I wrote about the topic of living frugally in the past, but my son brought it up again on Facebook and I feel inspired once again to go down memory lane. It is my “When I was your age, I had to walk 5 miles to school uphill both ways” speech.
What inspires me to do it once again is that I don’t know if I ever wrote about the circumstances that drove me to pay close attention to how I was spending my money. Early on in our 50 years, around year # 3, we went through a period of poverty when our income was pretty much zero. I can’t remember how we paid our rent. Did we borrow money from our parents? I took in washing and ironing, which brought in some money, but not much. That year was enough to experience the fear, panic, and sense of hopelessness that those in poverty feel. It is the source of grief I feel today for those suffering hunger and poverty.
That experience took me utterly by surprise. I had X number of dollars one week to buy groceries, then X divided by 4 the next week. We ate poorly, white bread, cereal, hot dogs, mac’n cheese were at the top of the list. The pantry looked sparse. I felt lost and alone, neared a mental break-down. But it was also short lived. Bernie found a job eventually and from that time one, we were fine. We had days that I call pay-check-to-pay-check, when we couldn’t save ahead for things, but we managed to keep our heads above water. I reentered the work force when my youngest child went to school full time and we were actually able to put money away into savings. It felt pretty darned good.
Fast forward about 30 years. I was working full time for a church in St. Cloud. My mother had moved to Minnesota after throat surgery when her larynx was removed. She was living in an apartment not far from us. It was my job to attend to her needs, shopping, doctors’ appointments, post cancer follow-up treatments, etc. We managed pretty well for a few years until her health began to deteriorate and her body grew increasingly feeble. She fell a few times in her apartment which was worrisome. We talked about sending her over to the nursing home in her complex but she was resistant to that, as one might expect. She began to need extra care that her insurance would not totally cover. It paid a nurse to come in three times a day to feed her through her feeding tube, but I had to drive over to her apartment every six hours to give her medication between feedings. This meant once in the middle of the night and mid afternoons I had to take a break from work to drive over just to give her a pill. Add to this the many appointments and emergency trips to the hospital, I was exhausted.
I considered quitting my job, but didn’t know if we could afford to sacrifice my income, which was about 30% of our total household income. I decided to do an experiment. I began to keep detailed records of every penny I spent. This included non-essentials like the coffee and doughnut I bought on the way to work some mornings. I also considered expenses that might change if I quit working. My grocery list included some quick convenience foods that I could throw in a lunch box. I considered the mileage to and from work and the gas that took to drive. I counted every lunch out with friends or co-workers as non-essential. I listed the cost of junk foods or expensive convenience foods that could be eliminated if I had more time home to cook from scratch. I decided to take clothes out of the equation. Other than underwear, no need to make any wardrobe updates and something were to wear out, used is fine. It was an amazing activity. Believe it or not, I decided that my expenses would drop by 50% if I simply quit working. That means that instead of Bernie’s and my combined income dropping 30%, it would drop only about 15%.
Long story, I know. I will shorten it. The stress got so bad that I ended up quitting my job in the middle of the year. I threw caution to the wind. I stepped out in faith, you might say. God works in strange ways. My mother died five weeks later. God bless her, I think this was all part of a plot between her and God to get me to move on.
The exercise of figuring out my spending was enlightening. It made me very aware of the cost of things and the frivolous choices we make every day. Most of us can live on less. We are spoiled. We buy without consciousness. We tend to want things now instead of waiting, which credit cards makes way too easy.
Frugality has become part of my character, I am afraid. My friends are starting to notice. I am sometimes guilty of being penny wise and pound foolish when I go for less expensive rather than for quality. I tend to hang on to things way too long because I don’t want to buy the new thing until the old absolutely falls apart. But, strangely, I find frugality creative. I am not thinking I will be changing any time soon.