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Food + Cooking

Extreme Frugality: Just Coasting Along

Week One of zero spending involves a refresher course in Driver’s Ed.
extreme frugality

Ah!!!! One week down and so far, I’m happy to report it’s been a total success. I haven’t spent any money. Zip. Zero. Nada.

I can’t imagine the last time my whole family has gone an entire week without buying something. Oh, wait, I remember. Never.

That said, I don’t see how we’re going to make it until October 1. Although I bought two-and-a-half gallons of milk on August 31, we ran out two days ago. I had planned to stock up on powdered milk but I just couldn’t do it, although not for the reason you might imagine: I’m convinced Angus never would have noticed as long as I chilled the water in the fridge and added a couple of tablespoons of Nestlé Nesquik to each glass. No, I didn’t go for it because—drum roll, please—it cost more per gallon than fresh milk. Go figure.

I was expecting this milk thing to be the breaking point. Chocolate milk, after all, is Angus’s favorite food group. It’s where he gets all his calcium, most of his protein, and quite a few needed calories. The first morning after running out, he asked for it repeatedly, and the same thing happened the next day. He gave up yesterday, and all is bliss, especially since I’ve found a friend who will barter milk for eggs.

On the other hand, fuel conservation isn’t going quite as smoothly. On Day 1, I only drove 5 miles. Day 2 topped out at 22 miles, with nary a blink from the fuel gauge. Day 3, I drove 35—thanks to two different soccer practices, a play-date, and a school meeting. Even so, I was using less gas per mile than usual, thanks to my new driving techniques and, more importantly, a newly acquired, more accurate sense of self-importance.

The first morning, as I pulled out of the drive and reflexively pushed down the accelerator to reach the speed limit—50 mph—when going to the Y, I just as quickly released the accelerator. What was the rush? I could get up to speed a few seconds slower and probably save some gas. I then very gradually brought the car up to speed, and repeated this slow-acceleration routine after each stop, arriving at the Y only one minute later than I would have. These days, I also slip into neutral at the slightest downhill grade, and have worked it out so I can coast the last mile home, complete the turn into our driveway at 20 mph, and make it to the end of our 200-foot-long driveway without any help from the engine2. Psych!

A week later, though, the car I was driving3 the most is already under the half-tank mark, as is our other car, because Lisa has so far refused to change her driving habits; she continues to accelerate like an average American.

In other words, it looks like I’ll be using my bicycle even more than I anticipated. In fact, I just glanced at the seven-day forecast—clear skies, warm days—so this is ride-my-bike-almost-everywhere week. It’ll take longer to get places, but then again, what exactly was I going to do with all that extra time?

If anybody else is giving zero spending a try, by the way, please write in and let us know how it’s going. Personally, I’ve wanted to go to the grocery store almost every single day, and I have an ever-growing list of things that I might buy when the month is over. It’ll be interesting to see what I cross out after I’ve had some time to think it over.

Frugal Tip of the Week

Fall is my favorite time to forage, with nature offering up everything from apples in abandoned orchards to mushrooms in every patch of woods, but if you want a mostly free, vitamin-C-rich beverage, then track down the nearest staghorn sumac and make some tea. Don’t know a staghorn sumac tree from an oak? Well, at some point, sumacs were the darling of suburban landscapes. They can be found in practically every neighborhood and certainly along most highways—they’re those short trees with the bright red cones pointing skyward. Once you’ve made a positive i.d., grab a dozen of the cones (about 4 cups when separated from the stems) and scrape off the fruit. Pour a gallon of boiling water into a nonreactive container and steep the fruit until you get the flavor and color you prefer; ten minutes is about right for me. Strain the tea, add sugar (that’s where the mostly-free part comes in) and, perhaps, a sprig of mint, and enjoy. The taste is hard to describe—it’s like a tangy berry of some sort. Lisa and I learned all we know about sumac from Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which we used when we went on foraging dates in the early ’90s.

1 Okay, “bliss” might be stretching things just a bit. We did, after all, have to get through a holiday weekend without a single trip to the grocery for last-minute picnic items. Also, since we entered our town’s annual free build-a-boat-in 24-hours contest—materials (two sheets of plywood, two tubes of caulk, one box of nails, two 2-by-4s, and four 1-by-3s) provided—we had to pass through town, and thus the store with slushies, numerous times. The first time Helen asked if she could have one, I looked at her like she’d lost her mind. When she asked again, I reminded her we weren’t buying anything. She looked surprised, then giggled and said, “Oops, I forgot.” Angus got into the act, claiming that he was going to die unless he had a slushy. Once we got home, to get things back to, or at least closer to, bliss, I quickly made slushies, using frozen kiwi-raspberry punch concentrate as the flavoring and sweetener. The kids claimed they were better than the ones at the store. And perhaps adding to our bliss, Lisa and I have gone through two bottles of mead with friends during this first week. And no one has made a this-is-yucky face yet.

2 The first time I tried this, I had to fight the impulse to go back into Drive when I noticed my speed slipping from 49 mph to 44. Then in the driveway, when I was creeping along at 5 mph, it was a struggle not to go into gear so I could get home 20 seconds sooner. I’m not exaggerating: It’s funny how important we think we are. What was I going to do with those extra 20 seconds? Save the world? No, in all honesty, I’m guessing I would have plopped down at my computer and take one more look at wunderground.com.

3 Not “my car.” Our family’s vehicular fleet operates under a communist system in which neither car belongs to either of the two drivers. That has its bonuses and drawbacks. One plus: You can always blame the mess on the other driver. Minus: When you’re trying to save money on gas, the other driver can negate all your hard-won conservation in a single acceleration.