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Frugal, thrifty - two words to cause an advertising executive's heart to sink."How depressing!" gasped a friend when I told her what I was currently working on. Visions of dreary days of pennypinching drudgery were evidently flashing before her eyes... In our buy-now-pay-later world, these words have come to seem negative, with connotations of meanness, deprivation, and lack of generosity. But actually, "frugal" comes from the same root as "fruitful", and the original meaning of "thrifty" is "thriving, healthy" - which, in the light of recent healthcare advice about our lifestyles, puts a whole new light on the subject. And some of us can testify that learning to take care of the pennies really can lift a huge weight of stress off your shoulders while all sorts of pounds start to look after themselves.
We live in a culture of conspicuous excess, where we are encouraged to spend, spend, spend in order to keep up with the Joneses and keep the wheels of our economy turning ever faster and faster. Yet, for many of us, the concept of "living the dream" in a fast-paced, innovative, & product-driven society has become more of a nightmare of credit-card debt and "consolidation". Most of us aren't born with the ability to organise our finances or say "No!" to things we don't need, and our culture deliberately plays on this. We are inundated at every turn in the road or flick of a switch with messages that tell us we're not good enough, we don't own enough, we're failures if we don't drive a brand-new car, or eat food someone else has cooked. And we don't want to be seen as failures, especially by our own easily-influenced children.
Many of the parents I know have given up trying to feed their children good, inexpensive home-cooked food - after all, the stuff you buy in the supermarket must be healthy, it says so on the packet - and have lost all confidence in their ability to buy, prepare and get their children to eat real food. As a result, some kids are growing up largely unaware that meat comes from animals, that some of the plants growing out there are edible, that milk comes from cows' udders rather than the supermarket shelf and that eggs come from the quiet end of chickens... Thousands of unhappy, unhealthy people know that somehow they're not getting it right; they're slaving their socks off to buy more and more things that take up space and need looking after, for people who seem to get more ungrateful with every extravagant gift.
For some of us, the need to make the most of our money is born of necessity - a county court judgement concentrates the mind wonderfully. For some of us, the need to spare our planet from further ravages spurs us on. For others, it's the need to learn to be good stewards of our personal corner of creation. And those of us with larger families know we have to make the same resources as smaller families stretch around more people. But where to start? It comes naturally to some lucky souls, but the rest of us are left in the dark as no-one's going to start a "Frugal" magazine - it's an uneconomic prospect, who would advertise in a magazine that tells you how not to buy things?!
There's plenty of advice out there, ranging from the excellent CAB who will tell you how to organise your budget to get out of debt, to TV programs who select extreme cases and roll out experts to give them advice you know they're not going to take. It includes some excellent websites (my favourite resource; well worth the small annual subscription for the inspiration and companionship that helps to keep me "on target") and books - Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette being "the one that worked for me". Probably the best I can do, as I'm still very much a learner myself, is to pass on what's motivated me on my frugal journey...
In the late 1980s, we had it all. The good jobs with great prospects, the dinky little North London home, foreign holidays, rich "gourmet" meals served straight out of the microwaveable plastic tray after struggling home on the Tube, décor that changed with the seasons... then I fell pregnant. And instinctively I knew that for me, being there for my baby was more important than anything else, if there was any way it could be done. Gradually it dawned on me that instead of earning more to afford the standard of childcare I wanted for my precious baby, I could try spending less and caring for him myself. So with my other half's approval, I left my job & threw myself in at the deep end - this was just weeks before interest rates suddenly shot up to 15% - and I didn't really have a clue. If I'd known then what I know now, we'd have finished paying off our mortgage by now and not be quite so anxious about the idea of getting 5 children through university whilst keeping a hundred-year-old building upright...
But that's water under the bridge, and there's no point looking back, which is one of the first points I'd like to make - don't be too hard on yourself. So many people I know have started out trying to tighten their belts, then throw in the towel at the first slip, thinking it's too hard, it's too late, they just can't do it; oh yes, you can! Just learn from the experience, and keep trying; it isn't easy to start with as you are going against every message being pumped out on TV, in newspapers and magazines - spend, spend, spend, or you're worthless! Choose to see it as a challenge; you are going to ignore that message and improve your health, wealth and peace-of-mind by changing the way that you see the world. Your value to yourself, your family and society is not dependent on how much money you can throw away or how big your credit rating is. The things that bring us happiness and contentment aren't things you can buy at Tesco or even Harvey Nick's. And somewhere inside you is a wellspring of creativity that will remain untapped while you reach for your credit card every time you need or want something you could have made for yourself or eventually realised you could perfectly well live without.
My second point is that you need a goal to aim for, whether it's getting and staying out of debt, keeping your head above water, being able to choose to stay home for your children, affording a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see your brother in Australia, or buying that country cottage complete with roses round the door. Then when the going seems tough and you're tempted to send out for chips rather than cook yet another meal from scratch, you remind yourself that that's why you're doing it, and that every time you take the easy way out you're also taking a step back from realising your dream.
The next major point is that you need to see frugality as a creative challenge, not a dismal period of deprivation. Rather than thinking "I wish I could afford…" try thinking "How can I make/where could I find/whose could I borrow?" Tap into all the sources of help available; the internet, your local library, courses at nearby colleges, your local LETS scheme (a barter system - ask in the library) or even your grandmother's collection of recipes. And don't forget to look at why you're tempted to buy things - do you really need this item? Will it actually add something worthwhile to your life or make it any easier? There are a few gadgets well worth owning, but who hasn't got several unused "must-haves" cluttering up their kitchen cabinets? So I have a checklist I go through before I buy anything now:
I often end up angry that I was about to part with our hard-earned cash for something that really isn't worth it in the long run, where before I'd have felt very hard-done by. And we can begin to save up for the things that really are worth having...
Frugality doesn't always mean buying the cheapest you can find. It means making the most of your resources, so if you're sure you need a food processor, do your homework carefully and work out which is the right make & model for your circumstances - most are simply too small for a larger family and you'd be very lucky to find a big one on special offer - but mine has been worth every penny for the time & effort that it saves me when I otherwise might have been tempted to use convenience food. And if they ever make one that washes itself up afterwards, it'd be a dream come true! Another frugal concept is working out the "Payback Time" of a purchase - how long will it take to pay for itself? In the case of a sewing machine, you can cover the cost by making just one non-standard size pair of curtains yourself - mine cost about £120, and you could easily pay a lot more than that to have one pair of big, heat-retaining curtains made up. Which could also save you the cost of double-glazing that window, and it's cooler in summer too... I worked out that my bread machine had paid for itself in 18 weeks, which I hadn't expected; I can make 4 large, lavishly topped pizzas for just under £4, which would have cost around £2.99 each, i.e. £11.96; we eat pizza at least once a week, so saving £7.96 which adds up to £143.28 over 18 weeks - yes, it's a top-of-the-range model! I haven't factored in the electricity used but I suspect that's not too much as the heating element isn't used when you are just making dough. And now it's paid for itself, it's actually saving us money every time I use it instead of buying readymade pizzas.
In short, never buy anything without a) knowing you can afford it and b) thinking it through first. I make myself wait at least two days before buying anything - that's usually enough time to decide I don't really need it. But when you do decide to buy, get the best one for your needs even if it isn't the cheapest, not forgetting to shop around for the best possible price. The initial price is only part of the equation, as anyone who's ever bought an inkjet printer will tell you! The ongoing costs need to be considered too; what seems like a nice cheap printer may cost you an arm & a leg in replacement cartridges or constant callout charges from repair services...
To sum up, I believe that you can choose to get off the earn more, spend more treadmill and you'll feel all the better for it. There are plenty of resources out there to help you and the more of us who do it the easier it will seem as frugality becomes more mainstream; maybe even a "valid life-style choice!" Just keep believing in yourself and your dreams and don't let the constant, subtle pressures grind you down. Go on, you owe it to yourself - and if you don't you'll probably soon owe it to someone else. Think uncluttered, not deprived, and may I wish you all the best in your fruitful, thriving new life.
Frugal Living in the UK - New UK-based site full of ideas and encouragement.
Citizens Advice Bureau - a directory of CABs - find one near you.
Fractured Frugal Friends - a US community of fellow frugal lifers with a special section for the UK...
Frugal Living UK - homegrown advice from & tips from a Mum who knows what it's like to feed 5 kids with 0 pounds...
Frugal Families - another US community...
Amazon.co.uk - do a search on "frugal" to see Amazon's impressive collection of resources...
LETSLINK UK - what they are and how to find one near you.
© Copyright: Angela Corbet, 2003.