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Back when I was a young mother, “The Tightwad Gazette” was a hit among our circle of friends. Most of us were under thirty, in first-time jobs, starting families and households. We loved Amy! We needed this kind of advice, and for people my age (now over fifty) it helped us feel normal as frugal people, and not like paupers when we compared ourselves to the consumer culture spreading through our society like an influenza virus. Amy and her family lived in Maine, like our little group, and many of us shared the same conditions and challenges her family had.
We learned to make our own granola, bake our own bread, darn socks, clean with baking soda and vinegar, establish car pools for work and playgroup, refinish furniture and power-shop garage sales and thrift stores. We used it up and wore it out, made it do or did without. I admit: My mother and grandmother taught me most of this, but it was new to the people who had moved to almost rural Maine in the late sixties and early seventies, looking for a quieter, healthier way of life. Amy helped them find it, as they had left a suburban and urban world that was rapidly evolving into the greedy, status-hungry mess we now see.
Amy and her frugal companions never advocated harming your family by neglecting nutrition, good sanitation or medical care. They advocated giving gifts and helping others. They did not mean “tightwad” as in miser; it was a humourous play on how others characterized them when they saved buttons and zippers from old clothes that they then made into patchwork quilts or diapers. They weren’t hoarders. If you want you can find photos and interviews on video with Amy at her home. It is spare and clean. Her collections of reusable items are well organized.
But times have changed. And this is why I am not a tightwad. We are just poor. I do employ those old ways of keeping body and soul together; I have food in the house at all times because I have a supply of dried foodstuffs in the pantry – beans and lentils, flour and cracked wheat, potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips I bought in quantity, which should last us at least a couple of months. We have firewood, and we installed a woodstove because we could not afford to heat with oil or electricity, which were the existing systems in the house. Our reasoning was that it is cheaper here; seasoned firewood is available from our landlord; and in the worst case, we can scavenge wood, which we can’t do with oil, electricity or propane.
Back when I was a young householder, it was possible to buy or rent a big old house in rural Maine with barns and sheds, acres of land, and maybe a woodlot. A couple of Jotul stoves and a big garden later, you were good to go. This isn’t possible now. The houses are older and losing condition if they weren’t renovated 30 years ago. Woodburning stoves are expensive and old ones are no longer acceptable to insurance companies. For someone without a woodlot, cords of wood in an area where there is high demand can run as much as oil overall.
Many of us have to look at living in smaller houses, and even micro-homes, less than 500 square feet. Ours is less than a thousand, but since we use only four rooms principally, we use about 700 square feet of living space.
This is why I can’t be the classic tightwad, and I’m not sure I am inclined in that direction. We can’t afford the space to store all the bits and bobs to be re-used; we can’t trawl the thrift store and garage sales for items to be stored for later. All my extra fabric, notions, items for resale and out of season coats have to be stored in a dresser and one closet. In a micro-home, there would be even less room, and it makes no sense at all to rent a storage locker for $25-$100 a month to store items that could be purchased new for less. I’ve seen what happens when people with a tiny home start to store those things – the vintage finds for resale (that don’t get sold); the bags and boxes of extra clothing the children outgrew and haven’t yet grown into; the hardware, kitchenware, linen, toys, appliances, and even lumber for the house that is not yet built, and can’t be built until the two acres is cleared of sheds, old trucks in various stages of cannibalism, piles of scrap metal to sell, and firewood to cut and split.
I limit the saving. I don’t stock up unless I am certain I can use it within its lifespan. I am the opposite of a hoarder – I get rid of things when they have not been used. I find this is the only way to live in a small house without getting overwhelmed.
There is still plenty to be learned from Amy and the tightwads of my generation. But I think we are all going to have to look at the reality of downsizing – of consuming less – of turning old things into new things by recycling rather than storing for later. So if you have trash bags full of old detergent bottles for the Scouts to turn into bird feeders, well, just go ahead and take them to the recycling center. It’s time.
We started on our crofting life with a lot less money than one would normally use to start a small farm. Then expenses shot higher than expected, with oil prices climbing and the cost of everything rising. We had more truck repairs than planned, and I was ill, with no choice but to self-pay for medical care.
We are used to making do or doing without.
We did order seeds, but I found that the readymade seed starting stuff was expensive. So I improvised, as above.
1. Recycle everything. Soup cans, yogurt containers. even take-out coffee cups. Ordinary potting soil worked better than the commercial seedstarting mix. This works if you have places to store items you will use later. We have a basement. As soon as the garden is planted, I will assess what to keep another year and what can go to the big green bin. I don’t want to cross the line into hoarding. So what can be re-used and stored cleanly will stay; the rest will begin its new life.
2. Use the internet, phone and catalogs. It is far cheaper for me to call the store to see if they have in stock what I need rather than making a trip by vehicle to find that it has to be ordered anyway. Postage and shipping costs are less than driving to the city where a product I need is sold. I use eBay and kijiji, the local equivalent of Craigslist. I never drive to town to just browse in the stores. Casual shopping is a waste of resources, and leads to impulse purchases we can’t afford. On the internet I can make comparisons quickly in price and, using product reviews, quality.
3. Buy quality. I refuse to buy cheap tools! They will be frustrating to use, will break or otherwise fail, and have to be replaced. So the $10 tool ends up costing $50 since I will need to replace it with the $40 model I should have bought the first time. My garden tools all have strong, fibreglass or coated handles and tempered steel heads. They cost more initially, but they save money in the course of a year or two. We were once helping someone renovate a small barn, and when Nicholas fitted a bit into the electric drill to start assembling a gate, the owner cautioned him, “Don’t bear down on that too hard!” And why not? “It isn’t tempered.” Excuse me, did you actually buy drill bits that are not tempered steel? And why? They looked good and they were cheap. They were also useless except for drilling holes in cardboard.
4. Don’t pay interest. Your mortgage should be the only loan you carry, once student loans get paid. We rent here, which is practical for us. Credit cards are a chump’s game. So are brokered loans for purchases like lawn mowers and furniture. Save, then buy. Borrow a lawn mower, or share the cost with a neighbour or family member. Don’t fall for those “no payments for a year” deals; they often run up interest four times what the item is worth.
5. Learn to cook. And buy good kitchenware – sharp knives, a heavy butcher’s block, good steel pans. Cook from basic ingredients, and learn to bake. With bread here costing $3 a loaf and more, and 5 kg of flour on sale for the same amount – well, do the math. If you are confident that you can turn out a good meal on your own, you will be less tempted to get take-out or eat restaurant meals. It makes raising your own food a lot more productive when you can venture past salad ingredients in the garden. Avoid stocking up canned soups, cake mixes and so on, although it does help to have a few convenience things available in case you are sick or you have spent three hours rounding up wayward sheep.
6. Buy less expensive crossbreed animals. It is beguiling to get into purebreds, with dreams of showing and winning prizes, leading to selling high-priced breeding stock. This rarely plays out, though. Showing itself is an expense, with trailering stock, overnight stays, and lots of miles on the farm truck. If what you need is milk, eggs, meat and wool to use at home or sell locally, an animal with no pedigree may do as well at less investment. Of the breeders I have known over the years, none but a very few ever did well with show quality animals. The rest found they were supporting their hobby animals with another job.
7. Buy off-season. Don’t buy a planter in the spring; don’t buy a snowblower in December. Wait for off-season sale prices. Buy the previous season ‘s leftover model.
8. Buy what you need. Stockpiling is a waste of money, space and sometimes a complete waste of the purchase if it spoils, decays or rusts before you can use it. The rule of thumb is buy no more than what you will use within six months; for the croft, my rule is a year if it is something that will keep. It’s no good buying 20 pounds of tomatoes at the farm stand if you can’t get them eaten or canned before they rot. Some petroleum products, such as gasoline, do not have a long shelf life. Batteries may not be any good after a year or more. I’ve seen people stockpile soft goods like toilet paper only to have mice get into it and chew it to shreds.
9.Buy only battery powered items that will take rechargeable batteries. We have two items – a cell phone and a digital camera. Batteries for a barn lantern get to be a big expense, for example.
10. Do it yourself. A few projects may require a licensed professional, but if you do not earn more per hour than that contractor does, you are working more of your hours to pay for his. We all like to think about the large scale, self-sufficiency projects such as a wind turbine or a new barn with lights and running water, but these things are usually too much for any of us to take on alone. Scale back the plans to the point where the work is within your competency.
There are many more ways to save money on a small farm. Share your favourite ideas.