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Food + Cooking

Extreme Frugality:
Split-Second Timing

On the first day of school, sometimes even grown-ups want to run away from home.
extreme frugality

Usually when I split firewood—as I was doing this morning after seeing all four kids off to their first day of school—I enter a peaceful, sweaty zone where everything becomes clear and life seems like an easy jigsaw puzzle. I work my tail off, and, in return, gain some much-needed clarity.

Not today—at least, not at first.

Instead, with every successive swing of my eight-pound maul, I grew more and more confused. Why was I talking about painting our living room, even bringing home color chips from the hardware store, if we’re swearing off all purchases for an entire month? When I told Lisa I was having a hard time choosing between “Itsy Bitsy Bikini” yellow 1 or “Wild Blue Yonder” blue, she shot me a look that immediately caused me to assume a defensive position. Since the kids were present, she didn’t let me have it the way she should have, but, all the same, I quickly lost interest in a new paint job.

But where had Home Improvement Hod come from, I wondered?

I split another 24-inch-long chunk of bartered oak2, and Angus’s worried, anxious face floated into my mind. About half an hour earlier, I’d been driving him to his first day of first grade when he croaked, on the verge of tears, “Why does Mom have to work?” Lisa had lingered at home longer than she should have and was now racing to court in Belfast, 30 minutes away. Judges do not like being stood up.

Boing. The maul bounced off green-hard wood. What? It didn’t split? I’m One-Swing Charlie. This doesn’t happen to me! I swung again and it bounced off, again. I really don’t want to tell Lisa that Angus and I were a minute late and that he wouldn’t even look at me to say good-bye. He was so completely absorbed in doing the right thing in front of the rest of the class. Is that why this wood isn’t splitting?

When I had tried to answer Angus’s question about his mom, he jumped ahead to an even tougher subject. After all, he knew why his mom was working. Somebody in our family has to make enough for us to get by on. “Why does anybody have to work?” he asked. “Who started that? Why’d they do it?”

My answer ran, something along the lines of “Well, at first, people just shared. Next, some genius thought of bartering. You know, like how we got the firewood for eggs ....” And that is when, thank God, he lost interest and told me he knew he had friends waiting at school, concluding, “I’ll be okay.”

But as I finally split that piece of oak in two, then split it again, I got back to Angus’s second question, remembering that his sister Eliza had asked me a similar question this past weekend, somewhat angrily. “Why does it cost money to eat? It doesn’t make sense that it costs money, does it?”

I’d agreed with her because it doesn’t, does it? As I continued splitting wood and feeling less and less satisfied, I realized I didn’t want to paint my living room or even spend this next month doing everything humanly possible not to spend money. What I really wanted to do is sell the house, buy a big sailboat, and refuse to take part in all this madness, except for buying food at port-of-call after port-of-call.

I felt great for a dozen or more swings, until I reminded myself that I would still be paying to do something we have to do if we want to be living, breathing human beings. It was about then that I went into a wood-splitting frenzy, whacking pieces that were laying on their side, whacking ones right beside my shin, whacking pieces simply to keep moving—hoping, I guess, for some kind of wood-whacking answer.

Eventually, it happened: Maybe the best thing, after all, was to stay at home as planned, not spend any money, and eat what we’d grown this summer—just for the month, or maybe a few weeks longer if our veggies held out—so we could feel almost-free for at least a short while.

I stood another piece of oak on end, squared my shoulders, and even before maul hit wood, I knew my wood-splittin’ zen was back in the palm of my hand.


And that’s when I realized the first day back at school wasn’t only hard for the kids.

Frugal Tip of the Week
Ethanol has been pushed down our fuel tanks as if it’s the Great Green Hope (which in itself is more than debatable) but it turns out to be one of the most harmful things imaginable for small engines. In a perfect world—that is, one without contaminants—where everyone’s gas tank is spotless and the ethanol is used the same day it’s bought, then it’s not such a bad fuel (besides lowering engine performance and increasing fuel consumption). But because ethanol has turned out to be highly corrosive and also highly water-sensitive, it must always be used with a stabilizer. Otherwise, it strips every bit of dirt and moisture out of your fuel tank and lines and sends it into your engine, which will then go into shock and decrease considerably in performance and/or die. Trust me, neither option is a good thing when you’re in the middle of felling a two-foot-thick oak tree, for instance, or are a family of six crossing a windswept bay in a small motorboat. So, remember, if you’ve decided to save money by doing things yourself, be sure to add stabilizer to your fuel tank every single time you fill up.

1 Admittedly, I wasn’t really considering “Itsy Bitsy Bikini.” I just liked the name. Now, “Fuzzy Duckling,” on the other hand ….

2 We got four cords of firewood by agreeing to deliver three dozen eggs a week—for a year.