Extreme Frugality: Carrying a Full Load

In this day and age of specialization, W. Hodding Carter is an unashamed generalist. The man is curious about everything, and his books have taken him around the world. He’s followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, retraced Leif Ericsson’s journey to the New World in an authentic replica of a Viking merchant ship, and has written about the ecology of the Everglades, the history of plumbing, his quest for Olympic gold, and even how to build your own mackerel smoker with the same single-minded determination. These days, he’s finding adventure of a different kind—living within his means.

I really want to write about Caswell’s,” I told Lisa a little while ago. “I get so excited talking about it and shopping there.”

“Don’t you have to write about more than shopping?” she responded, while shaking a pair of damp jeans in the air. Flap, flap, snap. I’ve become so used to the sound of her doing the laundry, the loud snapping noise it makes with each pair of wet jeans or shirt being popped into going straight, that it has become part of our home’s everyday sounds. Flap, flap, snap. “Don’t you have to write about cooking?”

I was methodically putting together the kids’ lunches: toasting the bialys I’d bought at Caswell’s (six frozen bialys for 90 cents), pouring juice into containers, and scrounging up leftovers. It takes me about 45 minutes every morning. It shouldn’t, but it does. Meanwhile, in the same amount of time, Lisa routinely hangs 15 pairs of pants, three dozen shirts, countless pairs of underwear, and an endless assortment of mismatched socks all over the house; puts away the dry clothes; and adds finishing touches to legal documents.

“It doesn’t always have to be about food. It’s really about how we save money,” I countered. “Caswell’s is a big part of that, right?” I had her there. Ever since my friend Mike took me shopping at Caswell’s last October, I’ve been making the two-hour round trip to Waterville one to two times a month to save 50 to 75 percent on fresh, frozen, canned, and dry goods. With the words “Liquidation Center” boldly stamped right over the doorway and a fluorescent-lighting seediness waiting inside, Caswell’s is a no-frills, take-what-you-get grocery in a reclaimed warehouse, where rows and rows of discounted name-brand items are casually stacked on the shelves. One day you might see a thousand cases of Life cereal at $1.50 a box; the next, hundreds of cans of Hunt’s organic crushed tomatoes for 60 cents and not a single box of cereal in sight. I once made off with two dozen Odwalla Mango Tangos at 40 cents each.

As you can see, I can’t help loving Caswell’s, and this week I was planning to hold forth at length—until I noticed Lisa flapping those jeans. I suddenly realized I’m always writing about what our family does to save money or what I do all by myself. I’ve even written about the kids’ dutiful penny-pinching, but I’ve never pointed out Lisa’s backbreaking labors.

“You’re the sizzle and pop,” she has said on many occasions. “I’m just the low simmer. The back burner that steadily gets the job done.” Okay, that last sentence was mine. She wouldn’t ever brag. But, truthfully, her efforts alone with the laundry have saved us at least $50 a month because she hangs up every single piece of clothing instead of using the dryer. Aside from the extra money we have as a result of her efforts, she cleans the house, carries the wood, clears the land for our garden, helps with the shopping, and hunts for clothes, toys, and books at our local swap shop—all before and after her own professional work.

Show me a man who does nearly as much and I’ll show you an imposter.

Loads of laundry washed since December: 188
Loads of laundry dried in dryer: 5
Amount spent on my recent four-day work trip to Ft. Lauderdale: $18.45*
Amount I would have spent pre-frugality: $318.45–$688.45*

* I’ll explain in the “Comments” section later this week.

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