Extreme Frugality:
Happy Anniversary, Honey

Nothing says ‘I love you’ like stripping down (a chair) to the bare essentials.
stripping paint off chairs

I was busily removing seven layers of paint from one of six chairs yesterday afternoon, when my father-in-law suggested I might want to take them to a local restorer. While I love breathing in lungfuls of methylene chloride, he did have a point. The noxious paint stripper was making the paint bubble and peel off, as advertised, but when I tried to remove the accumulated blobs of paint, they just smeared across the wood. Half a day into the project, I was still working on the first chair.

“They’ve got large vats of this stuff,” he explained, wrinkling his nose in distaste as he motioned toward my can of stripper. “They’d just dip the entire chair in, hose it off, and be done.” Upon remembering we are financially challenged, he added, “It probably wouldn’t cost that much. Maybe ten bucks a chair.”

Even so, since that would be as much as I paid for each chair, it was way out of range.* I kept at it: painting with the stripper, scrubbing with steel wool, wiping with thinner—over and over again. Why was I making like Sisyphus and not giving up? Lisa had seen the chairs for sale by the side of the road more than a month ago, but, worried about the price, hadn’t bought them. I snatched them up a few weeks later, since no more than two of our current dining chairs are alike, and these had an attractive design on the backs.

“They may be Larkins,” the woman selling them confided. When I looked less than awestruck, she continued, “It worked like green stamps. If you bought enough detergent from the Larkin Soap Company, they gave you a free chair. These days, a single Larkin chair can be worth thousands.”

A quick Internet search revealed that they’re most likely not Larkin chairs (too plain), but no matter. They’re quarter-sawn, intact, and don’t wobble. Best of all, Lisa likes them, so I know they’ll make a decent anniversary present. Lisa has a thing for chairs—like some people have about diamonds or velvet—and we’re having an unstated contest to see who can give the best gift for the least amount of money. With that end in mind, I had thought about rearranging our compost pile with layers of chicken droppings, grass clippings, the current too-wet compost, and chicken-dropping-enriched wood shavings and present the new compost as my true expression of love to her, but that seemed a tad too cheap. It won’t matter who wins, though, because August is going to be a bust no matter how thin we stretch things: It’s not only the month of our anniversary but also Helen’s birthday, my stepmother’s, and mine. Even though we’re eating out of our garden, we’re going to go over budget.

Worst of all, I’m only on the second chair, and today’s our anniversary. Guess I should have painted over them, just like everyone before me.

*Becoming more interested in this paying-for-it idea, I called a local stripping company and, when I asked if dipping a chair would cost around ten dollars, the owner responded with a laugh, “Yeah, that’s right—about fifty years ago when I first got in the business. The very least it will be is around ninety dollars a chair, and that’s if it’s the simplest chair in the world.” Guess I’ll stick to the frugal path.

Frugal Tip of the Week
Two great books worth looking at have hit the bookstores, the Internet, and the public library recently: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Shell, and Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson. Shell’s main thesis is that getting things at a bargain price at discount or big-box stores means dirt-poor wages in places like China, and that will eventually take a heavy economic toll on the world. She also points out that the prices are often higher; you just think they’re cheaper because they’re at a discount store. Anderson’s Free declares a new age is upon us because of the Internet and argues that more and more things will inevitably become free—from music to movies to software. To drive his point home, he’s offering Free for free at various locations, including his website, thelongtail.com.

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