Extreme Frugality: Making Allowances

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.
making allowances

When can we stop frugal living?” Angus asked Lisa and me a few days ago. He followed the statement with a sigh so drawn out that it appeared to wilt a vase of daffodils. “I’m really tired of it.” There was a time when even these defiant words would have sent us into a crazed all-family jig. Angus didn’t speak until he was almost five, and was labeled by many to be, well, backward. In fact, we would have bribed him to say almost anything back then, even “Shut up, stupid!”—a current favorite learned from his sisters.

“What do you mean, sweetie?” Lisa asked, flinching just a hair. Once unflappable and as sweet as our homemade maple syrup, Angus is now in the throes of six-year-old boyhood, and we have the bruises to prove it. One minute he’s full of more snuggles than a nursing puppy (really) and the next, he seems to be trying out as a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot (really).

Channeling Gandhi, however, he simply closed his eyes in answer. Wasn’t it obvious, Mom? Then: “I need to get an allowance again. I want one every week,” he explained patiently. “So I can buy candy. I love candy.” As we searched for a frugal-minded answer, he decided to give us more time by counting to 100 before simultaneously punching me where I taught him to hit “bad strangers” and blurting out the three most excellent words a parent will ever hear: “I’ll do anything!”

It was early Saturday morning—normally a time when all three girls are glued to their Facebook pages, now that swim season is over. This April 24 was no different, but engrossed as they were, they heard Angus’s every word and immediately chimed in, “We’ll work for money, too! How much?”

And thus, a garden was born.

Despite many a naysayer telling us we’ve started too late and that our garden will provide a few side dishes at best, I believe we will be living off the land, except for milk and fruit juice, by midsummer. And we’ll even have enough produce to carry us through the beginning of winter if we learn how to can well enough.

Most of the weekend involved prep work—raking leaves and removing winter debris, hoeing in four months’ worth of chicken manure and accompanying wood shavings, and digging out rocks we missed last spring when Lisa rototilled the 2,000-square-foot plot by herself. (I was sick in bed. Honest.) I had already sown more than 50 tomato seeds, using a fairly equal measure of Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Ace (an heirloom new to me that is supposedly perfect for canning), and yellow pear tomatoes, but there were plenty more vegetables and herbs that needed sowing as well, including pumpkins, eggplant, broccoli, okra, and basil.

Once the outside prep work was finished, some of us worked on the indoor seeds, while others sowed kale, various lettuces, radishes, sugar snaps, English peas, turnips, cabbage, carrots, spinach, pole and bush beans, 400 square feet of corn in a new bed, and 70 feet of varied potatoes (based on what I learned from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). We chose some of these items simply because we like them, some because they’ll be our staples, some because they will grow well in the nitrogen-rich soil we’ve made with the chicken droppings, and some because they are so, so, so much cheaper to grow than to buy—such as the five different varieties of sweet peppers we started inside.

Two years ago, I started about a dozen fruit trees including apples, peaches, cherries, and apricots, and I’ve been told they will fruit this summer. My neighbor has gone in with me on 20 three-year-old high-bush blueberry plants that a friend got wholesale. Throw in some bartering for meat chickens and maybe a bit of lamb, and I say we’ve got a living supermarket.

The weekend was one of those times when everything within the family gelled. In fact, I can’t remember anyone complaining or—even more amazing—bickering. The 13-year-olds actually stopped acting like they were in mortal combat with Lisa and me, and everybody worked for 12 hours over the two days. Well, except for Angus. He did do some work, but he also excelled elsewhere. He learned how to ride a bike in only a few hours on Saturday, and, on the following day, he landed a front flip on the trampoline.

While we didn’t pay the kids—or re-institute weekly allowances—we did celebrate their hard work by taking them to the movies. A year or two ago, they would have greeted this outing with yawns and maybe a fleeting smile or two. Now, it produced wild cheers, endless smiles, and an irrepressible bubbly mood. Of course, there was one major adjustment to the old routine: Lisa sneaked candy and juice made from frozen concentrate into the theater inside her purse, while Anabel hid the popcorn under her shirt, looking as if she was headed off to an audition for Juno II.

Frugal Tip of the Week*

Look for roadkill at all times: while on a family bike ride, when passing in a no-pass zone, and even while arguing with one’s spouse about whose idea it was to clip the dog’s nails so short. More importantly, when cooking a wild young mallard you found by the side of the road, NEVER cook it as if it’s a fatty, store-bought duck or chicken. By this, I mean don’t do as I did last weekend: Get the charcoal going; place the three-day-aged duck on the grill off to one side; put the lid on the grill; and leave for the evening’s festivities, thinking the fowl will crisp from the early high heat and then cook to perfection as the coals die out. If you do this, when you return, your precious duck will be as light as one of the many feathers you painstakingly plucked beforehand, drier than jerky, and tougher than leather. And since this is the first week of tips, here’s another: If you have an electric hot-water tank, turn it off when the kids leave for school and don’t turn it on again until they return or even until late that night. The water will be very warm until dark and you will save tens of dollars a month (at least in Maine).

*I will attempt to provide a useful frugal tip on a weekly basis from this point on, with the understanding, of course, that previous EF posts have been chock full of expert advice.

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