embracing frugality

Despite the fact that I dislike my 30-minute each-way commute (and the gas it requires), it does give me the chance to enjoy one of my favorite free things in life: NPR News. For the past few months though, NPR time has caused me to really think about my economic choices. Listening to Marketplace every evening has given me a deeper understanding of how rough our economy has become, and moreover strengthened my feelings that the mainstream American habit of spending ourselves into debt is not only personally foolish, but ruining our society.

Although I grew up in well-off Elm Grove, my parents were not extravagant spenders. I don’t think they ever worried about buying food or paying the bills, but we weren’t allowed to go to the mall and pick out anything we wanted either, far from it. We had everything we needed and more, but our vacations usually involved long car rides, cabins and lakes, not flying, three-star hotels and amusement parks. We didn’t eat dinner at “sit-down” restaurants on a very regular basis and we certainly didn’t shop at high-end boutiques or grocers. We enjoyed our life, but it wasn’t luxurious. We had it good, but we didn’t feel the need to have everything new at every moment.

Strangely, (when you consider my upbringing anyway), the minute I started making my own money I thought nothing of spending all of it on clothes, food, entertainment, going to the movies and gas to drive my girlfriends around. I remember one year, perhaps 1995 or 1996, I saw on my tax returns that I had actually made more than $12,000, working part-time, at McDonalds, as a teenage high-school student. That seemed like an enormous amount of money back then, but the funny thing was, I didn’t have a dime of it in savings. Not a dime. I had spent it all as it had come in. And frighteningly as I look back at it, I didn’t learn any lessons during that moment. In fact the habits I got into as a 15-year-old McDonald’s grunt have basically stayed with me until, well, until a few months ago, let’s hope.

I blame this as much on culture as I do on my own lack of personal responsibility. The fact that most people my age who come from similar backgrounds are simultaneously finding themselves in this predicament leads me to think there has to be at least some collective reason. For those of us who were raised by financially responsible parents, the sort that put things on layaway when they couldn’t afford it, who didn’t scoff at hand-me-downs and occasionally shopped at rummage sales, it amazes me that we all turned out so self-indulgent. How is it that there is so much credit card debt per person in this country? How do so many of us spend $3.50, or even $1.90 per day on coffee? How do we buy $200 jeans and $10 mixed drinks and $50 dinners?  My generation is used to instant gratification. Women in my demographic are marketed to like no one else. We have grown up taking in the indirect whispers of a thousand marketing specialists telling us that purchasing their product will somehow get us the style we see in Vogue or the domestic skills we see in Martha Stewart Living.

And the thing is… it’s not true. And that’s okay. That is my revelation for the day — The fact that I cannot remodel my kitchen this year: it’s okay. My kitchen works. It doesn’t have to look like something from Better Homes and Gardens. It doesn’t need stainless steel, granite or travertine to be okay. I make food in it. It serves its purpose. That’s just the most personal example I can think of, but this entire rant sprang from my morning reading of Salon.com television critic Heather Havrilesky’s “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Recession.”

Please read the whole article; but if you refuse, it begins with Havrilesky describing a trip to the grocery store, which is similar to one I had a few weeks ago: I was at Pick ‘N Save, and I came to the bean area. I saw a bag of colorful mixed beans (15 varieties, one $1.99 bag!) and I got excited about them. (This is counter-culture for me). I read the recipe on the bag for Hillbilly Stew (oh yes I am serious) and I immediately tossed the bag in the cart. My first bag of dried beans. All I needed was a can of roasted tomatoes, some carrots and celery, and I was on my way to a nutritious, ridiculously cheap meal that could easily feed me for three days. Now, the best bargain shoppers really do know that I could have gotten these beans cheaper at the Mexican market El Rey, conveniently located two blocks from my house, but give me a break, I am still learning.

This may not seem remarkable to some of my already thrifty readers, but last year I actually started shopping somewhat regularly at the new Fresh Market location on Bluemound Road in Brookfield, home to all manner of very upscale groceries. I also shopped at Whole Paycheck Foods. It was just so cool to shop at these places. So cool I just loved it so much and tried not to wince every time I picked up a few items that would last me 3-4 days, and drop $60. I do believe in spending a little more money to get good, fresh food, but to be honest, I also enjoyed shopping in a fancy store with all manner of expensive olive oils, organic oranges and fines wines to choose from.

Back to Heather Havrilesky is in the bean aisle — she encounters a woman who complains that a $2.69 bag of mixed beans very similar to the ones I bought that day) were too expensive…

“For the rest of my shopping trip, I try to think like the woman who refused to pay too much for beans. Four dollars for half a gallon of milk? Isn’t that obscene? $2.99 a pound for pears? Maybe my kid should try to develop a taste for apples. I steer clear of the aged-cheese-and-cured-meat aisle completely, fearing temptation.

This picture might seem sort of droopy and pathetic to some of my friends, who would feel as deprived as Haitian boat people if they couldn’t afford their regular $70 bottles of Erno Lazlo moisturizer. But honestly, I’ve found my newfound role as recessionary coupon-clipper oddly soothing.”

Yes, you know, it is so soothing. I’ll leave you with my favorite line from the story:

“I like knowing that I can’t afford to move and I can’t afford to quit my job and I can’t afford to think about the boundless possibilities that the universe has to offer, I can only afford to clean my own stupid house and eat leftovers and lose weight so the shitty clothes I already have don’t look even worse on me than they would otherwise.”


3 Responses to embracing frugality

  1. Kathy says:

    Wow — great article — thanks for sharing! And isn’t the 15-bean soup just delicious? My favorite frugal book is “The Complete Tightwad Gazette” by Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced “decision”). It was written in the 90s, so some of the info is a little dated (like paying $2 for a gallon of milk!); but in general it is just such an awesome frugal book! Reading it is like getting a mental makeover — it’s just awesome.

    And, I, too, had a similar experience to what you had in high school — when I realized that what I earned in a year was all gone, and I couldn’t even remember what I had spent it on — just horrible! Now, 10 years later, I’m still working on it, but I’m getting better about knowing where it all goes.


  2. maconulaff says:

    What a wonderful post. I went through a similar period of the same self-realization. There are so many wonderful things in this world we want to try, taste, see, and possess. And in America they are made so accessible through easy credit (which rapidly translates into personal debt).

    But recognizing that the lifestyle I wanted to live is beyond the life that is within my means is part of maturing and prioritizing those things that really matter in life. My dinners may not feature the best quality ingredients or names, but I savor them like they did. My old Tube TVs may not high-def and all the screens are 27″ or less, but for the most part, I’ll never miss that. My truck may look beaten and old, but it still gets me everywhere I need to go. And I can afford all of them – without debt.

    Sure I have significant wants still, but they are not needs. Maturing is the process of recognizing the difference. Responsibility is not extending yourself into debt for wants when your needs are being met. I did not grow up in circumstances where my wants were fulfilled, but all my needs were. Sure, my clothes almost always were passed from at least one brother, if not both, before I ever got to wear them. Dining out meant we went to Grandma’s house – she made the most wonderful pies and fudge I have ever tasted. And vacations usually involved tents – not because we were outdoors nuts, but because we could not afford anything but campground rates.

    In your travels, you have, by your own telling, seen people living within their means, no matter how humble, in a perfectly happy loving environment. Your post reflects the recognition that “having all the good things in life” – that cup of quality coffee or cooking with the absolute best ingredients – do not equate to happiness or then sense of fulfillment you now seek in life. It is the people you share your table with that make the meal. It is knowing you can afford your debt level even when times are tight. It is knowing how to live without the “good things” and still being perfectly happy with your situation in life.

    You recognize that your dad is probably quietly chuckling to himself as he reads your post too. Jack, she really is getting one step closer.

  3. laurafern says:

    Good words Jeff, good words. Thanks.

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