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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.
Some years the garden is a marvel to behold, a miniature Eden, full of fruit in season, lots of it, plenty to eat, plenty to share, plenty to store for the long winter. The plants blossom like girls in party dresses, the stalks grow like twelve-year-old boys in new jeans. The sun is right, the rain is right, the breeze is right, and the varmints stay away.
I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those years.
Something goes wrong every year. I got the garden in late because we moved to a place where there was no garden spot and we had to prepare the soil; the spring was cold and wet; the summer was cold and wet; the fall was cold and wet. Deer/raccoons/mice/squirrels/sheep/chickens ate the seedlings and fruit. The frost came late/early. Cutworms moved into the neighborhood. Some helpful person picked all the beans/peas/tomatoes before they were ready. Well, you get the picture.
This year we had beautiful plants – tall, strong stalks and lots of blossoms. But the fruit didn’t set, except for a few peppers. Then the peppers disappeared. Squirrels had decided that our garden was an early morning snack stand, and the baby tomatoes and little peppers were just vanishing. I finally put down soap chips and dog hair, and they have stopped trying to take everything, but that might be because the tomato plants got too tall to be raided! We did have some really good peppers and the herbs, except the parsley, have done well. So it isn’t a total loss, and it does look really nice.
God made squirrels, too. I like squirrels in their proper environment – that is, outside my garden. They may be close relatives to rats, but I like some rats. Rats are smart and funny. Squirrels may not be very bright, but they are amusing. (I won’t mention their wars in our backyard, though. They can be nasty with each other.)
We had counted on homegrown food to help offset the grocery store costs. We didn’t get much. But so far, God, in His bounty, has provided. We pray that He continues to provide. I guess the big issue is, does our consumption mean someone else won’t have enough? Does our Standard American Diet deprive someone else of food?
This is part of our pacifism, that our actions do not harm someone else. We have found out that some things we enjoy are very costly in the distribution of food to others. Beef, for instance. Grain and water go to feed cattle that become hamburgers and supermarket steaks. That grain is desperately needed to feed people in impoverished, drought-stricken countries. Beer is another environmentally expensive choice. It uses a large amount of grain and water, too. And the shipping costs are high – fuel that could be saved or utilized in more practical ways.
I used to buy ethanol for my car years ago, then it dropped off the market. Now it’s back as bio-fuel. It’s made from corn, mostly. This is not really a good alternative to petroleum. It ties up acres of productive farmland so we can drive cars. Do I need to say that people are starving, people who would gladly eat the corn we are grinding up into car-fuel?
Remember the parable of the talents? The master of the estate gave his stewards certain amounts of money to invest and manage, and when he came back, two of the stewards had made good use of the money. But the third had buried his in the ground, and was punished for wasting what his master had entrusted to him. Is our selfish use of the vast resources of North America the same thing, burying what God has entrusted to us in our own desires? Shouldn’t we be investing the bounty of the Lord in the Lord’s people, the poor?