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Frugal living tip #38. September 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. If you’ve been following our weekly Frugal Living Tips in 2009, you probably thought we were about to miss a week. Whew! This week has really gotten away from us, but here we are with this week’s tip, which I’d be tempted to call “when enough is enough.”

I’d been reading an article about America’s ongoing financial difficulties that basically said that people had become more cautious about spending, and that frugality might be good for a family’s budget but it was bad for the economy. I don’t know about you, but when I read a comment like that, and then think about the massive debt load many Americans are carrying and the enormous number of families whose stuff has literally overflowed their houses, forcing them to rent storage space, it strikes me that it’s the system itself that’s broken, not the people who are trying to break away from it. There must be a way for our country to become financially healthy that’s not dependent on conspicuous consumption.

I’m using that word “conspicuous” because of what the article said next. It inserted a comment by a legal secretary to show how people were still watching their pennies. She said that yes, she and her spouse were still employed, but that they’d begun rethinking their spending habits. For example, they’d opted to forgo a new flat-screen TV. “We already have six televisions,” she said. “Why do we need a flat-screen TV?”

The more relevant question, at least in my mind, is “Why do you need six televisions?!!” I love that they chose this woman to use as an example of frugal living. But I also find it distressing. Have we really come so far from a sense of scale that giving up a seventh television is considered a frugal sacrifice, a lessening of our standard of living?

It reminds me of how the press is constantly lamenting the decline of haute couture, now that many wealthy women simply aren’t spending $25,000-$100,000 on a dress they’re likely to wear once. Gee, whatever happened to the good old days?

It also brings to mind America’s obsession with how people in other countries manage to remain thin. Well, how’s this for a theory: They don’t each get in their huge gas-guzzling SUV all by themselves and drive it up to a fast-food place (drive-through, of course, God forbid that someone should actually park the car and walk in) to load up on so-called food that’s deep-fat-fried and laden with high-fructose corn syrup, then drive back home, collapse in front of the TV, and use an army of remotes because it’s too much effort to walk over to the TV to change a channel. In most countries—shock surprise!—people walk or bike everywhere. They eat real food. They don’t have six TVs, or often, even one TV, and if they do, they don’t spend their lives parked in front of it. Could this possibly be the secret of their comparative thinness?!!

Mercy. Please, can’t we ever say “enough is enough.” Could we think of walking away from that seventh television not as a sacrifice but as a disgraceful instance of overconsumption? Could we, perhaps, think of better ways to spend our evenings than watching television from the time we get home from work until we fall asleep?

We may be Luddites here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, but we’re not Puritans. We love watching a good movie or eating a hot pizza as much as anyone. If we got cable, we’d set time aside to watch history and archaeology and science and nature shows. I would love it if now and then I could catch a ballet or a cooking program, and our friend Ben would relish the chance to watch live sports. We’re definitely not telling you to throw out your TV, or even a second TV for the kids.

But we would choose what we watched with care, as we do our movies, and we would limit the time spent watching. We could use that time for reading, writing, thinking, knitting, beading, gardening, birdwatching, walking, playing with our puppy Shiloh, singing, listening to music, cooking, talking, sharing. Experiencing, learning, growing, interacting. So many, many other things than being force-fed an unending stream of violence and frivolity interspersed with screaming messages to buy, buy, buy.

So ultimately, today’s Frugal Living Tip is about improving your quality of life by thinking not about what you don’t have, but what you already have that you could give away to benefit the less fortunate. Think of the space that this could open in your home and mind and heart. Think of the joy, the sense of purpose and accomplishment and connection and relaxation, that could flow in to fill the space where all that stuff had been. Then look around you and get started. There’s not a moment to lose, and everything to gain.

         ‘Til next time,




1. Gail - September 25, 2009

SD, Hear, hear! Excellent read! Your post reminded me of the Christmas party I was forced to attend with Mr I! The hosts were terribly excited about their remodel (it was their dream kitchen, etc. ) and gave us the grand tour….I kid you not, there was a television in every room… including the bathrooms and walk in closet. gail

Mercy on us, Gail! A TV in the walk-in closet?! Maybe they leave it on all the time so their clothes won’t get bored or lonely…

2. Dave - September 25, 2009

Our society has gotten so entranced with the notion of more stuff. When I was teaching in the schools I knew of very few “poor” people (and I taught in Appalachia so there were quite a few) who didn’t have the latest electronic game system. But of course the kids were on free or reduced lunch plans. The notion of personal responsibility for things seems to have gone out the window. People have lost the ability and the knowledge to fend for themselves by taking government handouts, bailouts, and having so much prosperity that the stuff has become the focus of life. What bothers me is that a high percentage the poor people in America are overweight! In actual poor countries the poor are just struggling to feed themselves. I think many people in America need to look at themselves and realize that things aren’t as bad as they could be and are a heck of a lot better than other places.

Sorry for the rant! I agree with everything you said, probably too much! 😉

Ha! Thanks, Dave! Unfortunately, I suspect a lot of poor people are overweight because they eat tons of cheap starch to fill up, as opposed to pricier protein and fresh fruits and veggies. (This is also why their diabetes level is so much higher than the rest of the population’s.) But in agrarian areas, it may be the same issue I see here in Pennsylvania Dutch country: Historically, most people farmed here, and they ate enormous, high-fat meals to fuel the hard sunup-to-sundown physical labor. Now the huge meals and fattening dishes are part of the culture, but the farming that created the need for them isn’t. And I so agree with your assessment that we should evaluate what we have in terms of what other people don’t have. It would be a real eye-opener!

3. fairegarden - September 25, 2009

The health care crisis is in large part due to the food crisis. They should be addressing the use of high fructose corn syrup in nearly every bottle, jar or can in the groceries. I have started reading those labels and am amazed how difficult it is to find something, like cocktail sauce which is what I was shopping for at the time, without it. Possible but difficult. Those lobbies throw money at the congress in obscene amounts to keep that going too. A large circle of greed that is killing us all. I know what Dave says to be true as well, about very poor families having the latest electronic games, computers, etc. For dinner they have cheetos. Sad.

Well, I think lobbies, PACs, and the like should all be outlawed, Frances. My own view is that all candidates for office should be given free and equal air, print, online and etc. time (varying in length and etc. depending on the office involved) and not be allowed to receive any contributions from any source. Wouldn’t that level the playing field!

4. Heather - September 25, 2009

Loved the post, Silence! I live in BFE Idaho where everyone is overweight and complaining about how poor they are while they smoke $6/pk cigs and drink $4/ can Red Bull energy drinks. Come on people, wake up and smell the coffee! Life isn’t going to get better until we take a little responsibility. I am with Dave, I agree whole heartedly!

Thanks, Heather! Certainly you’re leading by example!

5. elephant's eye - September 27, 2009

Hi Silence, ‘enough is enough’. Posted a link today to New Scientist. About overconsumption.

Wow, ee. Am I impressed! Thanks so much!!!

6. flsquared - September 28, 2009

I just came across your blog and loved this post. totally agree–at times we become so obsessed with how to buy stuff to make our lives better when we should be filling up on experiences instead (that are often FREE!) having recently moved to NYC I am struggling with this myself, trying to remember that my young children don’t need $500/month playgroups and French classes, but instead need my time and attention. cheers!

Thanks! I have a dear friend who lived in Brooklyn with her young twins for years, so I shudder when I read that you moved to NYC. But I only shudder from a financial perspective! One of my friend’s kids was making movies and playing the violin in sixth grade, while the other was playing keyboard, learning Arabic, and studying green architecture. And both were in public school! Stuff those of us raised on a basic education could have never imagined. And the thought of being near the Met, the Cloisters, the Frick, the Museum of Natural History, and the unending cultural treats New York offers is beyond thrilling to me. (I of course love the world cuisine as well.) So I hail your great sense of priorities and wish you all an enjoyable time while you’re there. Make the most of it!

7. Meredith/Great Stems - September 29, 2009

Six televisions?!! Your post is spot on, targeting the overconsumption problems so many people, many Americans in particular, have. With all the holidays approaching, I get overwhelmed with the amount of junk I see in the stores. Most of it is, pardon me, crap, and is destined to be found in a landfill before long. I see many new businesses opening up, despite these bad economic times, and what they are selling is stuff people don’t need either. On the ride home from a funeral today, every other commercial on the radio was a car dealership wanting people to come in and test-drive/buy a new car. Stop the spending, people! Ah, I’m starting to rant now, too. Great post.

Thanks, Meredith, and welcome! Few things aggravate me more than planned obsolescence, when things are made so they can’t be fixed and have to be thrown away, when things are made that fail after what seems like seconds, when you’re always being urged to buy this year’s/month’s/week’s model because the one you already have is just so passe. It’s one reason we love the Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog (see the link on our blogroll at right): They sell stuff that people actually need, and it’s made to outlast you, so you only need to buy once. (And plan to pass it along to the next generation!) I wish all manufacturers would take a leaf from their book.

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