Not all that long ago, “frugality” was a term most Americans handled at arm’s length. In a go-go economy, the idea of holding back seemed, well, unnatural. Moreover, frugality has often been associated with the Calvinist strands of Protestantism – the Scottish Presbyterians as well as New England Puritans who gave rise to Yankee Thrift and Yankee Ingenuity. There were also French Huguenots, the Dutch, German, and Swiss Reformed churches – people often stereotyped, however inaccurately, as dour, severe, strict. Somehow, John Calvin’s emphasis on self-denial – which, in his words, “will leave no room for pride, haughtiness, or vainglory, nor for avarice, licentiousness, love of luxury, wantonness, or any sin born from self-love” – led to a skill at thrift and industry.
Perhaps we had seen too many people who handled money grudgingly or wanted something for nothing. People who complained at the high price of dining out (and then left an insultingly poor tip to the wait staff) or who bought things only because they were on sale. We wanted nothing to do with that.
And then the times changed. Prices soared, and our paychecks bought less and less. For many couples, a second or third job was no longer an option but a necessity.
Voila! The New Frugality emerged. And, hopefully, there are significant ways it differs.
For starters, the practice can be a deliberate stance in opposition to prevailing consumerism and mass advertising. It’s a decision to obtain the best use of your resources, rather than simply reaching for more. Sometimes it begins with a decision for one of the parents to stay home full-time, to give more attention to children, rather than to have a two-income household.
It can also be lonely. Where the earlier Calvinists would have extended their approval and encouragement, today you’re more likely to feel yourself a Lone Ranger, retreating each evening into the sunset. You may even find yourself, as one woman reported with tears, losing your friends, because they cannot understand or accept your new economic outlook.
“I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery,” another related. “I was watching all the stuff the woman in front of me was buying, and I realized she really didn’t know how to cook – you know, make things from scratch. It was all prepared boxes, frozen food, advertised products, and it costs considerably more than the basics. Then she paid for it all with food stamps!”
She paused, before continuing: “I couldn’t really say anything, because I had to admit to myself that she was no different than the woman behind me, who would be paying with cash: they both have learned what they know about food from the same source, TV advertising. This stuff is what they’re expected to put on the table.”
This frugality becomes a spiritual discipline when it awakens our awareness of the responsibilities we engage when we deal with money, labor, time, and wealth. When we are faithful in using the few things over which we have been placed, we can become creative and resourceful, too.
Do you ever buy at consignment shops, second-hand stores, Goodwill or St. Vincent dePaul? How about yard sales?
Have you developed an eye for detail and quality, rather than label?
When you purchase something on sale, are you buying it because of the price, or because this is something you would want at full price but happen to find marked down?
Have you ever been to a farm or estate auction? What was your experience? Did you come home with a treasure at a reasonable price?
Do you clip coupons from the newspaper? Why? Why not?
Name a strategy you use to get top quality at a bargain price.
In season, my wife and daughters are masters at strategies for Saturday morning yard sales. One daughter grabs the classified section of the newspaper and goes online to map out a plan of attack. My wife already has a good idea of what we can use, as well as the needs of some close friends. They’re off and away while I’m still abed. And I have to say, they come home giddy and often with treasures. Let me boast of my $2 hand-knitted Irish sweater – it’s a Brooks Brothers that retailed at $295.
The flip side, of course, is making sure this doesn’t lead to more clutter. In our case, we’re more likely to make runs to leave things at Goodwill than to manage our own yard sale, and I’m still amazed at how much stuff left at curbside simply disappears.
Remember, too, that pointers for increased self-reliance are one thing; crossing over into greed or misery is another. “Meanness,” my wife reminds me, indicates stinginess. In contrast, financial freedom means living joyfully – beneath your means. For many people, that will require “downshifting,” which you can get either through New Frugality or simplicity. In either case, your budgeting will prove a crucial and effective tool.
Amy Dacyczyn’s popular Tightwad Gazette, available in a series published by Villiard Books, remains the foremost proponent of this approach. Go for it!
If you can find a copy, Dolly Freed’s 1978 Possum Living: How To Live Well Without a Job and With Almost No Money remains an entertaining and provocative read, even though much of it is severely dated. Some readers raise ethical objections about her disregard of the rule of law while giving precedence to her own moral code (making moonshine, for instance), and many of the dollar figures remind us just how much prices have inflated in the subsequent decades. Moreover, many of the legal strategies she and her father pursued have since ceased to be viable options. (This has prompted some lively discussions between my wife and me as we recall friends who were able to find cheap land and live in a yurt for several years, or back-to-the-earth bohemians who bought scab property in the Sierra Nevada range after pursuing a lucrative series of blue-collar jobs – routes they admit have long since vanished.) The intensity with which Freed scrutinizes every household expense, however, remains instructive – especially as she connects dollars to jobs and job-free time to liberty.