back of a computer printout; and now I'm trying to make something coherent out of it. So you'll understand if it sounds like I'm coming from a lot of directions at once.

What we're talking about here is the thing that we call frugality, simplicity, or just making ends meet. The world has changed--not just in the last 50 years, but in the last 10 or 15. And the rules about how you make do on less (by choice or by default) have changed. I'm not sure if the principles themselves have changed, but the ways we apply them have. [Update: I keep using the word "rules." I don't like it, but it's hard to come up with another word a bit less severe. I mean it more in the sense of "rules of the game, how you play" than "rules to follow or face banishment." OK?]

The rule for thrifty transportation used to be, buy a decent used car and keep it fixed yourself. (If you couldn't get away with the bus, a bicycle, or a horse.) Up until a couple of years ago, the Squirrels had never owned a new car; we never needed to. Mr. Fixit had the tools and the know-how to buy and service older cars that still had some mileage left in them. Other than gas costs, we spent very, very little money on those cars. They were cheap to buy and insure, and if they were well taken care of, they hardly ever had to go to a garage. When they eventually died, we replaced them with similar cars.

Then came the new run of cars that aren't worth buying used. They're poorly made to start with and they have fewer user-serviceable parts. Most of the "old grandpa" cars are gone. Add to that the new realities of emissions testing, smaller parking spaces, and changes in insurance, and suddenly doing things our old way is no longer an option.

So Mr. Fixit's new rule is "find something new and moderately priced, and take care of it as well as you can (that includes things like taking it easy on the gas pedal)."

The problem of "the new things just aren't as good" applies to all kinds of things:

1. The last potential new Treehouse we looked at was about 12 years old; the windows and the roof already needed to be replaced (apparently those are the first things to go in new slammed-together houses).

2. Mr. Fixit's stereo equipment was bought in the 1980's; two of the components needed repairs this year (which Mr. Fixit managed to do with the help of the Squirrelings), and that was the FIRST TIME EVER that they hadn't worked. Try getting that mileage out of something off the shelf now.

3. FarAwaySis bought us a food processor for a wedding present. It's had several new parts over the years; there's a small fixit shop near us that used to do that sort of thing, no problem. And it's still running. But now the fixit shop is just about out of business. Nobody's bringing their food processors and whatsits in to be fixed (you'd put a new motor into something that's cheaper to buy new?), and they can't get the parts anyway.

4. Grandma Squirrel bought a new sewing machine, top of the line in 1960. She sewed on that thing--and she sewed a lot--for forty years. Mr. Fixit bought me a new sewing machine for Christmas, and he had to really look to find something solid (he chose a commercial model). And I still don't expect forty years out of it, even though I do like it very much.

5. You can get smaller and smaller on this track of things, from houses to cars to sewing machines to band-aids that don't stick and pencils that won't sharpen. The Squirrelings play with my old Barbies because the heads of their own new ones have broken off. The point is the same: mass production and moving a lot of manufacturing to third-world countries have cost us all in quality. Stuff is cheap and plentiful, but it doesn't last--small things, big things, very big things like houses. It can't be fixed, or if it can, the repairs cost more than the replacements. And you can't send houses to the junkyard.

And that means, thrifty friends, that the rules have changed. It's harder to find good stuff that's WORTH hanging onto, fixing, re-using, recycling. New laws mean that you can't even resell some stuff that someone else could use--like car seats, cribs, older cars.

Here are some of the rules [of the game, or guidelines, or principles, however you want to say it--see update above] we're currently operating under. Most of the ideas are not new--we just have to work harder at thinking of new ways to apply them.

1. Avoid excess. Everything from the plate of cookies at the office to most of the junk sold at yard sales (and I love yard sales), the gifts given for every occasions, and garages stuffed with everything. The concept of buying less and using less still works. Take fewer pictures, buy shoes that match more of your clothes, make simpler birthday cakes (without character pans).

2. Stay behind the trend. Buy the older version if you can still make it work. Sometimes this is possible now that we have the Internet--because you can buy gizmos and parts on E-bay to keep an old whatsit going. Mr. Fixit has bought older cell phones and their battery packs online--and he keeps them going.

3. Stay WAY behind the trend. Mr. Fixit's latest thing (well, you weren't going to blog about this yourself, were you?) is trying out a vintage razor, a mug of shaving soap and a brush. (You can buy those on E-bay too.) He says the soap feels better on his face, and besides, it's one less pressurized can of shaving cream in the dump.

4. Focus on time, people, and space--three things that deserve more attention than stuff. Do non-techie things together.

5. Have a favourite hobby or two--not twenty with different stuff for all of them. Put time into learning something that will pay off or benefit you and your family instead of just being short-term fun. Like making salsa, or learning to fix things (what things there are left that are fixable), or starting a rock collection.

6. Take Krakovianka's approach to decorating--go for the natural look, pottery and that sort of thing vs. plastic and particle board. Wood is still wood, and clay is still clay.

7. Use what you have (the Deputy Headmistress's approach). George Washington Carver used different colours of mud to make paint for buildings (I read that in Krakovianka's favourite book about him). Use whatever you have better and more creatively.

8. Don't focus so much on the cosmetics of things, stewing over just the perfect colour or style. I once read about a woman who had just been through a find-your-style seminar and shopping makeover, and then she went on vacation and lost her luggage (all her new clothes) at the airport. She said something like, "I didn't let it get me down at all! I just thought, I'm a beautiful person in less-than-perfect clothes, and I'm going to have a great vacation anyway."

We haven't re-papered or painted the Treehouse living room since we've lived there. Which means the paper's been up since the 1970's. It's even been patched in one place (although you have to look close to notice). We just preferred to use our money on some comfy furniture before we got around to making the walls look better. It doesn't make any difference to what we do in the room or whether we're happy there.

9. Sometimes say, "that's good enough," and leave it at that. Accept the natural way of things, like the Sultan in Jane Yolen's The Sultan's Perfect Tree (who learned that it's okay if the leaves fall off in the autumn).


tootlepip said...

bravo! Now, if I can only take it to heart and really practice at it.

Anonymous said...

Every statistic that I have heard has said that cars last longer than they used to, especially when you compare today's cars to the crap that the American automakers put out in the mid-to-late 70's. link

Not only do rules change, but trends change -- whereas in the 70's cars got worse and worse, since then cars seem to have have gotten incrementally better.

Anonymous said...

Good post overall, but I have some nitpicky little points:
* Under Avoid Excess you suggested taking fewer pictures. Take more pictures! Remember, the rules have changed -- we now have digital photography, and the cost of taking a digital photo is a small fraction of film. And you can share it cheaply online without ever paying for a print.
* I think quality products are still out there for those that are willing to pay for them. We tend to forget that the Ethan Allen furniture that our grandparents handed down to us wasn't cheap back then, either. I think that there were just fewer alternatives at the time. Some people's definition of frugality includes going the cheap route in all circumstances, even though buying something that's good and lasts will often be cheaper in the long run. Unfortunately, this doesn't extend to housing -- almost nobody in the US really builds houses to last at this point, because nobody plans on keeping a house for generations anymore, and the extra construction costs won't be reflected in the resale value.

Mama Squirrel said...

Taking fewer pictures: it may be cheaper now to have digital pictures and not have to pay for film and processing, but it's still a matter of excess. Too many special occasions are ruined by somebody chasing people around with a camera. (See last June's Lion Safari post, for one example.) Maybe it's not a frugality issue, but it's definitely a simplicity one. Besides, you still have to upload them, and print them, and deal with them in photo boxes or scrapbooks or whatever; and when it's so easy now to have so many more photos (good, bad and indifferent), it can get out of hand. That's the point.

As for the cars: sorry, we're sticking to our guns here. Mr. Fixit says he's heard that argument before, and it's based on what happened when the first Japanese imports started coming out and only lasted a few years. "Japanese" cars now last 10 to 12 years while American ones last maybe 8 to 10. (The country labels are misleading, since Toyotas are made in North America and a lot of "American" cars are put together in other places.) But that's still not as long as the cars we used to have.

Mr. Fixit has been buying cars since the mid-80's, and at that time there were still lots of '60's cars on the road in good condition (which he of course bought and drove). How many '80's cars do you see now still running and worth anything? Mostly just a few Chev Caprices, which were built like a '60's car. We retired our last '80's Chev just a couple of years ago.

Mama Squirrel said...

Oh, on the furniture--I think your key word there is "handed down." If you go to a country chair maker or some place like that, then yes, you will get quality wood furniture. No question--those are the sorts of places you have to look for--some place where people build things "like they used to."

The grandparent squirrels' furniture wasn't Ethan Allen, but it was quality, locally-made furniture, and it literally was handed down to us--we moved in on a houseful of ca. 40's furniture. Some of it was made by Great-Grandpa Squirrel, who spent part of his working life building prototypes for TV cabinets and liked to make furniture in his "spare" time.

As for the rest--maybe it'll be around when our kids are grown, more likely a lot of it will be in the dump.

Anonymous said...

I find this very fascinating as I have had these thoughts as well and come to very similar conclusions.

I will say I was brought to these conclusions kicking and screaming, but I agree.

I'd love to add something brilliant, but can't think of anything to add!