Frugality: the art of looking at things inside out

tall glass One of my odder fascinations has always been with the homely, humble art of thrift. I'm sure it springs partly from my fear of money (more specifically, of living out my retirement years in a shopping cart). Like lots of 60's babies, my young world was populated by adults who lived through the Depression; spend enough time in the Museum of Rubber Bands and Grocery Bags, it's bound to influence you.

But my passion for thrift is about more than saving the odd dollar or being able to wave the flag of righteousness. Frugal living satisfies the urge to create, to conjure. To think outside the box (which can be re-used as an inbox, cat bed, fort for the very tiny or jaunty chapeau for the mad). It's contemplative and giving, not loud and grabby. And as life gets louder and faster, I value quiet, both internal and external, more and more.

I remember the excess of my father's house as just that: excess. Too many things, too much noise, too much churn. TVs everywhere, closets bursting with unworn clothes, new cars before the last ones were old cars, jewelry bought at a premium and given away on eBay. Pointless, inelegant things, like the $300 throw pillow covered in, I shit you not, seashells. Because there's nothing that spells comfy snuggle on the couch like a gigantic coral reef against your head. And how.

I'd blame it on his significant other, who was clearly the shopper in the family, but the truth is, Dad just as down with the always-on, bigger-is-better, 20th century-American lifestyle. Or inured to it. Or something. He lived in those houses, he drove those cars, he chose that life.

Taken too far, or course, thrift veers into tightwaddery, its dingy, B.O.-stained cousin. I've learned the hard way not to cheap out on health care, for example: an early, scary brush with an HMO OB/GYN has kept me on the straight and narrow for over 20 years. And don't get me started on the freezing showers and the three-square allotment of toilet paper of my maternal grandparents' house, a falling-down paean to thrift fondly dubbed "Gloomy Manor" by the ones with the bag collection.

Goodness and greatness both lie, as usual, in the ho-hum middle. What seems to work best for me is a foundation of alert and sensible thrift, gently padded here and there with worthwhile luxuries. As I drill down to the center of the mess that is my money, I get comfortable both with having more and needing less, with conserving usually and splurging occasionally. True, my version of splurging, lunch out at a restaurant just because, good incense and candles, 2-color Pantone business cards on heavy stock, is probably laughably tiny to most of my neighbors in a 5-block radius.

But I don't live in a 5-block radius anymore. I live on a big, beautiful planet.

See? It's all in how you look at it...

xxx c

Image by Richard- via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.