Thursday, March 23, 2017

Frugality Books Old and New & Some Other Books Just for Fun

Frugality may not be for everyone. Not too long ago I explained to someone how he could easily save money on an item he was getting ready to buy. He looked at me with an expression that said, “Who cares about saving money?”
                The Unitarian church I was a member of once pointed out I’d not met my pledge. Their fiscal year was July through June. I itemize every other year, so I explained I’d give them two years’ contributions, but one would be after January 1 and the other would be before December 31. I got blank looks. I also got blank looks when I asked for a donation receipt for many boxes of books I gave them for a book sale. It was as if saving money on taxes was against their religion. For those and some other reasons I no longer consider myself Unitarian. But that’s for another post.
                At any rate, saving money is certainly not against my religion. I’m always looking for ideas on how to do it better, and I like to see what the younger generation has to say about saving money.
I read a review of Lauren Greutman’s The Recovering Spender and got the book from the library. There seems to be a formula these days for these books. Ms. Greutman says she grew up middle class (in a six bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom house on seventeen landscaped acres in Saratoga Springs, New York—I’m not sure what class she thinks that would put her in the middle of). Her husband is evidently a saver who was shocked when she put a full-price package of Doritos in her shopping basket right after they got married. (Perhaps the lesson here is: Go shopping with your fiancĂ© BEFORE you get married.) At any rate, Ms. Greutman wound up in charge of the family budget and racked up $42,000 in consumer debts behind her husband’s back. She fessed up and they worked their way out of debt, which led to Ms. Greutman’s starting a blog, which led to this book.
Ms. Greutman has some good information for her readers (like deciding cable TV, for example, is not necessary to life—especially if you’re drowning in debt) and for some time I wondered what it was that I found so disagreeable about this book, and it finally hit me: Ms. Greutman is approaching frugality as a chore, not as something she enjoys. She tells about her first time using coupons. She was embarrassed. She gave up credit cards for some time, and when she decided to see if she could control herself if she got one, she found she couldn’t. She was feeling down and took her card to Walmart and made a bunch of impulse purchases. She found that she had spent an extra $2,000 on the card and didn’t know where the money had gone or what she had spent it on. She wisely gave up the card. I wonder about her long-term commitment to frugality.
Ms. Greutman’s book is a sad commentary on our times. So many personal finance books these days seem to be tales of how people did stupid things, got in way over their heads, found God or a reasonable facsimile thereof, got themselves out of debt and are now getting book contracts to tell their stories. One (and I forgot the title and author) even shared the author’s many failed suicide attempts, which gives the term “too much information” new meaning, and, while I sympathize with the author, that’s not what I was looking for in a book on saving money.
Anna Newell Jones’ The Spender’s Guide to Debt-Free Living is better. Ms. Jones also was in debt—to the tune of $23,605.10—that’s the exact amount. Not bad, she says, but bad enough for her. She is a spender, not a saver, but she decided to stop spending until she paid her debts. She called what she was doing a “spending fast.” Once she was out of debt, she realized what way too few people ever find out—she could live on a lot less money, and that gave her more control over her life. She discusses the negative impacts of debt. In our society it’s so accepted that everyone has debt that few people give it any thought. If you’re one of the people who has that sneaky feeling that debt is not all it’s cracked up to be, you need to read this book. Ms. Jones gives many concrete ways to save money and, while she ends the book by telling her readers once they’ve gotten out of debt, they can go on a spending diet rather than a fast, I have the feeling that many readers will have gone a long way toward realizing their life is fuller and more theirs without debt and will maybe stay on the fast a while longer.
At the other end of the cheap spectrum is Jeff Yaeger, who has a series of “Ultimate Cheapskate” books and Amy Dacyczyn (and there’s a reason this lady remains a legend more than two decades after she retired her newsletter). These people and their followers ENJOY being cheapskates. They are having fun. They go curb shopping. They see nothing to be ashamed of in what they’re doing—in fact, they’d be ashamed if they didn’t get a deal. And they’ve taught others their secrets. If you take a look at Amy Dacyczyn’s books, you see happy cheap people repurposing everything including dryer lint and frozen orange juice lids. I saw Jeff Yaeger do a presentation, and the one thing I remember is he repurposed one of those mesh orange bags into a dish scrubber. He seemed to be having a lot of fun, too. Jeff Yaeger decided long ago he did not want to devote his life to work, so he didn’t. One of his books, How to Retire the Cheapskate Way tells how he managed to live outside the cubicle.
While I was writing this I happened on a copy of Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette that had been donated to the library. It was $2, and I was happy to get it. I had loaned my (autographed) copies of The Tightwad Gazette, The Tightwad Gazette II, and The Tightwad Gazette III, and, well, you know how that went. Maybe I’ll get them back in the borrower’s will. At any rate, re-reading Amy’s suggestions was refreshing and enjoyable, and it’s nice to have them all in one volume. This book is 959 pages and includes an exhaustive index. It far exceeds anything I’ve read on frugality lately. As Amy has said since day one, she is “promoting thrift as a viable alternative lifestyle.”
Both Jeff Yaeger and Amy Dacyczyn decided before they got in financial difficulties what they wanted and what they could do without. And that they could have fun doing without stuff they didn’t need. And they and their readers have found that, even if their neighbors might think they’re a little eccentric, well, so what? And who cares?
Another writer who truly seems to enjoy his take on frugality is John Hoffman, who wrote The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving. John tells how he’s found treasure (really) in Dumpsters. The treasures include the wedding ring he gave his wife. Dan used to live near The Ohio State University, and he tells me that when the spring quarter ended and students were departing for the summer, the Dumpsters in his neighborhood became full of treasure. Another book on what’s free for the taking is Mongo: Adventures in Trash, by Ted Botha. It is amazing what gets tossed.
I’ve lived in my house for nearly nineteen years, and I know most of my neighbors. I realize I’m a source of amusement for some of them, but so what? A few years ago one of our neighbors was suddenly taken ill at the age of 93. His house was sold to a rehabber who emptied the house into a Dumpster. One of the neighbors mentioned it, and I said, “Oh, yes. There was some good stuff there.” The neighbor said, “We wondered how long it would take you to go Dumpster diving.”
A house on my street is being rehabbed. The previous owners had metal awnings. A couple of years ago one fell off the back of the house, and the owner put it on the curb. I put it over one of my basement windows to divert water. (All right, before you say, “Ewwwww!,” it’s on the back of the house, and it really doesn’t look THAT bad.) The rehabbers removed the rest of the awnings. One of my neighbors said he supposed those awnings were in the Dumpster in front of the house. I told him I’d checked, and they weren’t there. He laughed and said, “Of course you did.”
Well, why not? You never know what’s there unless you look.
On recycle days, I can usually find the past week’s New York Times when I walk my dog. And maybe even some coupons. People get used to my looking through their recycle bins. They don’t care. And I don’t consider it a chore. It’s free, and I get a kick out of it. (And in 1988 the US Supreme Court ruled in California v. Greenwood that garbage on the curb was fair game, so it’s legal, too.)
Last weekend I went to an estate sale. I spent $10 for three great shirts and a pack of unopened underwear. I don’t know if Ms. Greutman would be caught dead at an estate sale, much less buying used clothing. But $10 doesn’t go very far in a retail store.
Last year I went to an estate sale that was being done by the family of the deceased. Everything was high priced and not selling. (That’s one reason estate sales are best left to professionals.) There was a bunch of lotion, and I asked if they’d make a deal if I bought it all. I wound up, after some negotiating, with enough to last a couple of years for $7.50. (I have very well-controlled diabetes, and I learned the hard way to keep my feet moisturized.) There are frequently some good deals on unexpected items at these sales—even on canned food. I went to one looking for books and wound up with a bag full of cheap groceries. (If you decide to buy groceries at an estate sale, be aware of the use by dates; it isn’t a bargain if you have to throw it out after opening it.)
A few weeks ago I picked up Joan Ransom Shortney’s How to Live on Nothing at yet another estate sale. This book was first published in 1961. The copy I found is a Pocket Book edition published in 1968. I had read the book before, but I had forgotten how good it is. A lot of what Ms. Shortney recommends would be somewhat difficult today, and much of it would be more effort than we’d probably want to expend (taking envelopes apart, turning them inside out, regluing and reusing them stands out as something that would be more trouble than it’s worth), but a lot of it remains valid. I’d forgotten how powdered milk can make recipes more appealing. It’s on my shopping list. She discusses material, things to check when buying clothing at thrift stores, how to find good furniture at auctions (although these days, I’d go for estate sales instead—I don’t think the modern-day estate sale had come into its own when this book was written). Somewhat off the point, but, hey, it’s my blog, are Ms. Shortney’s recommendations for taking care of your teeth. Don’t floss unless your dentist instructs you to and use a firm toothbrush, which brings me to one of my many pet peeves. I like firm toothbrushes, but they’re really hard to find these days. I found some (unopened) at an estate sale and used them. My dental hygienist commented on how clean my teeth were. I told her I’d been using a firm toothbrush. She said, “They’re not supposed to be selling those anymore.” When I said I’d found them at an estate sale, she wasn’t thrilled with that, either. To me using a soft toothbrush feels like brushing my teeth with cotton candy, and, darn it, I should be able to buy firm toothbrushes if I want to.
Ms. Shortney makes an excellent point about reuse. “[W]hen you use something ordinarily thrown away you can be extra proud—proud you’ve avoided spending money you cannot spare and proud you’ve done the national economy a service by cutting down on our national vice—waste.”
One thing I find interesting is how the further back you go, the more frugal our ancestors were, which leads me to The American Frugal Housewife, a book written in 1829 by Lydia Maria Child. A copy of the book was discovered at an old book auction by Alice Geffen and reprinted in 1972. A quick read reveals that frugality really was a chore in the 19th Century, but then there was no TV, so people had a lot more time on their hands. We should be grateful being cheap takes much less effort these days. It often boils down to: Don’t buy stuff you don’t need.
As I’ve mentioned before in “The Chickens Are Coming Home To Roost,” we frugal folk are often considered a little off by those in the media-approved mainstream, but when we look at our lives and realize how much there is to be had just for picking it up off the curb and how little we actually must spend to have enjoyable lives, we also look around and wonder what is wrong with people who spend way beyond their means on things that will only keep them in debt and trapped in their jobs. And we have learned what Madison Avenue has hoped will remain a secret: Things will not make us happy.
Neil Wertheimer recently wrote about lessons from the rich in the AARP Magazine. Noting that the most popular vehicle among the wealthy is a Ford pickup and that the wealthy routinely shop at Amazon, Walmart, and Target, he concluded: “Frugality isn’t a punishment; it’s a positive, commonsense approach to life. So focus on value and quality, not prestige or appearances.”

And now some books just for fun.

One non-frugality book I’ve gone through lately is Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall about the what happens to a man who was thrown clear of a plane that crashes off Long Island and who rescues the other survivor, a four-year-old boy, by swimming several miles to shore. The plot includes a Rush Limbaugh-type blowhard and a co-pilot named Bush from Odessa, Texas whose uncle, a powerful senator, got him in the National Guard for pilot training. (I wonder if he was related to the Bushes of Midland.) The book describes the hell the hero is put through—the blowhard even hints that the hero may have deliberately caused the crash. Behind this excellent story is a capable critique of our 24-hour news cycle.
Another fun book is Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary. Mr. Sorel found some old New York newspapers when he was replacing a linoleum floor in 1965. The papers discussed Mary Astor’s child custody trial. Mr. Sorel decided one day he’d write about the trial, and in 2016 at age 87 he did. The book parallels his own story of two marriages and a somewhat difficult childhood. I was attracted to the book because Mary Astor starred in one of my favorite films, Dodsworth. As it turns out, the trial happened during the filming of that movie. During the day, she worked on the film; at night she was on trial. In spite of that she turned in an amazing performance.
Finally, one of my 25¢ estate sale finds was Caravan, by Lady Eleanor Smith, one of England’s interwar “Bright Young Things.” It was a fun read written in 1942, three years before Lady Smith died at age 43. Set in the Victorian era, it is decidedly not Victorian.
Until next time… .

© 2017 Larry Roth