Frugal and sustainable living gone awry
I am seeing a new movement toward frugal living. Having lived frugally and sustainably for 40 years, living on one income for most of that time, I understand the challenges and joys of frugal living. I have lived through the struggles of getting debt-free and trying to meet our family’s needs with less income than we had a month. It takes faith in Someone who is bigger, wiser and stronger than me to live without debt and without discouragement sometimes. But there is an old swing to the pendulum of frugality that seems to be coming back into vogue. It’s an alarming trend that I see more and more expressed on the blog-sphere.
What healthy frugal living looks like
Frugal living for me means doing without some of the luxuries of life so that we, as a family, can focus on the things that are most important to us. For 8 years we’ve lived without a job, and without a salary, making our full-time living from our farm. Out of necessity, I’ve gone without mall shopping, new clothing, new shoes, and art supplies — rarely without books, though. You’ll notice that this blog is not covered in ads. We don’t make money from this blog either. That may change later, but for now, we are content to give what we have learned with our own sweat, tears, and victories, to you, for free, out of love for you, knowing that your life can be enriched by embracing the homestead lifestyle and learning to do what you love, where you want to live. We do it because we want to make a difference in our lives.
What’s wrong with being frugal?
But this new swing in frugality is antithetic to all that is good, right, and generous about the homestead movement. It is living frugally at the cost of others. I recently read a blog post by a young wife who bragged that she only went out for doughnuts when Krispie Kream was giving away free donuts. She never bought a coffee or another donut but took the freebie. It appeared by the blog post that this was her habit whenever Krispie Kream had a freebie sale, while at the same time she bashed the restaurant chain in her post, by comparing them unfavourably to another doughnut restaurant, where she also ate for free. (I’m not posting a link as I don’t want to embarrass this young, misguided woman.) But then she goes back to get her freebie when Krispie Kream has a give-away again? Really!
Later in her post, she discussed how she was given a gift certificate by the owner of another restaurant and happily used the gift certificate but never spent a single penny of her own cash at the restaurant. In Old Scots this isn’t called frugality, this is called “meanness”. It’s the person who goes out to dinner at a neighbour’s house and never has the neighbour over for coffee. It’s the person who visits their cousin in the country for two weeks every summer, doesn’t help with the chores, and doesn’t bring anything along for the larder. It’s the person that shops for clothing at the church free store, by the bag full, and later sees a homeless person, outside in the snow and doesn’t offer them a coffee or a coat to keep them warm. It’s the person who takes up a yarn shop owner’s time, goes to the free knitting workshops at the shop, accepts the free coffee and cookies, and then drives 2 hours to the next city to save 50 cents on a pattern book.
While it’s true that when a store gives you a gift — a free doughnut or cup of coffee, you aren’t required to spend any money there, nor are you required to give a favourable review of the store on your blog. However, this attitude of mean-frugality, at a time when businesses are going bankrupt at an unprecedented rate, and your local community is more in need of your support than ever before, needs to be rethought. Rather than living our lives in fear because of what we don’t have, and holding on to it tightly, we need to change our thinking. And start looking at the riches that we do have.
Cartoonists portray the meanly frugal with a clenched fist. We call them tight-fisted, or tightwads. Mean-frugality focuses on the lack of money. It makes a virtue out of wanting and doing without. It is motivated by fear and firmly rooted in consumerism.
On the other hand, the homestead economy is a rich economy. Much richer than the money-based system that is quickly failing. It is about building community, creating resources and building resourcefulness through the generous sharing of ideas, skills, and materials — it is the opposite of “meanness.” We need to be more generous with those things that we have — the clout on our blogs, the kind words about local businesses (or neighbours) that we speak to our friends, the links we share on our Facebook profiles. To build up our community rather than tear it down will ensure that our communities can survive this economic storm.
Yes, by all means, cut down on your spending for unnecessary things, but rather than being a mean consumer, consider expressing your frugality by becoming a producer. Instead of the tension of a closed fist, relax, open your hands and give. And embrace an attitude of generosity. You don’t need to be afraid that you will spend money you don’t have when you give generously of what you do have. And the secret is that the joy of giving generously — of time, of talent, even of the extra coat you picked up at the free store, leads to way more well-being than the joy of getting a bargain at the expense of someone else.
Being generous with what you do have:
Last week we met a homeless man in the middle of a cold snap. He was scantily dressed for a January snowstorm, wearing only a light cotton sweatshirt and jeans, in the blowing snow. It was frigid and there were still 3 hours of darkness before the bad weather shelter would open for the night. This young man was already hypothermic, as he slapped his ribs with his naked hands to try and warm up, standing just inside the grocery store entrance. He was tall like Robin, but only about 25. When I saw him I thought of my own sons and how they would feel if they were stuck out in the cold weather, without a jacket, or mittens. Robin had just picked up a new jacket in December, for winter, but he had his old, torn, barn coat in the car. Without hesitation, he took off his new, blue jacket and handed it to the shivering and wet young man. And we continued with our groceries to the car. That is frugality at its finest. God will provide another jacket for Robin when Robin needs it. But for now, that young man needed it more than he did. While others might judge Robin in his torn, barn coat, if they see him at the bank or the post office, to me he’s the best-dressed man in the community today.
In this last snowstorm, Robin was plowing the driveway in the old Ford truck, with the fumes in the two gas tanks. It’s been a tight year for us, money-wise. With the downturn in the economy, people aren’t buying goat’s milk soap and hand-spun hats and gloves the way they were a few years ago. And we had a fiasco with our lambs this year and we set the price too low so that we actually sold each of our lambs at $25 below the cost of production — a painful lesson about pricing was learned, and maybe we are worrying a little more about money than we did a year ago. Robin had full gas tanks in the truck back at the beginning of October. And we’ve only used it on the farm for plowing the snow since then. But this week the gas tanks were empty and there was nothing but fumes to drive on. As I mentioned, there was a heavy snowstorm this week and Robin had to plow the driveway a few times over the weekend. On Sunday, a friend asked how the truck was holding out. The truck was a gift from a stranger when our original truck failed last winter. Robin said, how the truck was perfect, that we didn’t have any problems with it at all, but that he was plowing the driveway on fumes, as it would cost more than $100 to fill the two tanks. Our friend pressed $200 cash into Robin’s hand. He was standing there holding it while Robin talked, already planning to hand it to him. Robin tried to refuse it, but the friend said that he had been blessed by an unexpected $500 and he felt that he wanted to share it with us. Robin ran out of gas on Monday, in the front tank, just as he got to the highway from our farm. The fumes in the second tank got him to the gas station, about 10 km down the road. It was the biggest fill we’ve ever needed — $160. I tell you this not to show how we are super-faith people, we are not. We worry about money, too. But to show you that it is perfectly safe to be frugally generous with what you already have.
“He who is kind to the poor lends to their maker,” a Jewish proverb says.
Examine your attitudes of frugality and tight-wad-ness. While these are virtues in their expression, they can become twisted and negative, if carried to self-indulgent extremes, causing undue stress and even illness. What would it take to become generously frugal? Would you gain more than what it cost you if you looked for ways to be generous with what you already have this week? How does that look for you? Leave a comment.
Photo credits: Brownpau “Homeless Man in the Snow” shared under a creative commons license.
This article is shared on Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways #12, Thrifty Thursdays