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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.
I let the refrigerator stocks run low this week. That meant that I had used up a lot of the vegetables we bought last week. At this time of year, meat goes straight to the freezer, if it isn’t going to be used within twelve hours. I had made a good, spicy vegetable soup that incorporated frozen vegetables and herbs in the freezer, and served it with homemade bread twice this week. I have just a couple of frozen meals yet in the freezer, and I expect to use them in the next week.
One thing I haven’t done is made stock from the old turkey carcasses in the freezer. It’s about time, or time to toss them. Frozen stock or broth keeps well, better than its original meat or bones. I’ve been a bit lazy about this – it’s the whole planning issue, getting the frozen bags upstairs, into the big kettle, herbing and spicing it, and simmering it down. The worst part for me is disposing of the remains. This time I am just going to strain out the broth and toss whatever is too big to pass through the colander. I really should do it on a Saturday since the trash is picked up on Sunday night.
We have much less trash than we used to. Eight months ago, it was a full bin plus a bag on the curb and both recycling boxes. Now it’s maybe a bag and one box; there’s a little more this week since some old paper is going out. I’m pleased with this. Not only is the food waste almost nil, but the trash is more than halved in volume. My personal goal is zero waste, no trash bin, and almost no recycling – which is much harder to do.
My newest project is to find or develop a no-plastic freezer container. Some people use glass jars, but this is a temporary solution, since the jar will have air space, making it no more effective than the little plastic boxes. My parents, years ago, used to freeze blanched vegetables in a coated cardboard container, rather like a Chinese take-out box. Does anyone know if these are available?
Is there a connection between hoarding and waste? You’d think not, since hoarders are hyper-savers and wasters have no care for saving. And yet I believe they are two sides of the same coin.
The Bible tells us innummerable times not to hoard (save up your treasures in heaven, not on earth), and that what we save of our harvest will be shared (as Joseph did in Egypt). Our own folk myths tell of the humble poor being rewarded for sharing their meagre goods, as well as being the subject of Jesus’s great exposition on the widow’s mite. (She gave her ony coin to serve God, trusting God to provide for her.)
When does saving prudently cross the line into hoarding? When the corners start to get rounded. I can understand that someone might not be willing to get all the closets cleaned out as gifts and purchases accumulate, but at least the stuff is stored in closets. It’s just a procrastination or a busyness elsewhere. It will get done at some point. (Whether it is good stewardship is another question.) But when the closets and attic and basement and sheds are full, no one is making a move to clean anything out, and more stuff is coming in, then the corners start to fill up. Cardboard boxes migrate to the outer walls of rooms; coats and stocked- up toilet paper, cases of soup, tools, and old newspapers pile up in corners. The corners of the room start to look rounded into the room; the furniture no longer fits. The space between the couch and the wall becomes storage area. Beds can`t be moved for the boxes and old toys or shoes pushed under them. Slowly, the person loses control of the house; possessions take over. Then it is an apparent pathology, and something needs to be done.
Waste is similar. There is a disregard for the needs of others; there is a disregard for one`s own needs, to some extent. Insead of using what is available, it is replaced with something else more appealing at the moment. We are all guilty of this when it comes to food. I personally can`t bear eating leftover soup made from leftovers more than three days in a week, so if I`ve accidentally made more than we will eat in that period, the last two servings will languish until I give it to the dog. (Please note that I know what is appropriate to feed dogs. My homemade dogfood was better quality than most commercial foods, and it used grocery store ingredients. I don`t feed dogs onions or chocolate or any of the things I know they don`t tolerate, and it is lowfat and lowsodium food.)
But waste goes beyond kitchen waste – the wilted lettuce or the week-old egg whites that didn`t make it into an omelette. It`s also the clothes we bought that we didn`t wear much, the shoes bought to go with an outfit but we didn`t wear them but once, the cute Christmas or Valentine Day stuffed toys that don`t serve any purpose but to give someone a gift they didn`t need. And then periodically we bundle it up, drop it off at Goodwill or the church rummage sale, and don`t worry about it. But it was still wasteful. We didn`t use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without. We discarded carelessly, warehousing it with a resale shop or even tossing it out because it lay on the floor so long that the stains set or the dog was sick on it. We bought something we didn`t need and then we discarded it so it became someone else`s reponsibility.
Hoarders waste because they can`t let anyone else use what they have. The goods deteriorate, are destroyed by rodents, or are so hopelessly outdated by the time they are rescued that no one would want them. By keeping things that won`t be used, they keep the basic materials out of the recycling stream as well. They don`t want to deal with their accumulation, even though it sits there uselessly. They want someone else to deal with it, as one therapist said while trying to help a person caught in a hoarding pathology. While trying to maintain control, they don`t take control.
Wasting means that things are not used and discarded inappropriately. They don`t get used while fresh or timely; they get tossed into the waste stream instead where they might or might not get recycled. We live in a culture of disposal. Nothing is considered permanent – except maybe some church buildings no one attends but the former parishioners won`t tear down! (Hoarding church buildings must be a particuarly bad form of hoarding.) We have a Walmart mentality – buy it new, buy it now. Have it all. Then get rid of it when it is no longer appealing and start over.
Have you ever redocoratedÉ Have you ever had the impulse to go out, buy new curtains, slipcovers, towels, and rugsÉ Have you ever discarded a sofa just because you didn`t like the fabricÉ I never have, because I`ve never had the money to do that, but it is tempting, when we are bored or we`ve visited a friend who has just completely refurbished the bedroom and we are feeling kind of sad and left out, like it`s not our birthday. This is the attitude that leads to waste. Shopping and new things are not a source of pride or therapy. Retailers would like us to believe this – that a new pair of shoes will lift our spirits and we will not need to deal with the reasons we felt depressed or anxious. But new shoes get scuffed or stained pretty quickly. Someone else will have a newer pair, and again we will feel like the loser. It used to be called keeping up with the Joneses, an escalating battle of goods that sends families into debt and separation and envy.
Hoarding is the same illness. The hoarder looks at an item and says, I must have this! It fills a need in me! It will add to my collection. I will corner the market on left-handed antique screwdrivers, so it will be worth something some day. (It won`t be, most likely. I used to be a museum curator – the reason we had all that antique stuff is that it wasn`t worth anything, and people were getting rid of it.) Hoarding wastes things by warehousing them where they are not useful. And someday I will explain why being a museum curator gave me pangs of conscience, for that very reason.
So before you all start squirming over whether you are hoarding or wasting – here are some basic rules.
1. If you aren`t going to use it soon, move it along. Give it away, sell it on eBay, donate it.
2. Don`t buy it until you need it. this means kitchen applances, power tools, cases of anything on sale if you don`t use it regularly.
3. Stay out of bin lot and discount stores unless you have a specific need.
3. See if you can re-use something yourself before you discard it. Can you make it overÉ Clean itÉ Move it to another roomÉ
4. If you are discarding, do it rationally. Recycle what you can, even if you have to put it in the car and drop it off at the recycling center – batteries, old paint. Break things down into components for recycling or it will end up in the landfill.
There are lots of resources for dealing with clutter, for streamlining the waste stream out of your house, for changing your attitude. I think the primary one is to see how the Bible tells us to deal with material possessions, and to pray for the Lord`s help in doing that.