This is a quintessential unbalancing act that I’ve struggled with over the years. Frugality is fundamentally about achieving your goals with what you have on hand and without spending a lot of money. Minimalism is about reducing the amount of stuff in your life. If you have ever tried to prioritize both of these at once you realize that there is a permanent tension between the two that simply cannot be resolved.
One might think that the shared goal of making do without having to acquire more stuff would be a point in common. There are a few neat and tidy examples of this, like making your own cleaning products. On one little shelf you have baking soda, white vinegar, castile soap, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, maybe coconut oil and olive oil. These replace a bajillion other things–in our house everything from window cleaner to toothpaste (and exploding volcanoes). A small collection of ingredients replaces many other bottles and containers, they are exponentially cheaper, and actually fast to make and use. Boom! Frugality and minimalism living in harmony.
But in most cases they only overlap well if you can make do without having exactly what you need, a lot of the time. Sometimes one can and (arguably) should, but not always.
It might seem like a first world problem, but it’s more complicated than that. Frugality is a necessity if you are poor. But if you are poor in an urban setting where you don’t have a lot of space, some frugal options simply don’t exist (buying things in bulk or in season to save money is a huge one). In addition, a lot of money saving tricks for the household take both time, research, up front resources, and sometimes even having access to particular physical resources or social networks. Minimalism, forced or chosen, can be very expensive.
In my own life I’ve wobbled back and forth. My mom cleaned things with vinegar when I was a kid. I thought she was a hippy and disregarded her methods with adolescent disdain. She bought the cheapest but most efficient new cars she could find–she commuted an hour and a half to work everyday and needed something reliable. All I noticed was the lack of AC during the blistering southern summers. She bought second hand clothes. I remember one of the few times that for some special occasion I got to buy a new outfit. I don’t remember much from way back, but boy I remember that.
She was a doctor, she could have made more money. Instead she did the worst paid job in medicine (which tells you something about our national priorities)–a county public health pediatrician. Poor kids, nobody pays for that. And 60% time, so she could be home when we got home from school. I valued all of those things and accepted the complicated feelings of wanting more, but appreciated what she stood for and the sacrifice she made. For the past decade she’s lived in an off the grid tiny house she built, doing the most amazing job of doing without and making do.
Looking back on it, I’d always struck a funky balance. In graduate school I’d keep my apartment freezing cold in the winter to save on heat, but if I was going to buy one new pair of shoes every 10 years it would be some damn nice Campers. I embraced the thrift store life; I loved feeling like I could shop guilt free.
It was culture shock when I met my husband. I’d been living on a graduate student budget forever on the oh-so-common track of perpetual higher education, while he had gone to work straight out of school. I hadn’t thought of myself as frugal or thrifty until we started living together. But this guy bought magazines at the airport when we traveled (gasp!), ate out for lunch with coworkers daily, and threw things away that could be recycled. He’d rebelled against his parents by being mainstream. Just about sent us to couples’ therapy. But he has no stuff, no squirreled away boxes of memorabilia, no crap. He’d also been a regular working adult for a lot longer than me, so had a lot more experience managing a household budget.
I was both un-frugal and un-minimalist in my new non-single life. A lot of space and money got wasted as I found my footing. I’d buy a case of 32 oz bottles of molasses and call it thrifty because buying in bulk saved me 10% on the per bottle cost. But it took me a decade to use it up and I had to store it all that time. That’s a cheap example, there were worse. We won’t talk about the chickens. Well, we might talk about the chickens, later.
The big life shift, which got me thinking about this tension, came three years ago, today. We wanted more space. We wanted different space. But we didn’t want to take on more debt and tie ourselves to the labor market any longer than we had to. We had been on the road for my dissertation field research and loved living out of a suit case and being all together. We wanted my husband to be able to work less while he was still young.
After exploring a lot of options we went with the craziest one. His parents invited us to add on to their home–the home he grew up in–just about 15 minutes from where we were already living. There was more space. It was out in the woods. The community was incredible. We would take over a part of their house they didn’t use much anymore now that their kids were grown, and build on just a kitchen and living room. In some ways that was another example of frugality and minimalism going together. We built just what we needed and repurposed something that my in-laws had been paying to heat and cool without really needing.
We’d be able to pool resources, work together on house maintenance, get childcare help without them having to get in the car, but still have our own space. It was much less expensive than our existing mortgage, yet we added enough space to have room for a second baby. At the same time, my husband’s sister and her husband built a tiny house and parked it across the driveway. We call it the family compound.
The property was covered in lumber. My father in law had been saving any potentially useful scrap of wood for 35 years. To me it looked cluttered (now, you should see my porch, I’m such a hypocrite). I won’t make this the incredible story of my husband’s family home, which deserves its own telling, but my father in law had built this amazing house himself. In the three years that we have lived here, he built a garden shed below the house, trimmed and paneled a room that had been unfinished, built a loft in our kid’s room, handmade super tall raised beds for his wife so she didn’t have to bend down to tend her plants, and built lovely shelves and storage spaces around the house and porches…all with leftover wood. And wood with good stories, too. Wood from old tobacco barns he’d salvaged. Wood from really old homes being torn down. Beautiful wood.
When I designed and built a chicken tractor, I dug out some old galvanized tin roofing he’d saved to cover it. When I decided I was actually going to pasture my chickens, I pulled rolls of old deer fence out from under the house and tied it all around the yard with scraps of old clothesline and other string he had neatly rolled up and saved. Between me and our 6 year old, who is a wild maker of enormous creations, we pillage Grandpa’s horde on a regular basis. We all resolve household needs on a regular basis with the materials that he has painstakingly saved over a generation. I’ve come to see it as a gold mine rather than clutter. It is the very definition of frugality. It comes from a place of not having money for replacing or buying new things, so saving anything that might be useful. It is messy. It is utterly not minimalist. It is good.
The way my father in law is about lumber, I am about containers. I save seed starting containers so I don’t have to buy them again. I save jars large and small for my salves, home remedies, and cleaning supplies. I save baskets and dishes for organizing the kid’s things, for their sorting and mine. These are all parts of what makes me who I am. It’s part of being frugal. But it all takes up space.
Preserving the harvest is the same way. Right now there are three big stacked plastic organizers in the middle of the hall with sweet potatoes in them. There’s not really space for them and they look ugly. But I found these organizers under the shed and they ventilate perfectly. And this spot in the mudroom hall is the only place I can plop something dirty down and leave it for 6 months without it being in the way of life. The huge matte of tangled garlic hangs beside it. That, I think is beautiful. I’m not sure my husband feels the same way, actually I know he doesn’t. But this is how I do my part of feeding the family and he let’s go a lot of his minimalist aesthetic and anti-clutter preferences without complaint.
I have tried that “get rid of things you haven’t used in a year” routine, yet quite frequently I really needed whatever it was about every 18 months and not having it meant buying it again. Sometimes I can be all frugal and borrow it from someone. But sometimes it takes two weeks to find and acquire the loan, with a lot of gas used and a lot of time spent on coordination. I am the full time parent of two kids at home, so the economist in me tallies up the opportunity cost of arranging (sometimes paid) childcare to get the time, as well as the gas, and often buying it is actually cheaper. There you see a loss on both fronts, frugality and minimalism. If it’s some ghastly hunk of plastic crap I wish the world didn’t need more of, sometimes I do all that anyway to keep another evil widget from leaving the factory, but that hurts my economist brain (until I remember the social and environmental externalities associated with the production of said widget and feel a wee bit better).
Clothes are the perfect example. I have a reasonable closet by most standards, but adhering to a minimalist ideology would cost me a lot of money. In the past 6 years I’ve fluctuated size in extremes over two pregnancies and everything in between. I was teaching. I was doing interviews. I do serious gardening in red clay country. I have to be out with my children in all weather. I have clothes for all that in several sizes and since I may not be done having kids, I’m not tossing things. I keep maternity and baby gear in constant rotation to friends and family to keep our closet sane, but that first kid keeps growing, darn him, and the bigger they get the more space their clothes take up.
Where’s the edge? I purge until purging more would require doing laundry faster. Since I already do at least one load a day and folks still periodically run out of underwear, there’s little wiggle room. We even have a “once worn” clothes pile for items that can take another wear, which is decidedly untidy and takes up space, yet saves washing energy and money. So I look at the closet with more things in it than I’ll use in a year–or two–and call it good.
I built a chicken tractor. I designed it and paid a handy friend to construct it. All my research said that for it to function it needed real wheels. I spent $50 on two good wheels. It’s true, it needed those wheels. When our lawn mower died for good and true, I asked my husband to remove the wheels before taking it to the dump. Those are really nice wheels. That will save me $100 next time I need good wheels. Until then, they take up space.
Children’s art supplies? Don’t get me started. Yes, it’s a privilege and a super first world problem. But yes, I have seen a huge difference in how much they explore art when the materials are decent and on hand. You have to let them waste some (this kills me, I cannot handle wasting, I die inside). And then there are the mommy art supplies you pretend are kid art supplies so that you can excuse the space they take up. This is one I will never ever feel bad about.
My elder child is an exuberant maker. I can’t put a price tag on what it’s worth to me that he can go outside and rummage through things and find cool materials that he can actually make something interesting with. I can’t count how many times I almost threw something away and thought “but he’ll make something great with that.” And he did. Sometimes six months or a year later. Sure, he’d never have known if we hadn’t had those materials on hand. But they’ve made his experience immeasurably richer.
I am a hoarder by nature, and the minimalists in my life–my husband, his sister in the tiny house, my mother–are an important counter balance. I pay attention to the time it takes to curate The Stuff and as I get older I get better at knowing what matters and what doesn’t. We have no attic and no storage space now, which requires constant thoughtfulness about whether to bring something home to begin with and, if so, what needs to leave to make room for it. I like that. I’m inspired by the tiny house dwellers, though I’m grateful not to have to make some of their hard choices.
Holding a minimalist aesthetic as an inspiration for keeping physical spaces neat helps me keep the clutter under control. It makes my brain feel healthier and happier. But frugality as a culture to live by is more important to who I am, and at the end of the day trumps minimalism when I have to choose. The real challenge is accepting this unbalance for what it is and remembering the good reasons behind the struggle.