Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Frugality Thoughts

Interesting article on frugality. (HT: Jen at Conversion Diary, who's been blogging about household economics recently).

It fits in with a book I recently read called The Overspent American. The book is more about "status spending" than about basic one-income frugality, but it did make me more aware of how even the lower-middle-class homeschooler can fall into the consumer-trap, with "gotta have" purchases in curriculum and lessons for the kids. From this review, here is a summary of the author's ideas for controlling spending in a consumer society:

# CONTROLLING DESIRE: Become conscious of the tricks that cause you to spend irrationally and overcome those tendencies.
# MAKE EXCLUSIVITY UNCOOL: Attatch new and unflattering symbols to consumerism.
# VOLUNTARILY RESTRAIN COMPETITIVE SPENDING: Dollar limits on Christmas presents, etc.
# SHARING: Communal ownership of certain items like lawnmowers, gardening equipment, childrens toys, etc. Schor recommends setting up lending institutions on the model of public libraries.
# BECOME AN EDUCATED CONSUMER: Know the real cost of what you're buying. Make rational purchasing decisions.
# AVOID "RETAIL THERAPY:" Don't spend money to reward yourself or make yourself feel better.
# DECOMMERCIALIZE THE RITUALS: Ten thousand dollars for a wedding? Are you insane!?
# MAKING TIME: Is time spent working to make money to buy a meal equivalent to time spent cooking yourself a meal? Analyze those trade-offs and consider doing things for yourself.
A 9th solution she mentions is "THE NEED FOR COORDINATED INTERVENTION: ....taxes on luxury and name-brand items to discourage us from buying them."

I'm not a fan of coordinated intervention (meaning government-imposed) because of that pesky law of unintended secondary consequences. Besides, I've never seen why people I don't know should get paid by my neighbors and me to decide how we should spend our money. But the personal ideas are helpful, even the ones I don't really fall short on (never been tempted by pricey rituals and status labels and competitive gift exchanges, for example) and in general I found the book very thought-provoking.

Another thing she mentioned in the book that isn't on the list, that is a trait of "downsizers" who are being more conscious of their spending habits, is to be happy with shabby, older, worn things. This made an impression on me. If you looked around my house you would see lots of shabby, not-quite-working things. For example, our sofa, handed down from my husband's grandmother, has sprung through its upholstery in a big way. There are a few alternatives to cope with the problem of shabbiness and imperfection:

  1. Buy a new one and toss the old one.
  2. Repair the old one yourself.
  3. Have the old one repaired.
  4. Leave it the way it is and let it drag you down. ... that is, feel discontented and inadequate about the problem OR just give in to entropy and let the whole house descend into shabbiness.
  5. Learn to be OK with it the way it is.... that is, fix it enough so that it works, pay attention to beauty within the framework you can manage, and feel grateful for what you have in the item.
I suppose in one way the 2nd solution is the best. Many times, I practice the 4th solution because the 3rd, and even the 2nd, are out of our money/time/skill range. But the book helped me realize that sometimes the 5th is actually the best... living with it and being happy with what you have. Sometimes it really is better to be OK with a not-perfect, but functional item around the house and use time and money and talent somewhere that it's more productive.

Feeling grumpy and discontented can SEEM like a solution. I think that it's a counter-temptation to the temptation to just let everything slide and get comfortable with second-best. For example, I remember meeting an elderly couple in the laundry room when we were renting an apartment in San Francisco. We were there because our baby was in the SF hospital waiting for his liver transplant. The elderly wife wore a cross expression and was continually grumbling because she felt like the apartment living was a trap, a dead-end. She told me, "It's not so bad for you, because you're young." I couldn't help reflecting on how this attitude dragged down her husband (who had a permanent defeated slump) and how her discontent blinded her to the situation of those around here. For example, she never even knew that we were there because our baby was sick and in constant danger of death. She wasn't open to that knowledge. She was focusing on how much other people had in comparison to her. There is always TRUTH in that comparison -- other people ALWAYS have things you don't -- but the negativity of dwelling on that can act as a stumbling-block and keep you from being aware of the things you have that other people don't.

In contrast was another elderly couple living in the same apartment complex. The wife in this family found out about our situation and brought us a little china angel as a token of her sympathy with Aidan's medical struggles. She always asked about him and was very patient in dealing with the inevitable noise our five children generated. (We lived just above them and our children ranged in age from 13 down to 3, not counting the infant in the intensive care unit). She maintained an elegant, kind composure about life even though she and her husband both had some health problems and she probably could have found as much to complain about as the other woman. She was a good example of bringing beauty out of a situation by kindness and patience.

I think I am talking about a shift in my mental attitude. As for the sprung sofa, I've stuffed the sprung parts with old ripped sheets and covered it with a comforter which serves as a drapery. It doesn't look that elegant, but it's up in our loft where elegance isn't as important. It's not very comfortable, but it's still quite well used. I try to pad it to make it comfortable ENOUGH for a teen to lie on it while watching a family movie, for example. So for now, it serves and it has a noble family tradition going back perhaps half a century. My husband can remember his grandparents, now gone, sitting on that very sofa.

So I can choose to focus on those good things in a positive way rather than pining over repairs that aren't really in our financial zone right now. I think that the pioneers were probably much more likely to appreciate what they had, knowing that there wasn't really an easy replacement. In our society the very abundance of options can be draining. Focusing on being happy with what one has, and making the most of that, can be a good recipe for frugality. It can become a creative force in one's life.


Laura A said...

Amen to that! Very nice post. I like the idea of frugality as an attitude of thankfulness and making do, not scrimping at others' expense.

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking as usual. I'm not a big fan of frugality for frugality's sake but anti-consumerism, living sustainably, etc. I can sign up for. And sometimes that looks very similar.

I think the competitive spending issue is big, culturally. And the point you make about the ease of just replacing things leading to lack of appreciation for what we have.

On the spendy weddings, when I first saw a figure for the average spend on a wedding, I was floored. And it is possible to have one at Disney with the Cinderally carriage and everything for a price (big price; people pay it). Combine that with the fact that divorce rates decrease with length of marriage and you realize that lots of people are getting divorced before they've even paid off the wedding itself. Add in the fact that financial stress can contribute to marital breakdown... Well, I know you are smart enough to draw some good conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the frugality links. We are often guilty of what Seneca warned about when he said, "Thrift comes too late when you find it at the bottom of your purse." :-) I am always striving to do better.

edgar said...

Thank you for your notes on frugality.
I like to buy used books. I ran out of bookshelves in our house. We downsized and now I didn't have space for books in the condo.My wife suggested- for every book I buy I should take one book to our city library for the booksale.
Frugality is like dieting. I try to remember the basics, the essentials and limit the uxury. I thought Thoreau explained it in Walden.