Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Frugal Lifestyle

Phil Brewer at Wise Bread wrote a post asking whether frugality is a tactic or a goal. There was a time when I would have said that it was a tactic. But while living in Sede Boqer on very little money, I have changed my mind. I hope not to lose my newfound perspective when we move to CA at the end of theyear.

First of all, my definition of frugality. To me, frugal living means paying attention to how you spend your time and money. Aiming for value. I want to do that in my life. Part of the conservation ethos is “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” That phrase is also relevant to frugality. Trying to use what you have, to be creative, to spend your time and money on what is most important to you. Here are seven benefits (okay six benefits and one justification) of a frugal lifestyle. I also think that No Impact Man has a good post detailing benefits here.

  1. The frugal lifestyle builds community

How many of the things that we buy keep us away from other people? When you have no car, you walk, or take the bus, or get a ride from someone else. Each of these options means some interaction. Once you buy your own vehicle, you are on your own. Your commute is solo. Housing is similar. Maybe you start out with roommates, then move into your own apartment, then buy a house. At least in the apartment building you probably utilize some common space, even if it is the nearby park. When you own your own home, you can even build a playground for your kids. Everyone has their own space in the house, which is great, but you don’t have to spend time together. That time together is how you bond, how you learn to form friendships and negotiate conflicts.

  1. The frugal lifestyle is active

No Impact Man recently posted on a Shabbat dinner he attended in the home of orthodox religious friends. He mentioned that they sang together, and he enjoyed it so much that he vowed to bring music making into his own home. The consumer lifestyle brings you perfect singing. You get used to perfect, packaged goods. You become passive. You don’t want people to hear you sing, because you don’t sing that well. Something you make is not good enough to be in your home, to be displayed, or to be given as a gift. Your activity becomes shopping, to buy the music, to buy the artwork or the mosaic table.

  1. The frugal lifestyle is fun

Singing and making art is fun. Much more fun than shopping. It is relaxing. It will teach you about yourself. It is a great way to spend time with other people. It should not be reserved for professionals. One thing I’ve noticed is that Americans seem more self conscious than people from most other cultures. I think it is because we compare ourselves to perfect packaged goods. Relax! Sing, dance, draw, sculpt—just have fun with it.

  1. The frugal lifestyle is comfortable (for the soul)

I went to Guatemala for three months when I was 21. I stayed with a host family, and had a lot of fun playing with the six year old boy. We played with all his toys. They fit in a shoebox. We had fun. It makes me uncomfortable to see the plastic wave of toys that engulfs my friends’ houses when they start having kids (note—I am sure it will engulf my home as well when we start a family. I’ve never seen anyone successfully resist this). Plastic is a petroleum product. Fossil fuels are so named because they are like fossils, they are remnants of an ancient process. When you use it all, it is gone. Isn’t it a shame that we are using it for all these toys? It is very hard to resist buying these things, but if you can shield your household just a little from the consumerist urge to buy these toys, no one will be worse off. It is sad to see all the waste we create in the US. It will take a lot of work to change this.

Note—plastic toys make a good example because they are ubiquitous and so wasteful, but most consumer goods can be classified in this way at least to some extent. We all have our favorites.

  1. The frugal lifestyle is healthy

I never use coupons. Because I buy whole foods and cook from scratch. You can’t find coupons for “apples.” Making meals out of whole ingredients is healthier for you, and pretty much beats all the diets you can find in weight loss books. A goal I have when we move is to try making cleaning products or at worst buy natural ones. This will take away the headaches I get every time we clean with the industrial stuff. It will reduce my family’s exposure to toxic chemicals. By riding a bike or walking to work you exercise.

  1. The frugal lifestyle takes less work

This is a philosophical point. If you can live on less, you have to work less to achieve your income. Also, if you buy labor saving stuff, like dryers, dishwashers, disposals, microwaves—they cost money to buy, the repairs cost money, and using them costs money. You are working at your job to earn that money. If you love your job, it is a good exchange. If you don’t like your job, it is a bad exchange. Keep in mind, most of these don’t save you all that much time (depending on your family situation of course : ).

But here’s another example. A lot of people spend money on landscaping services. A company comes in, sprays their yard with pesticides, lays down fertilizer, cuts the grass with noisy machines. We are in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. If more people would let their yard go wild, or mostly wild, it would be a great thing for birds, native plant species, and other wild critters. Plus think of all the energy that would be saved. Plus, there is beauty in every landscape, from desert to forest. Display that beauty in your yard. It is much less work than mowing your lawn!

  1. I hate driving

Okay, so one of these things doesn’t belong here. But I can tell you that while living in the suburbs and working12 miles away, if I drove I was spending around 2 hours a day driving. Sitting in traffic. I was half crazy. Not everyone feels this way, but Penelope Trunk wrote a column where she mentions that people’s commutes are a very unhappy time of their day. I can't find it now, but I have seen research that claims that the commute is very unpleasant, but by carpooling or taking public transportation, that time is transformed into happy time, or at the very least, happier time. By trying to minimize your commute, you do yourself a big favor. Trust me, walking to work beats driving there, even in a beemer.

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