Tuesday, October 06, 2009


"Dedicated to Those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy" reads the subtitle of The American Frugal Housewife, which was Mama's birthday present to me this year.

It made me wonder. Am I ashamed of frugality? Frugality's the hottest thing these days among the cruise-canceling set, but for those of us who have always been underfunded, frugality looks like dull work. And even in these straitened days, the prophets of frugality sound like bitter killjoys. Take the advice of the frugal housewife herself:

"Young ladies should be taught that usefulness is happiness, and all other things are but incidental."

She's right, of course -- just a few things are less happy than the feeling of uselessness -- but she sounds so harsh with all her "should be taught"s and "young ladies", and while frankly I think people waste a lot of money out of fear and ignorance and incompetence, I'm not about to tell them so. Am I ashamed?

Let's see. I just voluntarily quit my very nice job as a produce clerk to wing it as a freelancer. In this economy? How embarrassing. I just voluntarily subjected myself to the drudgery of scrimping, the grit of budget spreadsheets, the shameful penury of the unsteadily employed. I also lost my health insurance. (Obama, please hurry up with the health insurance. I'd like some before my beauty marks metastatize). In the meantime, I get to pull a number, grab a seat, and wait half a day in the very-unglamorous public clinic for my health care. (I consider nutrition my best health insurance, but there's always the risk of some drunk SUV-driving teenager running me over when I'm biking home with my eggs and milk). I'm a little ashamed.

As a small girl, I relished my self-proclaimed "weirdness" and delighted in my thrifty heritage. I did! I didn't mind the holes in my shoes, but I did mind that the socks poking out were unfashionably teal. And I didn't like the fact that our laundry hung to dry on a clothesline directly southeast of the outdoor woodstove. When the coldest winds came hurtling from the northwest and we stoked the stove to a fever pitch, we smelled like stale woodsmoke for days. I was a little ashamed. On most days, though, I'm a touch smug about my pennypinching.

For one thing, I can tap into a rich heritage of proud thrift. Every penny saved is a tic on my Mennonite scorecard. Nonetheless, I've had to shift some of my traditional definitions of frugal. Money is not the only resource -- what about health (and our children's health) and time and beauty? It isn't, for example, frugal to save large quantities of white bread even if it's free. Refined flours drain nutrients from your body when you digest them -- they spend health. Nor is it frugal to buy cheap chicken that comes from an industrial poultry farm that spews chicken shit and antibiotics into the drinking water and gives the workers brown lung. Nor is it frugal to spend hours of your time figuring out ways to save a few pennies.

It is, however, quite frugal to "waste" lots of time cooking for yourself and doing chores, even if you could go buy the same food for much less than your hourly wage. Why? Because building varied daily physical activity into your schedule makes you healthy and content. Grinding grain, hanging laundry, kneading bread, sweeping the floor -- these sorts of "boring" chores free the mind and relax the body. They can also be incredibly satisfying aesthetically (sigh for a line of well-hung laundry drying in the sun). And the aesthetics are crucial. It's much more fun to clean a light and lovely home, much more fun to cook in a well-appointed kitchen, much more fun to have people over for supper when the lighting's warm and mellow. This sort of beauty makes you happier and healthier, I do believe -- it's genuinely frugal and nothing to cause shame.


Anonymous said...

This is so well said Rosanna! I think you articulate oh so well the difference between penny-pinching as the bottom line and living a truly frugal life.

Ken Albala said...

Rosanna, You know as much as I like the idea of a sequel, I think you should jump on this idea first. You've even been given a title: A TRULY FRUGAL LIFE. Make it part advice to people's questions, even if fictional, and part basic tips, household hints, etc. I'll be happy to look at a proposal if you write it up. It's a great idea.

Unknown said...

Well said!

Elle said...

I love this! Applause! Clapping! Especially the part about "spending health;" it is so true & what a way to articulate it. It's a shame that such sensible sensiblity is seen as so far out.