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Food + Cooking

Extreme Frugality:
Trials and Errors

Looking on the bright side isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it’s what got me into this mess.
trials and errors

Back in April, I boasted we’d be getting a good percentage of our greens from our garden by midsummer. But earlier this week, when I found myself hitting three different grocery stores to get the cheapest kale, spinach, and salad fixings, I knew that was not going to happen. Greens are relatively cheap items, of course, especially compared to buying the flash-cooked kale with garlic and sesame we used to get from the nearby co-op or the twelve-dollar (and unbelievably small) garden salad at our favorite restaurant. But since that type of spending doesn’t even come to mind these days, I’m feeling a bit, well, pessimistic about the garden’s chance of success—as well as our own.

Which is probably the clearest indicator that we’ve finally broken free of the past.

Last weekend, we had to rework the soil and replant the kale and spinach—plus a slew of other vegetables that flopped. (We didn’t have to replant the lettuces; while they are taking their sweet time, they are growing.) A successful gardener-friend generously blamed the failure on our seeds, but I’m pretty sure I burned them with too much nitrogen. In an attempt to raise the level of one of our three plots, I had, in retrospect, added way too much chicken-manure-covered straw. Although I hadn’t done a soil test, it had seemed like the right thing to do. I was also fixated on raising the level of the plot for aesthetic reasons: It simply looked too low. Consequently, I spent nearly an entire day transferring soil from a hidden part of our two and a half acres to the plot in question.

Back to my newfound pessimism: It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to me in quite a while. When I look back over all the financial mistakes I’ve made over the past decade or so, my constant companion wasn’t greed. It wasn’t a desire to impress others or buy my way to success. It was unbridled optimism. As I admitted in the beginning, I always knew my next book was going to be a bestseller. What I left unsaid—not on purpose, but because it’s so ingrained in my way of thinking—is that I felt certain things were going to get better. That’s always been my mindset, what I’ve been proud of and relied on to get me out of bed in the morning. And it’s not just me. It’s one key to the American psyche, and it makes our foreign friends shake their heads in both fear and awe.

It is also what allowed me to spend when a sane person—with a healthy balance of pessimism and optimism—would have put on the brakes. Or sow seeds when a more pessimistic (and, yes, wiser) person would have first checked the soil.

So today, I’m heading out to water our plants and seeds with a happy sense that things are not going to get better and, more to the point, that all the watering in the world just might not make this garden grow.

Hope you have a bad day!

Frugal Tip of the Week

Checkbook. Don’t leave home without it. Since last December, when we cut up our credit cards, Lisa has had us only use checks for purchasing, whenever and wherever possible. They’re better than cash: Not only do you have to pause and think before buying, but they leave a paper trail. You can’t slip one by your partner or, more importantly, yourself. Using checks also makes it easier to catalog your spending, helping you target the areas in which you’re succeeding and those in which you’re falling short.