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Food + Cooking

Extreme Frugality: Well, Nobody's Perfect

The zero-spending game is called on account of soccer … and foraging for wild edibles.
nobody's perfect

I like the Frugal Hodding better,” Lisa announced last night, with a slight smile and crooked frown. I’m not sure what prompted this opinion—the Gatorade I bought Angus to keep him quiet while I searched three stores for the cheapest peat moss*, the bag of candy corn bought on a spooky whim, or the box of discounted Capri Suns for the kids’ lunches. Oh, wait. Now I remember. She’d just discovered the cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee I’d carelessly left on the counter.

Honestly, I didn’t set out on a spending spree to celebrate our return to the capitalist fold. It just happened. By the end of the day—two days before the month was over, actually—I’d spent $270 on groceries, pet supplies, and a couple of “necessary” things for our mini-farm. There was just so much stuff out there, beckoning like free hooch to a booze hound.

The funny thing is, except for the dog food, we could have gotten by for at least another month without any of it, as long as we could barter.

Which brings me to my point: I like Frugal Hodding better, too. Out of all the things we’ve done during the past 12 months to make ends meet, this no-spending experiment was the most difficult, exacting aspect, as well as the one of the most rewarding, successful, and life-changing. As it turned out, we didn’t make it the whole month—we bought a tank of gas so our whole family could go to Helen’s soccer game 90 miles away, and then we chose not to miss the Common Ground Country Fair, an annual festival (and Carter Family ritual) celebrating Maine’s organic farmers and growers—but we went plenty long enough to make our whole family glow with pride and knowledge. We already knew there was a much better place than the Land of Excess, but now we felt it deep inside.

The kids kept telling me there was no difference between what we’ve been doing all year and this past month, besides my opportunistically coasting in neutral on every downhill. Their opinion, in itself, signaled success to me because it meant they didn’t feel deprived, but it wasn’t completely true, at least from my viewpoint. Although the kids have their own money, they didn’t spend any this month, either. Also, unlike most middle-class kids, they were made very aware of what it takes to not only get by but to feel satisfied. They took part in the scramble to pull this off, suggesting meals that could be made from the garden, baking cookies, and coming up with more things to barter. They even asked me to make more sumac tea.

To show my appreciation, I may have gone a little overboard on getting things I know they like, eliciting Lisa’s remark, and I purposefully bought a number of items that we had been bartering for because every time we barter using our eggs, we’re taking away the kids’ spending money. That said, after I stock up on a few more things—six gallons of milk (yes, we have an extra, smaller fridge), a gallon of half-and-half, and ten pounds of butter—I’m going to continue the “no money out” policy for a while longer. We still are getting plenty of vegetables from the garden. I’ve picked two bushels of apples from friends’ trees and plan on getting at least that much more, meaning that we will have fruit for months to come. I can’t seem to stop bartering, so who knows how stuffed the pantry is going to be? I’m also starting to forage. When I went on a two-hour wild-edibles walk at the fair, I discovered that wild mustard, a relative of broccoli, has many times more vitamins and tastes like a superior arugula. Better yet, Angus and Helen love the stuff.

*I just learned that I can grind up dried leaves to use in place of peat moss, and once fall has done its thing, I’ll never have to buy peat moss again.

Frugal Tip of the Week

Forgive me if you’ve seen this elsewhere or already thought of it yourself, but I only figured this out ten days ago: Reuse your paper coffee filters. I don’t use a metal mesh filter because it lets the oils through, and I’ve always mindlessly tossed out each filter after a single usage. Well, I ran out during our zero-spending experiment. “Just reuse it, Dad,” Anabel suggested. I shook the last filter over the compost tin, rinsed it off, and then after carefully setting it in the filter holder, filled it with more coffee. Eureka! It worked! I’ve now used the same filter 19 times and can complete the entire cleaning process faster than I can separate a fresh filter from its mates and put it in the coffee maker. Hey, it’s time for another pot of coffee. Let’s see … it worked—20 reuses and counting.