Friday, May 29, 2009

Stop SPENDING, dammit!

Something's been on my mind lately. It's only half-formulated (which, some may argue, describes my brain in general) but here it is. I dunno, this may eventually segue into a WND column.

For the past sixteen years, ever since we started our home woodcraft business and have been self-employed, we've been forced into frugality. It's become second nature. Our income has been unsteady and unpredictable for many years, and there is no finer way to hone the art of thriftiness than by literally not knowing where your next dime is coming from.

Through it all we've maintained an excellent credit record. We pay our bills - sometimes by scraping at the edge of disaster - but this has allowed us to achieve our dream, which is to live and raise our kids in the country. Our good credit allowed us to get a good mortgage rate when we bought this home six years ago.

Sometimes people look at us and think how lucky we are. They sometimes even think we're well-off financially. (They probably wouldn't think this if they actually came and saw what our house looks like and how we dress.) I've made various and sundry lists over the years illustrating some of the typical things we do to either save money, or not spend it to start with (like this one), and here's yet another partial:

• Housing commensurate with our income. Meaning, our mortgage is low. We bought a fixer-upper on twenty acres six years ago in a place with low property prices (because jobs are so scarce). Even for around here, we got an exceptional deal. This is because it took us three years to find something that matched our needs and our price range. Three years.
• 95% of our household purchases come from thrift stores.
• No meals out. Ever.
• Cooking from scratch. Pre-made meals from the grocery store are out.
• Buying in bulk. I usually get 150 lbs of flour at a time, for example. Beans, rice, etc – all in bulk.
• No new clothes. Ever. Well, with the exception of socks and underwear once a year. (See the recent exception.)
• No entertainment frills. We don’t have cable TV (actually, no TV reception at all), we don’t go to movies (ever), we don’t attend concerts (except my husband and I try to see Riverdance when it comes through Spokane every three or four years), we don’t play golf or go to “fun” centers.
• We don’t buy electronics. Ever. No CD’s, no DVD’s (except when I find one at a thrift store), no iPhones or iPods or whatever the latest whiz-bang stuff is. We didn’t have cell phones until a few months ago when two separate friends upgraded their phones and gave us their older models.
• No new cars. We have an ancient farm truck we seldom take off the property, and one small used car for running around. No car payments, of course.
• We don’t use a dryer because propane is too expensive.
• We heat with wood we cut ourselves because all other heating methods are wildly expensive. Remember that we live in north Idaho, a couple of hours’ drive from the Canadian border, so winters are cold. The average temperature in our house in the winter is about 60 degrees. When one of us gets chilly, we go stand in front of the woodstove for awhile and defrost.
• No new books. This is a tough one because books are, collectively, our weakness (we own over four thousand of them). But we seldom buy them new because, surprise, they're too expensive. Most of our books are from library sales.

Okay, that sort of puts you in a position to understand why we've been able to survive and even thrive on the uncertain income from a home woodcraft business for the past sixteen years.

This thriftiness is serving us very, very well in the new economy. We're already blackbelts in frugality. Some of the unfortunate souls who suddenly find themselves without jobs and with huge bills and a huge mortgage are in a seriously bad position - and not just because they're in debt past their eyeballs and unable to find a job.

They're in a bad position because they don't know how to live cheap. The notion of frugality completely escapes them. They continue to eat out, buy toyz, grab that morning latte, enroll their kids in expensive sports, and have cable TV. Then they bemoan the fact that they're about to lose their home.

Don't misunderstand me - I'm not making light of anyone's financial struggles. But I know a couple who are both unemployed and I want to shake them because they just don't get it. There are a couple of local jobs available - modest ones, to be sure, but at least they're jobs - but these people have no interest in applying, even as a stop-gap measure until they find better employment. They eat breakfast out once or twice a week because they don't feel like cooking. They drive all the way into the city to see a movie once a month. They buy name-brand foods at the grocery store. And then they say they're scared about losing their home (which, to their credit, is a very modest one and not some oversized McMansion).

I know another couple with massive medical bills and one very modest income. They often pay their bills by maxing out first one credit card after another. Yet they give each other lavish birthday and holiday gifts - a $100 gift card to Starbucks comes to mind - and the wife will drop $50 on paperback books because she needs to escape from their financial stress. Uh, hellOOOO?

See where I'm going with this? Why can't people who are having financial difficulties just stop spending, dammit? Why do they dig a deep hole and then complain they're in a deep hole?

I realize we've had sixteen years to learn how to be frugal and these people have had none. I know - believe me, I know all too well - what a culture shock it can be to have to adjust one's spending habits from affluence down to poverty. Back in 1993 when we left California, we left behind us joint incomes of $70,000 and went to zero (literally) as we got our home business up and running (it took six months to bring in our first dollar from the business). But the point is, we did it. Sometimes we did it by the skin of our teeth, but we did it. And we did NOT do it by buying books, clothes, electronics, restaurant meals, and movies.

Okay, I'm done. Sorry to rant, just had to get that off my chest.


  1. Patrice, you have to take into account the example that is being set by our leaders in Washington. I guess if more than half of the voters elected Obama, at least that amount agree with his policies of pay off your debt by borrowing.
    We don't live quite like you and Don, but we do have everything we have paid for..everything, and we grow a big veggie garden that keeps us in nutritional food throughout the year, thanks to our two freezers and canning jars. We do still eat out occasionally, but to be honest, I much prefer the home cooked meals that both I and my wife make.

    I take my hat off to you for doing what you are doing. I hope that if and when the time comes, that we too will be alble to survive on our own.

    I would definitely submit this column to WND!

  2. I voted for Obama because I couldn't take one more year of the cost of everything going up. Especially oil. Which should have addressed this in the 70's and 80' with alternatives. The former admistration did nothing to encourge less spending, alternatives or living a more frugal life. I have my own business live in a reasonable house and have a large garden. I live near a large metro area but eat at home read(library books)etc. But the cost of health care, fuel(I rarely have the A/C on. We live in Ok and I have allergys so I have to use it occasionally. So any way we all have to learn to compromise and live more frugally.

  3. I have a bunch of books and magazines to get rid of. Send me your likes and an address and i'll send you some.

    1. There is an organization where you can send your books to the soldiers.It is Operation Paperback and they have a website if you want to join

  4. LOL - thanks for the offer, Ken! However we have every nook and cranny of our house already filled with books. We have to (ahem) learn to control ourselves about obtaining more...
    - Patrice