These days, many people are looking to reduce their expenditure. For many it is a matter of necessity. For others, it can stem from a realisation that the future is uncertain and job security is a myth, making the squirreling of savings a prudent course. And for yet others it can form part of a broader philosophical, spiritual or ethical approach to life.
As a result of this growing interest in spending less the internet teems with websites on frugal living, dispensing all manner of strategies to reduce, recycle and repurpose. But I confess, I've never liked the word ‘frugal’. For me, frugal evokes images of meanness, deprivation and 'please, sir, can I have some more?’ misery. Frugal is watery soup, threadbare clothes and rickety furniture. It's stingy gifts, reused dental floss and shivering in a cold room.
'Thrifty', on the other hand, is a word I love. Thrifty is cheerful, cheeky and clever. If frugal is miserably darning the hole in your jumper, thrifty is jauntily covering it with a ribbon bow. Thrifty does a happy dance on discovering a fabulous cheap wine, a great second-hand shirt or a free jazz concert. Thrifty crafts gorgeous homemade gifts, hosts fabulous parties on a shoestring, and stretches a meal to welcome unexpected guests.
I know this is quibbling over semantics, but when you decide (or are forced) to tighten the purse-strings, your attitude to the process is enormously significant. In her delightful book Orchids on Your Budget (written in 1937, during the Great Depression and re-published during the GFC), Marjorie Hillis makes the following observations:
Most importantly, she cautions against slipping into stinginess:
Anybody can economise drably and untidily, and a disheartening number do. Most people run down instead of cutting down. But not the interesting people. They grasp the somewhat obvious fact that any problem so pressing is worth conquering, and with as much zest as possible.
The one thing you ought to be ashamed of is economising grubbily...There are few things more boring than to see people counting their pennies mournfully or making you uncomfortably conscious of the need for constant counting, and few things more attractive than to see people living charmingly and cheaply.
It all sums up to the fact that economy should be as nearly invisible as possible...The thing you can't afford is letting economy stand out like an ugly patch on a well-ordered life, drawing everyone's eyes away from the attractive features.
Ms Hillis' book features a quiz titled Are you Thrifty or Stingy? Here, in homage to her, is my modern version.
A hair-line separates sensible economy from the first suspicion of closeness, one of the most unlovely qualities known to humankind.
Are you thrifty or mean?
1. When at a café with a friend, do you dither around looking for your wallet in the hope that your companion will offer to pay?
2. Do you declare to your family and friends that, due to budget restraints, you won’t be giving gifts this year?
3. Do you decline an invitation to attend a costly event that doesn't really interest you?
4. Would you serve your dinner guests risotto instead of steak or salmon?
5. Do you mend holes in your socks and stockings?
6. Would you hold up the supermarket queue to argue a price difference of $1 ?
7. Do you check your bills (including restaurant checks) for errors?
8. Have you ceased all charity donations?
9. Would you buy an outfit for a formal occasion at a thrift shop?
10. Would you argue over splitting the bill when out with friends?
11. Do you seek out as many free concerts and cut-price tickets as you can?
12. Do you keep your best clothes stashed away for special occasions?
13. Would you buy a big box of cheap but blemished tomatoes?
14. When entertaining, do you cater precisely, calculating the exact amount of food required?
15. Do you serve cheap wine to your friends?
16. Do you re-gift unwanted presents?
A 'yes' answer suggests the following...
1.At the cafe: Mean. And rude.
2. No gifts: Mean. Gifts don’t have to cost much money: a batch of homemade biscuits or fudge, a tiny plant in a vintage cup and saucer, or a delicious picnic lunch in a park can bring just as much delight as an expensive present.
3. Declining invitations: Thrifty. Save your money for the events that are meaningful to you.
4. Serving simple food: Thrifty. A meal lovingly prepared from simple ingredients can be just as delicious as one made with premium produce. And if the menu is low cost, you'll be able to entertain more often and more generously.
5. Mending: Thrifty. Repairing clothes to extend their life is a sensible saving (and cuts down on landfill – bonus!)
6. Arguing at the checkout: Mean. You will need to make your own decision as to the price at which you will argue the point, but take into account the value you place on courtesy to others and your own dignity.
7. Checking bills: Thrifty. You shouldn’t be expected to pay for the mistakes of others. This can be addressed politely and respectfully.
8. Cutting charity: Mean. You may need to scale back, but unless you are desperately broke lending assistance to those less fortunate should still find a place in your budget. You never know, one day it might be you who needs help.
9. Thrift shop formality: Thrifty. Formal outfits, often worn only a few times, generally have very poor cost-per-wear value. It's better to spend your money on the clothes that you wear day in, day out.
10. Splitting the bill: Mean. Arguing over a few dollars because someone else had the shrimp or you didn’t have coffee is unedifying. There are better options: agree up front that everyone will cover their own portion of the bill, meet friends at cheap-and-cheerful venues where the cost difference won’t be an issue, or decline the invitation in the first place.
11. Cheap entertainment: Thrifty. Most cities offer a range of free or low-cost events – get on the mailing lists for community events, and check out preview shows, last-minute tickets, student productions and fringe events. Having said all that, try to support artists when you can, even if it is just tossing a dollar in the busker's hat. They have to make a living too.
12. Hoarding clothes: Mean. Clothes sitting in your closet are a wasted investment. By all means keep one ‘good’ outfit in pristine condition for important interviews or fancy occasions, but everything else should be out earning its keep.
13. Bulk-buying: Thrifty if you come home and transform it into jars of delicious passata. Mean if it results in serving your household half-rotten produce for a week.
14. Catering: Mean. There are plenty of cheap ways to stretch out a meal so that supplies are plentiful, such as crusty baguettes, steaming rice, a pasta salad or a plate heaped with crispy roast potatoes. When compiling your entertaining menu, consider ways that any leftovers can be transformed into further meals, rather than wasted.
15. Cheap wine: Mean if it is awful cheap wine. Thrifty if have done your research and found an amazing low-cost wine.
16. Re-gifting: Mean if it is something tacky, useless or unlovely. Thrifty if it is something that the recipient will genuinely appreciate.
How did you go?