Friday, September 7, 2007

Being frugal in a time of abundance

Quite some time ago, the lovely Kez nominated me for a Frugal Subversive Award. I haven't really mentioned it due to one thing (illness) and another (previously mentioned project taking up loads of time and energy) but mainly because I've been pondering the meaning of 'frugal' and whether or not it applies to me. And I'm still not sure.

My much loved Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases puts 'frugal' in with economy, thrift, prudence, care, husbandry, good housewifery, savingness, keep within compass. The word suggests a respect of limits rather than a penny pinching love of money. Current Australian debt levels suggest there's not a lot of frugal in our lives, even when high house prices are accounted for. And the idea that we limit our choices out of respect for future generations or other species or people still seems embarassingly worthy to many. I think when people are frugal, they are swimming against the current.

It's an interesting phenomenon, this frugal cool I see on many of the blog sites I visit. I like it, I like reading about all the things people do in their home, and why they do them. But I've never really considered myself frugal. Heaven knows, almost all of the money I earned in my 20s went on booze and my back. More recently, Al and I have had to be careful with money: a mortgage, then a bigger mortgage, then a child, then a drop to one income, then another child, then structural problems with the house, have meant we've always been teetering on the brink of more money going out than coming in. We were very careful with money, and really worried, but I never stopped thinking, "I'll be okay". And sure enough, the happy intersection of a pay rise, a tax cut (but I'm still not voting for you, John), and paying off HECS and my supplement loan has meant our finances have turned a corner. We're very, very lucky.

I do lots of things that look like frugality: My clothes - and those of the Al and the girls - are mostly from op shops, as are my furniture and kitchen stuff. I grow our vegetables and we save a lot of money this way. We walk. But these are choices that reflect a whole set of preferences unrelated to saving money or respecting limits: I like bargains, I like gardening, I like to walk. Mostly, the things I do are the things I want to do. There are other reasons: I care about our health and the environment, and I come from a frugal home, but really, I find the things I do fun.

I am frugal but I am not poor.

A couple of days ago, while waiting for the bus, I looked into the window of a sophisticated clothing store and saw a really lovely shirt. I thought, "I'll go get that tomorrow afternoon". And I did. It cost a lot, it looks great on me. Buying it has been a treat - I'm not one to buy expensive clothes - but it won't break the bank, it won't even break the budget. Yesterday, I bought an imported home style magazine, it cost a lot of money. This is not something I often do - I usually borrow mags from the library - but it's pleasant to sit on the couch at the end of the week and mindlessly stare at beautiful things.

I am frugal and I am not poor.

One of my favourite books is called Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich. In it, she works a series of working class jobs (waitress, cleaner, Walmart assistant) and tries to live on the wages she earns. What stayed with me is this: the financially sensible decisions, the things that save money, actually require an already existing set of resources, notably time, money and health. Leasing a house with a kitchen is a cheaper option than living in a hotel and eating take away, but it's an option that requires money for a deposit and time to find a place.

It's easy being frugal when it doesn't really count. I think of my vegetable garden: the seeds don't cost much compared to those bags of lettuce in the store, it's true, but if I added the constant inputs of organic material, the driving to get the free manure, and my time (if I charged out at my going rate), my home grown greensare actually pretty expensive. In my job I sit at a desk all day, thinking thoughts, bossing people around and writing. Coming home and getting into the garden is a nice change; things might be very different if I was standing on my feet at a check out, or lugging heavy loads. Wearing second hand clothes is easy enough when I know I can afford the flash ones; it was much harder to do so when I had no choice, when those clothes reflected my financial status rather than a lazy rainy Saturday morning trawling the opshops for bargains. In our society, if you are poor you are a loser or lazy, and it's hard to advertise that.

I am frugal because I am not poor.


After I strolled away from the sophisticated clothing store, I walked past the headlines outside the newsagent. The women's magazines were gleefully speculating on Owen Wilson, that Hollywood guy who may have tried to kill himself; imagine your pain as the entertainment of others (with exclusive pics!). The local newspaper reported on a woman who in desparation had left her autistic teenage son with health authorities and just walked out, unable to cope and getting no assistance; imagine such despair. At work I spoke to a mother whose child goes to Lucy's erstwhile child care centre. She's a refugee from Sudan, and she wants to bring her family over, the government is not so keen on the idea; imagine, imagine, imagine. By 7.25 am I felt very sad.

I think it's a world of abundance, sure, but there's a parsimony, an illiberality, a niggardliness, a stinginess, a shabbiness and a miserliness in our society when it comes to an active love and concern for others. We are, according to Roget's, stopping one hole in a sieve.


Kez said...

Wow - great thoughts there Kris. To me, being frugal is being aware of the choices you make with money & resources. It's not being "tight" with money, it's choosing your priorities and realising that money is finite. We have a lot of things in our life that others would consider luxuries but we do that by cutting down in areas that don't matter to us as much.

Because the people I surround myself with on the internet (by choice) are like-minded, I forget that most people don't think like that. Until I get a dose of the 'real world' and realise that we are still very much a minority and swimming against the tide.

I agree as well that it is much easier to be frugal when you don't have to, when you have the luxury of splurging every once in a while. It's a mindset.

I still think you deserve the award :)

Tamsin said...

Kris, what a beautiful piece of writing. Yes, absolutely, you're right. Even if things are genuinely tight, we are very lucky to have our confidence and belief that 'this too will pass' to fall back on. It makes all the difference in the world.

Anonymous said...

I really like this. For me frugality is about keeping control of money, time and things in my life. It is also about using resources thoughtfully and remembering that others are also entitled to whatever I take for granted. Let's leave something for others. JEN

Susan said...

Belated comment. This is a most excellent post. Many times I've thought along these lines. You've written my (well that stuff).

blue milk said...

I loved, loved, loved "Nickel and Dimed" and you made such a superbly observed point - it's hard to be frugal when you're really poor.