frugality, using a pencil to its very end

The lost skill of frugality

Frugality. There’s a word you rarely hear on YouTube or see on electronic screens these days.

With the alleged booming economy, I suppose most Americans don’t have much need for frugality in 2020. But it hasn’t been that many years ago when being frugal was a way of life, and I’m not talking about The Great Depression.

Back in the 1980s, when unemployment in my home county was around 20 percent and we depended on my wife’s $2-an-hour job to purchase the groceries for our family of three, frugality was a way of life. There was a year or so when I was counted among the 20 percent, and we had to figure out how to live on less than $200 a week. When the unemployment benefits ran out, we had to scrape by on even less. Getting a job that paid $6.50 an hour and required use of my personal vehicle, compensated at a rate of 9 or 10 cents a mile, didn’t do much to relieve our dependence on frugality. But at least food stamps were not putting the meals on our table.

We became so adept at frugal living I wrote a newspaper column as “Frugal Feather.” One strategy of frugality was to use manufacturer’s coupons inserted in the Sunday paper. I kept my eyes out for those inserts that made their way into the newsroom trash and thought I’d hit the mother lode of savings when I found a stack of them discarded. I recall one time getting something like 10 bags of noodles free using the BOGO coupons. But that was back before Aldi, which is where the frugal shop. Even with coupons, national brands cost more, and these days the frugal use of manufacturer’s coupons is for lighting the wood stove.

Back in the days of frugal living, we recycled most everything, and by recycling, I mean we used it more than once. Aluminum foil used to cover a dish in the oven got reused for wrapping up leftovers and storing in the fridge. Plastic food storage bags were rinsed and reused. We had more empty butter and sour cream bowls than we could ever possibly use for leftovers, but they found secondary purposes as dog water bowls, seedling pots, sandbox toys, parts containers and paint-brush holders.

We purchased only used vehicles and, to minimize fuel usage and wear and tear on the cars, we carefully planned trips and combined errands into one journey. We saved our money rather than make car payments and went into debt for a vehicle only when necessary and interest rates were low. Double, triple payments were made to eliminate debt and reduce interest expense. My father took care of all repairs.

Our old dog went to the vet only when she was ill and got her vaccinations from a dog breeder friend. I went years without going to a doctor because of high insurance deductibles. Fortunately, I didn’t have any chronic issues that required prescriptions. A medical emergency stressed the budget for months because our health “insurance” had high deductibles, but we always paid our debts.

My wife made her own clothes and kept mine in good condition. My clothes, for the most part, came from the “men’s shop” at Goodwill and the Salvation Army. My wife cut my hair, baked most of the bread we ate and canned hundreds of jars of tomatoes and sauces. “Going out to eat” involved buying a cheap pizza and taking it to a lakefront park. We called these mini-vacations “pizza picnics” and set a place at the table for Clifford, our golden mix, who enjoyed the outings as much as we did.

Our annual vacation in September or October was always a working one for me, built around a list of four to six stories that I would do for Goldenseal Magazine while staying in West Virginia for six days. The money from the stories paid for the travel. I lived for those simple but fulfilling journeys.

Frugality gave us some latitude with our passions–cameras, slide film and multi-image gear for me, sewing machines for her. The equipment was almost always used and rarely of “professional” caliber. Our pastimes had to pay for themselves, and by the time we had made enough to buy what we needed, we were too tired to enjoy it for ourselves.

We saved our all our paper bags from the grocery store. The small bags could be re-used for packing lunches and the large ones were terrific for holding the folded bags and lining the kitchen trash can, unless coffee grounds were tossed in with the “dry” waste. I miss getting groceries and other purchases in those bags.

My frugality stopped short of recycling the envelopes in which junk mail arrived, although I’ve received more than one letter in one of these repurposed envelopes with the credit card company’s return address scratched out and a piece of paper taped over the cellophane window. And I learned that frugality is no excuse for being “penny wise and pound foolish,” as with buying bargain house paint that required three coats versus a quality product that covered with one coat.

Being “retired,” I find myself once again migrating to a life of frugality. Being thrust into early retirement was one factor; I am discovering why older folks always complain about being on a “fixed income.” It is especially difficult when you spend your life planning for things being a certain way and then a box full of monkey wrenches is tossed into those plans just a few years shy of reaching the goal. Accordingly, I’m grateful I mastered money-management tools like saving, frugality and contentment way back when. I’ve learned to appreciate the capabilities of existing technology possessions rather than focus on the latest offerings and, since I rarely leave the house, familiar clothes do just fine and the old car with 100,000 miles on it still gets me where I need to go, which is not very far. There’s a garden in the side yard and we heat with wood, supplemented with space heaters buring natural gas, the bill for which I just received and gave me sticker shock. Time to get out the sweaters.

But the real budget killers are taxes: federal, state, city and school income taxes; real estate property taxes; sales taxes. It is impossible to be frugal with these items. You owe them and they take precedence over all other expenses. It is no exaggeration when I say that we are facing a 12-percent increase in taxes this year thanks to a new school district income tax and the generous voters in our county approving a bevy of property taxes for services and amenities we don’t use.

It takes a lot of frugality to make up for those increases, but since government and schools have not mastered the skill of frugality, it is up to the taxpayers to implement the frugal lifestyle. After doing all the taxes, my wife and I concluded that we can’t afford either The Feather Cottage or living in northeast Ohio much longer, but neither of us has an idea where we want to go. Ohio has some of the highest property taxes in the nation and is not particularly friendly to retirees. And the nation’s $20 trillion debt suggests to me that this un-frugal federal government is not going to be very tax friendly, regardless of your residence. I don’t see a single presidential candidate talking about reducing taxes for regular folks, and the Democratic Candy Men and Women are promising gifts that are sure to increase the tax bill until the republic collapses under the burden.

I predict, regardless of who is in the White House, that frugality will return out of necessity, although to the detriment of the Dow and amazon.com. Consumers may eventually be forced to “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” as “Silent Cal” Calvin Coolidge suggested when things got tight (wouldn’t it be great if we once again had a president who could earn the “silent” nickname and suggest frugality?). It would be a tough order for consumers today, for our economy is fueled by excess, wastefulness and indebtedness for things we really don’t need. We are still driving automobiles to the poor farm, and many of those “in poverty” carry their iPhone 11s in designer bags and wear team-logo jackets while waiting in line at the Social Security office (yes, I’ve been there and seen it).

A return to frugality would be good for the soul, planet and our bank accounts (do people still have savings accounts, or just lines of credit and credit cards?). And it need not mean that we reduce our standard of living, which has become woefully interconnected with excess. Both the stock market and our lives would benefit from a good purging. However, just like the task of cleaning out the garage, no one knows where to start and it is easier to close the garage door and go shopping.

Looking back on those days of 1980s frugality, I realize that we both survived and lived well. We had no shortage of problems, but also no shortage of laughter. Much of the distress we felt was driven not by our actual circumstances, but by the advertising that suggested we were unhappy because we lacked something. There was, in fact, much to keep us occupied and happy, had we only taken the time to avail ourselves of it. But we often were too busy getting the next thing that was sure to make us happy, really happy.

And that brings us today. Are we happy yet?

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not,” suggested Marcus Aurelius. “Remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

A garden far removed

The garden is so tired, yet the summer is not done with us, and so it attempts growth.

A green pumpkin hangs tenuously onto the fence, a withered vine feigns support. I have no idea what it keeps it alive.

A tomato plant blooms, as does a pumpkin vine far from its original planting. Bees buzz, searching for autumn pollen.

They do not know that the harvest has past. Their efforts are ceremonial, I suspect.

The yellow cherry tomatoes that, during August and September, burst before they were ripe, hang whole and deliciously on scrawny vines that droop over the wire fence. Blossoms of the garden flower mixture, 60 cents at Buck’s Hardware, press against the wires, faces gaunt and hopeful, like prisoners of war awaiting liberators. Perhaps the kitchen scissors will give them their freedom, if I can find something to hold their stems.

The fence goes back to April, a wall to protect the plot from the raccoons, ground hogs and rabbits that ravaged gardens of prior years. The old gate fell apart several weeks ago and I’ve not been of a mind to fix it. The garden is like the final act of the play, when the ticket taker retires to the back room for his Four Roses, and the passersby are free to wander in and take their pick of the entertainment, to catch the closing scene.

As far as I can tell, not one critter has bothered, save the brown snake I disturbed one day and sent him on his way. All 12 inches of him turned on me, opened wide his venom-less mouth and went on his way, and I on mine. I’ve not seen him since, yet I watch for him. I have learned to always watch for the snakes.

More threatening are the acorns. The mast is heavy this year and blankets the ground like a marble-factory truck overturned on the Interstate. The nuts are massive; they smart when they fall on my noggin and sound like gunshots when they hit the metal roofs of the garage and house. They ping and rattle down the incline six feet above my office ceiling and clog the gutters. Families of wild turkey wander in from the forest  and feast on the bounty in the driveway, where my Scion’s tires accomplished released the meat. There are white-tailed deer, as well, and I suspect they claimed one of the four golden delicious apples the adolescent tree bore this year.

This morning the breeze is warm and leaves green, I could mistake it for summer, but it is October, and a third of a way through it, at that. Uneasiness is in the air, and the heavy mast and white tips of my fingers, afflicted with Raynauld’s Syndrome, tell me a cold winter is coming.

There will be logs to cut, split and stack, leaves to rake and yard items to put away. That’s the outside work; inside myriad projects beg completion—two books to write, edit, design and publish, video projects and freelance work.

I feel like that old garden. I am hanging on to the past life of the workaday world, but my hands, the carpet of acorns and fence of dying vines tell me that world is past. I was retired in a flash, but the spots of that flash still cloud my vision and perspective. A bit of summer fans the hope that someday I will return to full-time work, but I know those hopes hang by withered vines; come the first frost, the gourd will drop to  white-crusted earth with a thud that will wake nothing, not even the snakes.

Those snakes haunt me, imprison me in my lair. They bit me so viciously in the past, I cannot help but distrust them and fear their presence. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” King David lamented. Like David, I lament, too:

This isn’t the neighborhood bully
    mocking me—I could take that.
This isn’t a foreign devil spitting
    invective—I could tune that out.
It’s you! We grew up together!
    You! My best friend!
Those long hours of leisure as we walked
    arm in arm, God a third party to our conversation.

(Psalm 55:12-14, The Message Bible)

If plants have feelings, I wonder if they will sense betrayal when I rip them from the October soil, drop their bones into the yellow wheelbarrow and add them to the compost pile? Their fruit harvested, their work done, their bodies wracked with the pain of October, devalued, discarded … “We grew up together! You! My best friend!” Will that be their lament, as it was mine?

Or perhaps, like the snakes that I fear so much, the plants don’t feel regret, pain or shame. They just slither about their kingdoms, hissing and going to and fro, seeking who they will deceive next.

If so, I elect to feel their pain. I will feel the pain of October and beyond, to the grave.

unde malum

This much I have learned, pain exists that we might understand the heart of the gardener.

We handle it better as we age, and a good thing, too, for there is much sadness and pain in this garden far removed from Eden.