Frugal by Habit

I got a really sweet love seat from Freecycle the other day, so I now have a nice looking sunroom for the bargain price of… oh, $6 of gas to run to town for the couch. Everything else was already in the room, but this was the key piece of furniture necessary to ‘anchor’ the space. (Yes, I’ve been known to read a design mag or two from the library and at MIL’s house.) This week we have also used the van to nab a steel door (with window) to go in the front of my studio, along with a storm door for the greenhouse, and an abundance of plant pots that will become the container garden for eggplants, peppers, basil, and other tenders that will need to finish the summer/autumn in the aforementioned sunroom.

I’m keen on this frugality without deprivation approach. I have a lower limit on the aesthetics and comfort of my surroundings that can usually be reached on the cheap. That’s good, because “on the expensive” is simply not an option. I’m not pretending, though, that I’m making the best possible use of my time (economically speaking) when I do things that only pay off at $1 – $2 per hour. [I think I saw that idea on Get Rich Slowly. I can’t find it again, but I like to give credit where it’s due.] It’s more like it has become a habit to make my own bread, start my own plants, shop at the thrift shop (or on the remainder rack), repair and sew my own clothes… and the like. It’s not so much that I think about taking frugal actions as that they’ve become my default approach, and the solution that involves throwing money at the problem usually only occurs later. Only recently have we been able to do things like write a cheque for home repairs instead of doing them ourselves. I have to say, it is pretty sweet to be able to have a door replaced by a professional… no swearing, no threats of divorce, and at the end of it all, the door works! Oh, frabjous day. Caloo, calay! But for years, writing a cheque wasn’t an option, so the DIY approach is where I go naturally.

My husband and I bought our first house when we were 23 and 24 years old, having saved the down-payment from his summer job. We were living on my graduate stipend at the time, and when the bank looked at us and said, “How are you going to pay a mortgage?!?” I replied, “The same way I’ve been paying my rent for the last 7 years. Look. We’ve got stipends. They have to keep paying us until the degree is finished. Its more stable than a job; we can’t get laid off.” (I neglected to mention the possibility of flunking out.) We got the mortgage, and used it to buy a house $20,000 less expensive than we were approved for, because we were pretty sure that the original amount was too much. (We were right.) Owning that house saved our butts when school was finished, as the mere costs of housing, food, childcare, and transportation put us deep, deep in debt despite our best efforts.

I’m going to say something that is nearly sacrilegious in the frugal community: In a purely money-based economy, there is a minimum income below which you can never balance your books, no matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you work, and no matter how much education you have. There is a lower limit on housing expenses, and we were at it. (Our mortgage payment was $85 per week.) You have to pay somebody to keep your children from drowning, starving, or being eaten by tigers while you go earn the money to feed them. Gas costs the same amount whether you are rich or poor, and not going to work today because you can’t afford the gas isn’t an option. Public transit isn’t always available, because many brilliant ‘urban planners’ have moved the workplaces out of the downtowns and into the suburbs (once, two weeks after I got the job and had finally started taking the bus). After we had cut out the meat, and the beer, and the wine (even on birthdays), and the movie rentals, and clothing, and birthday presents, and drywall, and going to parties that required the use of more of the precious gas… we still couldn’t cover the basic expenses while one of us was going to school. We never missed a mortgage payment, but we juggled, and juggled, and juggled… and we paid for the daycare with the credit card, knowing that someday we could sell the house – which we did when the Ph.D. was obtained.

Let me be clear: It sucked. I hated it. I didn’t feel morally superior in my frugal ways: I felt like a failure. And I kept reading the frugal blogs, and trying to follow their examples, and I kept getting angry. I didn’t get myself in debt by accumulating stuff. I did it by going to school, eating, and continuing to exist. There are expenses associated with simply existing, and I couldn’t cover them. That is not frugality. That is poverty.

Now that I think about it, though, I have probably benefited from a period of being actually poor, since I am better able to understand what that really means. I don’t have pity for “the poor”, I have anger at “the system”. And I have a lot of anger at the people who say, “Well, all you have to do is…” (Get a better job, don’t have kids, find cheaper housing, balance your budget, take the bus, spend less on your clothes, shop at Walmart, go back to school, be more careful… stop being poor. Or at least stop complaining about it, so I don’t have to listen.) It’s not that simple. If it were, everybody would have figured it out. It’s systemic.

The difference between frugality and poverty is more one of kind than of absolute income. It’s the difference between having the opportunity to be proud of my new-to-me free couch, and the deprivation of choosing between rent and food. It”s wearing a fuzzy sweater while reading under a single compact fluorescent light rather than shivering under blankets in the dark. Many of my problems could have been solved by living in a functional community instead of trying to go it alone. Had I been able to obtain stable work closer to home, the car expenses could have been cut out. Had I lived near (or with) parents and close friends, my childcare issues would have been simplified and expenses could have been defrayed by creative arrangements. Frugality takes time, skills, knowledge, and relationships. Due to continued ‘instability in the labour market’ (read: low-paying, temporary, and part-time jobs), our budget is still stretched paper-thin by regular living expenses. We have one stable, good paying job, plus a patchwork, but now our day-to-day activities are shared with another family who lives in an apartment in our back yard. We all have a better quality of life as a result. 9 people can’t live as cheaply as 1… but they might be able to live as cheaply as 5 if they grow their own food. And they can have more fun in the process.

One response to “Frugal by Habit”

  1. Oh Seonaid!

    You’ve encapsulated so much here, I love it. I was reading it and when you mentioned frugality vs poverty my mind raced ahead to the very things you then wrote. Unfortunately, these days I’m living in the latter section of the population, only even more so than I have in the past.

    It’s looking like I won’t even make it to camp, which is a milestone in itself as I’ve been every year since ’99. Would love to say more, but not so publicly *blush*.