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Mon

12

Jan

2009

Frugality as Adaptation
Monday, 12 January 2009 16:35
by Andrew Bard Schmookler

toothpasteWhen I finish with a tube of toothpaste, it is done. I mean, really done. My wife April says that she, too, sticks with a tube until she can’t get anything more out of it. But after she’s given up and started a new one, I can brush my teeth for two weeks on what she considered done. Probably it’s a matter of thumb strength for the pushing, but maybe also some difference in the intensity of determination. I don’t mind being the one to put in the last two weeks on the tube: it gives me a sense of satisfaction. The spirit of frugality within me dances with joy. No, that’s too exuberant a characterization of that spirit: it sits back in its chair and smiles contentedly.

I learned frugality in my family of origin.

It helped that, being born in 1946 as my father was just embarking on becoming an academic economist, with graduate school still ahead, it was not until the mid-1950s that our family income reached levels then considered “middle class.”

A more important factor was having a mother whose father had died –of the great Influenza Pandemic– when she was a small child, and who, largely for that reason, had grown up very, very poor with an ill mother and two younger siblings. They were poor even before the Depression, and my mother had been forced to drop out of high school to work at menial jobs.

Although she, a high school drop out, eventually earned two masters degrees and became a high school teacher, she –like John D. Rockefeller who stashed potatoes around his mansion, out of fear of the return of famine– never lost that sense of scarcity. Waste was completely alien to her ways. Likewise with extravagance.

And, being a fine teacher, she taught me well how to live within scarce means and how to get the most bang for the buck.

My father, too, had grown up poor, but not so poor as she, and he’d responded differently to the experience: he was careful and prudent, but spending was not against his grain.

As I identified most strongly with my father, I was fully capable of operating in the world with his careful, but less rigorous, management style. This capability was demonstrated when I first became self-supporting, a year after graduating from college: I was getting a decent paycheck in my work as an intern psychotherapist in a county’s mental health system in California, and I had no difficulty in spending more than I saved of my discretionary income. Getting a good stereo system, for example, was my first priority.

But then, a few years later – when I had that visionary experience that led to the writing and (fourteen years after the vision) the publication of THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES– I received my calling. Ever since then, except for a few minor departures, I’ve followed the path dictated by asking what is it that God, or Whatever, wants me to do.

And my putting following my calling ahead of making a living has necessitated cultivating the skills and disciplines of frugality as an adaptive strategy for survival.



I value rationality, and I try to be rational in my financial carefulness.

For example, I have a policy about coins I might come across as I walk through the world: I will not stop and bend to pick up a penny. For more valuable coins, I’ll stop. (With bicycling, I regard a nickel as too trivial to warrant stopping. But then, at cycling speed, one cannot always distinguish between a nickel and a quarter.)

You might object that if I won’t stoop for a penny, why do I exercise my thumbs for the last little bit in the toothpaste tube. It’s a question I’ve asked myself. And the answer is: it’s not all dollars and cents. Part of it is like a spiritual practice: I do not waste. I use things up before I dispose of them.

I still get satisfaction when I think of the end-of-life stage for my old butterscotch-colored ‘72 Datsun wagon. That vehicle served me very well for nine years. But in the life of every used car –and I’ve never bought a new car and likely never will– there comes a time when one must decide whether it makes sense to put more into the ailing vehicle or to pull the plug. (Knowing when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em, is the most important financial judgment to make for the car owner.) When, in 1983, I decided that the time for heroic repairs had passed, I drove the car to the junk yard to cash in, and it was touch and go whether the car, on which several systems were by then quite iffy, would make it. The image I had of that Datsun at the end there was that it was like a lemon out of which every last drop of juice had been squeezed. Nothing was wasted, and this was for me a source of considerable satisfaction.

Same with the toothpaste. I know I can get a full tube of UltraBrite (I like the pepperminty taste) for 99 cents at Walmart, and so I know the value of those last two weeks of brushings I get from the tube –that’s right, I don’t squeeze out enough to cover the brush as they do in the TV ads, finding a lentil’s worth more than enough– is but pennies. But it is a gesture, a ritual, an act of fealty to the Lord of Waste-not, to extract from this resource all it has to give.

Let me tell you my latest “irrational” but nonetheless, to me, quite gratifying gesture of wasting not.

In our bedroom, we have a small digital clock. Because I awaken several times each night, sometimes getting back to sleep readily and sometimes not, it’s important to me that I can see, from the bed, what time it is. Since we arrived back in Virginia, the buttons for setting the time stopped working. It wouldn’t cost much to replace this clock –what, maybe ten bucks?– and I bought it at a yard sale in the first place, so I don’t even have that much in it. But it pleases me that I’ve devised a way to make this clock still do the job.

All I have to do is plug in the clock at noon or at midnight. It keeps flashing (starting with 12:00), but the flash is no bother.

Not rational, any more than it’s rational to erect a statue in the park, for that flashing clock is a monument to the means by which I’ve survived.

Frugality of the toothpaste and flashing-clock sort, then, may well go beyond the rationality of the calculating sort. I could justify it as the practice of a kind of discipline that strengthens my performance in the larger events– practice on the toothpaste to perform on a house or car, the way a pianist might do scales as an exercise, as a means to the end of performing better on the concerto. But there’s also that other, propitiatory aspect: a demonstration of my devotion to making the very most of the resources at my non-disposal, a display of my willingness to sacrifice.

In return, the gods of material resources take care of me.

Sometimes I feel that between the cosmos and me there’s been some sort of a deal: if I’m modest in my demands, and careful in my management, then the cosmos will give me a magic purse like that told of in fairy tales, a purse from which one can take a few coins and they’ll magically be replenished, never running out.

Oh, and besides my modest and slightly sacrificial lifestyle, I get that one big luxury: I get the luxury of doing the work I should rather than having to do the work that pays.

And I’d like to think that God, or Whatever, has gotten something extra in the bargain as well.

Stay tuned for a sequel, which will relate how this is a time of unusual challenge for April and me with regard to the discipline of frugality– a challenge that grows out of the synchrony of the world-wide economic collapse and our move to a life centered on this abused and over-worn house.

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