A conversation with my husband:
SavvyHousekeeper: I’m cold. Let’s turn on the heater.
Husband: Get a blanket. It’s cheaper than turning on the heater.
SavvyHousekeeper: (Grumbling) Oh ok.
Husband: (Laughing) You’re talking about reusing gray water and getting rain barrels yet you want to turn on the heater whenever you’re cold.
SavvyHousekeeper: But that’s the point–I talk about reusing gray water and getting rain barrels so that I can have enough money to turn on the heater whenever I want!
As you can see, I’m not a hardcore frugal person. I cut back where I can, but some things, like being warm, are not worth the sacrifice to me. Or put another way, I would rather cut back in some areas so that I have the extra money to splurge in other areas. It’s all about priorities and knowing what you want to spend your money on.
Still, I admire people like Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced Decision), whose book The Complete Tightwad Gazette has taught me more about money than any other book I’ve read. When she was a young woman, Dacyczyn had a dream to have “a large family and a rural pre-1900 New England farmhouse (with attached barn). I had a crazy notion that I could have both without the two income/daycare frenzy that has become the norm for the modern American family.”
To achieve this dream, Dacyczyn and her family proceeded to tightwad so thoroughly that relatives teased her about it. A Depression-era aunt bought her two boxes of aluminum foil for Christmas because Dacyczyn was so zealous about reusing the same foil over and over.
Saving money, rather than earning money, became the means to my goal. I became a reuser first of aluminum foil, then of ziplock bags, and now, I publicly confess, I have become a reuser of vacuum cleaner bags. (No Christmas presents please.)
My challenge in life became how low I could get our food budget and still have a varied, healthful diet, or how wonderful I could make a child’s birthday with a $25 budget, or how many years I could go without buying wrapping paper.
I made it my personal mission to create ways to reuse plastic milk jugs, bread tabs, brown paper bags, egg cartons and those frozen juice lids.
Dacyczyn took frugality to a level I don’t take it to. Although I reuse things, I also buy expensive things that Dacyczyn would probably find extravagant. However, the philosophy is similar: If you want to do something with your money, cutting back in other areas allows you to save for the things you really want. In my case, I want to work at home at an artistic career, own a pretty and well-decorated home, have a retirement account, be debt-free, and still travel at least once a year. I’m well on my way to achieving these things, and I attribute much of that to frugality.
Frugality might seem like it doesn’t work. After all, reusing a box of ziplock baggies just saves a measly $3, so why bother? But I can attest that small savings really do add up. It’s basic economics. You don’t spend more than you have, you prioritize where your money goes, and you figure out sacrifices–large and small–that allow you to funnel your money into the things you really want. The proof is in the bank account. In Dacyczyn’s case (this is in 1980s dollars, by the way):
When we got married our joint financial assets barely paid for the budget wedding. We owned almost nothing. In other words, we started from ZERO.
Over the years our average income has been less than $30,000 (including my husband’s Navy salary and all allowances, plus my spotty freelance income). In less than seven years we saved $49,000, made significant investment purchases (vehicles, appliances, furniture) of $38,000, and were completely debt free! That is an annual savings/investment rate of over $12,500 per year, or 43% of our gross income. …
No, we weren’t too thrifty.
Certainly the reusing of aluminum foil did not greatly contribute to our dream. Rather, it was the attention to all the thousands of ways we spent our money that made a tremendous difference.
In the end, money is very personal. We all have different ideas about what makes up a high-quality life. In my mind, for example, a high-quality life does not include being cold (even though I did get the blanket after my husband’s prompting). Each of us needs to figure out what kind of life we want and instead of trying to take shortcuts by charging it all on a credit card, we’re better off working our way toward it, one small savings at a time.