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Monday, May 11, 2009

The Limits of Frugality

A miserable week ahead of exams and grading. But . . .what is this??? Another post from Mr. FS! Thanks so much.

Sorry I have not been responding to your many great comments. Will catch up ASAP, Dear Readers.

By Mr. FS

My faith in humanity was boosted by the compassionate and tolerant response to the recent revelation that I wear my gardening pants for weeks and months between launderings. I will freely admit that frugality is not my only motivation for this practice; I enjoy the connection between myself (or my clothing) and my garden that becomes apparent, over the course of passing weeks, as we come more and more to resemble each other. However, there are some people who are truly frugal-crazy, and I use them sort of like meteorologists use marks on a bridge to calculate flood stage. If I approach their level there’s trouble a-brewing.

Our neighbor (our only neighbor for a few years) in Oregon belonged in this class of true frugal fanatics. Ed Lester had retired at 55 and moved into a one bedroom log cabin at the end of the unpaved road nearest our property. He was quite a character, a real pack rat who had managed to fill up a good deal of the cleared area around his cabin, along with two old trailers, with what he fondly called his “junk,” much of which actually came in quite useful over the years, both to him and to us. Country people learn not to throw anything out. If you have five broken chain saws, you can probably scavenge enough to make a single working one. He lived there with his new wife. He’d met her in the “city,” and I’m not sure quite sure she knew what to make of him.

One day I dropped by and found their small living room draped with pieces of drying plastic wrap. Ed just couldn’t let them go. I tried to convince him that the energy it cost to pump the wash water (they had a well with an electric pump), not to mention to heat the water, was more than the cost of the plastic. But it wasn’t any use. This was in the early seventies, and maybe plastic seemed more valuable then than it does today.

It’s hard, however, to decide what’s crazy and what’s not, especially when you have to evaluate your own decisions. Am I crazy to re-use sour cream containers to make yoghurt? I don’t think so. And when they break, am I crazy to cut them into strips to use as markers for my seedlings? No! On the other hand, in a way I’m channeling Ed Lester when I wash out those fine and perfectly serviceable ziplock freezer bags. I’m not sure I can justify this, but I wouldn’t sleep well if I threw them out. I suppose I should listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” Of course Emerson also said, when asked how he knew that his impulses were from above rather than below, that “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." If the devil is tempting me to wash my ziplock freezer bags, then I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

It’s a delicate balancing act, however, and assertions of self-reliance don’t help keep one’s frugal impulses in perspective. So I wonder: where do you draw the line? Is there some frugal act you’re convinced is rational while others think is the sign of approaching dementia?


Duchesse said...

Everyone will decide, but a few things I have seen that cross the line are
- Giving a card to someone with the original recipient's name crossed out and hers written in: "Well the first initial is the same".
- A husband who gave his wife the sole Christmas gift of a pair of JC Penney pantyhose (his net income was well over six figures)
- People used to stop in front of our house if they saw my Dad working in the garden and say, "Doc, could you please just take a look at this eye? I haven't had time to get to your office." (My Dad was a small town doctor who did a great deal of charity work, and this request never came from people who could not afford an office visit.)

I see a common theme here: frugality crosses the line for me when it violates respect and consideration in a relationship.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse--When Mr. FS read your reply, he remembered that his beloved Nana would re-use cards. This is a family tradition, however. But your other points are well-taken!