Extreme Frugality:
The Future is Now

After six months of living mindfully, it’s time to take stock.
reflecting frugality

I generally tear through life like a kid in a roomful of Christmas presents, without ever pausing long enough to study my most recent actions. But these days, my family and I take stock of our actions quite frequently, mainly to judge whether or not some new method of living frugally is working. How did cheesemaking go? Did it save money? Yes. Were the kids and I amazed when our balls of mushy curds transformed into stretchy, moist mozzarella? Yes. Did it bring us together? Well, yes and no. We worked together contentedly most of the time, but we do have three hormone-fired girls: Anabel pushed Helen, Helen mocked Eliza, and I snapped at all of them independently.

Yet I have to say I’m proud of my family. The kids were fairly typical American children when this began. They didn’t really help around the house and, when not on the computer, they were flipping through catalogs, getting giddy over what they might someday buy or be given. While that’s an oversimplification, there was an underlying expectation—actually, more of a need—for new things, so that they could feel happy, secure, and equal to their friends. They still want things, of course, but they’ve changed in substantive ways. Helen, 11, unbidden, sweeps the kitchen most days, wipes down the counters, and generally prepares the room for the next onslaught. Anabel, 13, puts on her rubber boots and heads outdoors to clean the hen house and collect the manure almost every week, without being nagged to do so. Angus, 6, reaches into the nesting boxes and collects eggs five or six times a day. And Eliza, Anabel’s twin, who has so given over to our changes that she recently asked if we were still living frugally, invariably puts down whatever she’s doing to tend to the immediate need of the moment. They’re no angels, of course, but, more importantly, they’re no longer average American kids. Instead, they’re returning, along with millions like them across the country (from what I’m hearing from friends and seeing on the Web), to the values we’ve always claimed to cherish: responsibility, respect, and, of course, frugality.

And what about me, you might ask? When I first suggested cutting back to Lisa, I said I’d like to try it for a year. All being frugal meant to me was defeat, boredom, and eating dinner at a cafeteria-style restaurant at 4:15 P.M., just to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat special.

Well, now it means something entirely different. It means finally growing up. It means living like a good father, instead of just looking like one to outsiders. It means realizing I’ve finally learned to live on what a writer makes, not on what he dreams of making, and knowing that this is a lifelong change, not just material for another book. It means finally understanding how much pain I caused my wife, and vowing never to return to the past. And why would I? Changing my ways and helping Lisa lead our family toward a debt-free, project-rich life has made us the family we always dreamed of.

My grandfather once wrote about the bequests we leave for our children, and Lisa and I would like to add two more: One of them is being frugal; the other is having fun working together.

Frugal Tip of the Week
Make a list of the most expensive things you buy every day, every week, and every month. Then either scratch each thing off your to-buy list or, if crossing it out forever is impractical, decide whether it can be replaced by a cheaper or secondhand item or something made by you. When you’re completely honest about your spending, it’s astonishing when you realize how you’ve been wasting your money and what you can do without.

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