How Frugal Are You?   (August 7, 2010)

Frugality may be newly fashionable, but for the marginalized or frugal-by-nature, it is not a passing fad, it is a way of life.

I suspect the vast majority of readers are frugal. Regardless of your political views and preferences, I am confident you are united by a disdain for waste and artifice. Otherwise, you would not be reading this.

My life choices have required that I live on the margins of the American economy and thus on the margins of the "American way of life." (Free-lance writing and so on is by definition voluntary poverty and near-total marginalization.)

As a result, I live more or the same way I did at 19 years of age when I was working my way through college. My used car is a better car (because cars are better now) and I own a much more costly piece of property (I owned only raw land at 19), and so on, but basically I own almost nothing of any market value except the modest cash and securities in my IRA and my plot of Earth, which in California is deemed worthy of an annual property tax bill of $11,000. (Please note that California is constantly berated as a "low-tax state." Thank goodness for irony.)

(As a side note: it is refreshing to find that the ideal of a debt-free college degree is alive and well. My AOL daily Finance colleague Zac Bissonnette just published his first book, Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents.)

As a break from the usual analysis presented here, I've assembled a few photos of examples of my frugality (some might go so far as to call it insane penny-pinching). But we were raised in the Scots-Irish tradition in which waste is not just foolish but sinful. My wife's Japanese-American heritage provided the exact same value system: waste was deeply, fundamentally, intrinsically wrong. Many other traditions (German, Chinese, etc.) also share frugality as a cultural and financial foundation.

So we both wince when we see friends and colleagues dump a pot of still-warm rice in the trash because they cooked too much and they "never eat leftovers."

On the other hand, many of these friends own no real estate or other assets, even though they have earned two, three or even four times what I've earned in my 40 years of work (no inheritance yet, and none expected). As we all know, adulthood is a series of trade-offs, and frugality/consumerism is a key one. We are what we do every day.

For your amusement: a few photos of everyday frugality (and dumpster-diving).

My "gym" is an 8-foot square of open space, anywhere on the planet. Here at home, I have a few fun props: some 3-pound weights rescued from the curb and a bamboo staff.

Cost of lettuce seeds: 50 cents (on sale). We save some Scarlet Runner bean pods for the next season--and Scarlet Runners resprout if you cut them back in Fall. The peaches are free, as is the compost we feed the peach tree.

We change the oil and oil filter in our 1998 auto ourselves, and that's the most important maintenance for any ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle.

We turn off the TV/DVD player, etc. zombie electronics with a power strip. Sure, it's a small amount of electricity, by why waste it needlessly?

We use our car a few times a week, bundling the tasks which require driving; the rest of the time we bicycle. We own a bunch of used bikes and have some abandoned ones we picked up to fix or donate for parts to Waterside Workshops.

You each have your own daily examples of "waste not, want not," and I applaud your daily frugality and wisdom. I don't feel frugality is a sacrifice; what benefit is extracted by wasting food, energy, material, money and time?

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