Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thrift and thanksgiving

This is a response to The Common Room post Thrift, Parsimony and Freegan Living, which the DHM wrote after reading the NY Times review of Lauren Weber's book In Cheap We Trust. As the DHM mentioned, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

While making a day-after-Thanksgiving leftover casserole, I thought of a definition for sensible frugality: frugality (vs. miserliness) means cutting the meat off the bones, but not so close that you cut yourself with the knife. (Don't go spoiling my metaphor by telling me I should have been boiling it instead. It really was a very little turkey to start with, and I doubt I would have gotten much broth from what was left.)

Re-dipping your teabag so many times that you poison yourself is miserly. (Some will argue about that but I'm sticking by what my auntie told me.) Depriving people of what would make their lives pleasanter, healthier or safer, if whatever it is really does take money and if you can afford it, is miserly. Spending half an hour looking for a free parking spot (as an acquaintance of Weber's does) is just silly, especially if you have other people in the car who will never get that time back that you wasted. There are definitely ways to be too much of a tightwad.

On the other hand, those who slam Amy Dacyczyn, for example, seldom bother to bring up some of the most sensible and thoughtful articles from her Tightwad Gazette. She once described a frugal meal that her family served to guests: it included chicken, potatoes, and fresh vegetables from their garden. There was nothing miserly-sounding about it at all; in fact, some people would think that all that fresh, homecooked food was a treat. A Family Fun article about the Dacyczyn family focused on the cool and creative toys and other amusements that their children--those poor, deprived children of tightwads--spent their time with. And the point she was trying to make by using things like metal strips from waxed paper boxes (see Weber's excerpt) was that if you have it, then use it, instead of wasting your time and gas and money going out to buy something else while the metal strip goes into the landfill. She wasn't suggesting that you spend your life stockpiling metal strips in case you might someday need one to hang a picture. (I might also point out that some of the ideas such as jump ropes were actually sent in by TG readers.) It's not crazy to re-use things, and to keep using them until they wear out or smell bad. Sometimes it's not worth the fuss over what something costs; other times it just makes more sense to look for a tightwad solution. As Amy pointed out more than once, frugal living, including used stuff, can be better than its equivalent in new things, and it can help you achieve other goals that are important to you (like staying home with young children, or buying a house).

Lauren Weber is right about the fact that when we think we can afford to "live better," we usually do--although we sometimes confuse "living better" with "living more expensively." In the Treehouse we have a 1929 floor radio that originally sold for $275. Quite a chunk of change in those days, but someone must have thought it worth the money. (Mr. Fixit bought it at an estate sale before we were married.)

I knew an elderly woman whose husband refused to update the worn linoleum in their kitchen. For forty years she waxed that linoleum and hated it. One of the first things she did after he died--and she told me this with a chortle--was put in a no-wax floor. (Was she justified in wanting this? Did she deserve it after fighting the linoleum all those years? Is that just small potatoes compared with people who want bigger cars and fancier furniture?)

Some of Mr. Fixit's relatives survived very lean times during the Depression, when opportunities for immigrants on the Prairies were scarce. But they worked hard, saved all they could, and eventually built themselves a house with an oil furnace and--an amazing luxury--a thermostat to control it. They had no desire to return to methods of home heating that involved chopping or shovelling. It reminds me of another article I once read about a woman who grew up through tough times, and never could get over her amazement over simply "standing in the warm."

I'm not sure I relate to Ms. Weber's interest in fancy shoes marked down to ninety-nine dollars, or to her enthusiasm for the latest in televisions. We ourselves have made do just fine with our '70's and '80's TVs, and there's always the most radical idea of all--doing without one. To each her own, but I'm not sure how much I trust that kind of "frugal" advice. It's not wrong to enjoy good times, to look forward to a special meal, even to splurge on a bit of candy corn; but I do question large amounts of money spent on something that doesn't pay you back. (A chest freezer is an investment. A pair of high heels are probably not, unless they're sending you home from Oz.) I guess I just slice my turkey a little closer to the bone than she does.

Can you be "too frugal?" Opinions?

Thanksgiving photos by Mr. Fixit. The centerpiece was made from a vintage Native basket (free from Grandpa Squirrel's basement); dollar-store fake leaves that we bought for a craft class; a glass thingy from a cousin's wedding; a few horse chestnuts; and a spray from our lilac bush, which looks quite different in autumn. The turkey salt and pepper shakers belonged to Mr. Fixit's grandma. Most of the furniture in the photo also came from the Squirrel grandparents.


Sebastian said...

I think you can be too frugal when you refuse to invest a necessary amount in something needful. Sort of penny wise and pound foolish.
An example might be buying a cheap used car, but then spending more in repairs (or extra gas) than if you'd spend a bit more in the first place. For a while we had a Plymouth Horizon. We paid about $700 for it with the idea that if we could get two months use out of it (and avoid new car payments those months), then we were ahead. DH drove it for over a year, until it finally needed a new transmission. We donated it to a car recycling charity group. But if a family had bought it in the condition we let go of it, I think that would have been foolish not frugal.
I think it's also possible to be too frugal in homeschooling. In my mind, it's frugal to say that you'll use the manipulative you already have rather than buying a set of counters that exactly match the picture in the book. But it is foolish to say that you'll skip the math text altogether and just teach as situations come up.

Sebastian said...

Having read the long excerpt from the book, I think that the key to frugality is being satisfied. Too many of our purchases are an attempt to find happiness in having some thing. But we often find, to our sorrow, that the thing doesn't make us happy after all.
Not a call to consume nothing or to go out and try to have a zero carbon footprint. But it is a call to consider that often the folks who have a lot of stuff often find that they aren't significantly happier than those with less. There is a balance to be found between lacking food, shelter, clothing that warms and having a houseful of stuff that isn't adding to your well being.
I would say that the difficulty in finding this balance says more about our condition as fallen creatures than about our society in particular. said...

I agree with the other comments. There is the saying" too much of a good thing is not good at all" and it works both ways. It is about finding a balance. Being frugal is one thing, but beind down right cheap is completely another especially if it has the risk of hurting someone. There is nothing wrong with acting Cash happy on something you truely love and want either for the example of the lady and her kitchen flooring. It is each to their own.