Skip the philosophy. Let’s talk about details. There’s a power to frugality that makes difficult things possible. Frugality is a mind-set, but that can be too abstract. Practical frugality is series of habits based on a simple idea. The abstract and the idea can appear daunting, but the practice can be as easy as necessary – especially when started as soon as possible.
From the outside, frugality looks like a prolonged version of Lent denying yourself the things you want because it is the right and noble thing to do. Some develop a pride in showing off how little they need to live; and the easiest way to do that is to draw the sharpest contrasts with luxurious lifestyles. Most don’t mention it.
From the inside, frugality can be simply asking the question, “Is this the best use of my resources?”, but few folks would use those terms. “Is this how I want to spend my time and money?” Many frugal folk go a step further and ask, “Is this how we should use our time and our money?” Give those thoughts some momentum and the question becomes, “Is this how we should spend time with each other and how we should treat our planet?”
Those simple questions taken to the level of the planet can launch into great public pronouncements produced by pundits. Those familiar with true debates know that very little of what we hear is actual debate. Most of the media is filled with proclamations and opinions supported by narrowly filtered facts. There is no resolution on public topics because there is no interest or incentive for those making the strong declarative statements. Their incentives are actually opposed to resolving issues. If they agreed they’d have less to say, and would get paid less.
The most impressive declarative statements I’ve heard are quieter and exhibit a firmer resolve. The frugal people I know are less likely to make statements at others. They are far more likely to question themselves. Their conversations are largely internal, very deliberate, and highly individualistic. Yet, they seem to be reaching a consensus by many paths and their answers are visible in the way they live.
I’m watching a trend that I call the “Walk Away Movement.” People courageous enough to examine their lives are aiming at sustainable lifestyles, supportive communities, and decentralized power – of both kinds. The movement is not marching on City Hall. The movement is a dispersion into independence or shared interdependence without organization, icon, or theme song. People are walking away from convention.
Questions others and I ask at every opportunity:
- Why drive when I can bicycle, take the bus, or walk? The answer varies depending on how far I have to go, what I have to carry, how soon I have to get there, and how safe it will be. My answer is drive, bicycle, bus, walk – but, the more I ask the question the less I drive and the more I line up errands to simplify my day. I spend less, get healthier, reduce stress, and get to dive into decadent comfort food more often. I asked that question enough times that I realized I could bicycle across America and walk across Scotland. Even road trips don’t require a car.
- Why eat out when I can cook? As a college student and then as a young professional I didn’t have the money to eat out often. I did, of course, find money for beer, but hey, that’s part of being twentysomething. I practiced cooking by necessity and eventually found what I liked. My comfort foods changed from what was in the restaurant ads to basic home cooking. Why would I want to get in the car, drive, find parking, wait for a table, wait for a waiter, try to decide from a necessarily limited menu, wait for the food, trust the professional chef, and then wait for the bill – all for the price of a few day’s food budget. For far less time and money I can make a meal to my desires, include a very nice bottle of wine, eat in a far quieter setting, and enjoy a private and unrushed conversation with a dear friend. And of course I eat out, but mostly for expedience or because everyone’s dietary requirements are too varied for my cooking skills.
- Why buy when I can make? And I’m not even very good at making. I made a three legged table that wobbled. Think about it. Making is fun, especially when it is not crucial to safety or legality. Then I’ll call in the professionals. The rest of the time, making something can be entertaining. It is an opportunity to play MacGyver. Do I really need to go into the wonders of duct tape and zip ties? Hardware cloth is amazing. So are blue tarps. Sandwich hardware cloth and blue tarps and some plywood and house the world. I’m still going to have someone else work on the septic system, but most household systems the incentives to living off grid is the joy of finding creative solutions. There’s an outdoor shower design I’ve used and enjoyed that uses nothing more than a black garden hose, a nozzle, and something like a truncated telephone pole.
The list is infinite. Everyone’s solutions are different. Bookshelves can be filled with variations, and that’s because when we step away from “what everyone else is doing” and question ourselves we find an infinity of answers. The answers look alike from the outside, but the details are apparent from the inside. A frugal life becomes a custom-designed life, unique and precious and appreciated; but possibly not applauded and frequently is unsuccessfully explained.
Frugality was a requirement for survival a few centuries ago. Then, frugality became a guard against hard times. Eventually, frugality distinguished one class from another until it became a sign of a lack of success, a suggestion of failure. Frugality fell out of fashion as civilization afforded greater luxuries, at least luxuries that were things. Our society became defined by consumption, which appeared sustainable when we had less than a billion people on the planet and had lower expectations. Now, seven billion people are using up three or four planet’s worth of resources and economies are becoming less stable. Frugality, a questioning of our best use of resources, is becoming its own fashion by necessity.
The Simple Living Forums and their host New Road Map Foundation are two examples and sources of frugal tools, resources, advice, and community. I am fortunate enough to live in a community populated by people who examined their conventional lives, walked away, (took a ferry), and settled on an island where an amazing diversity of solutions are naturally on display in every neighborhood. The minutia of frugality is all around me, ironically juxtaposed with a tourism economy that relies on consumption.
My optimism? Frugality uses resources as efficiently and respectfully as possible. A little goes a long way, and may also come back around again. As recoveries happen, as good fortune arrives, lives that already appreciate sunsets and quiet times will find ease that allow for more sunsets, and maybe more sunrises, and a love of every moment spent living a live inspired by wonderful answers to simple questions.