Old-school frugal

Frugality is hot again.

I’ll start this post at the end of the story: during the Great Recession, Americans rediscovered frugality. Only this time, the information had already been archived on the Web and a core of tech-savvy people had dedicated themselves to the lifestyle. Frugality and simple living had never gone away, but they certainly weren’t always popular with the media.

Let’s archive a bit more of that modern history so that you can rediscover it all over again for yourself.

The media contributes to the popular perception that these low-cost lifestyles are only practiced by people without money. (I doubt we’ll ever see an E! Network documentary about Kardashian frugal shopping tips.) Even local media tend to report the frugal lifestyle only when it attracts controversy or the wrong kind of attention from the authorities. You almost never see a network news story about how people achieve financial independence by bringing their own meals to work or by carpooling.

The public’s problem with the lifestyle is that it takes too much effort. People assume that it requires re-using plastic bags, saving scraps of soap, making your own clothing, and growing a backyard garden. If you bring up composting, they’ll stop listening. Frugality seems like drudgery, and financial independence is just a fantasy.

However, frugality actually helps you figure out what’s important to you. Just like tracking your spending and setting a budget, the frugal lifestyle can be adapted to match your values. Maybe you’re not going to install a wood stove in your house when the military transfers you every 2-3 years, and maybe you don’t particularly care to make your own bread. But you could choose to drive a cheaper, older car and shop thrift stores.

The advantage of frugality is that it will dramatically cut your expenses and allow you to boost your savings rate. If you call it “simple living” or “going green” then people will even think you’re ahead of an environmental trend.

Yet if you live near Lancaster County in central Pennsylvania, this attitude seems quaint alongside the Mennonite and Amish cultures. They’ve been living green for centuries, and they know all about sustainable lifestyles.

Let me start this modern frugal-living history with a an obscure reference that I haven’t read yet but heard all about from my father. My grandparents were in their mid-20s when the Great Depression hit, and Gramps became a big believer in self-reliance. His manual was the 1940 edition of “Five Acres and Independence”, which he used on a 58-acre farm. Gramps would do the animal chores in the mornings & evenings around his day job as a lineman for an electric utility. Crops were handled on the weekends. Grandma took care of the gardens, cooking, and “domestic maintenance”. Between the two of them they grew or made nearly everything they owned, including building a house and a barn. However, as they finished the major projects and built their savings, they also eased up on the frugal independence. Gramps made his own furniture at first (with power tools and other modern conveniences) but upgraded to “store-bought” as the years went by. Grandma churned out tremendous volumes of sewing and knitting but also turned those into hobbies as she grew older. They made the frugal lifestyle work for them when they had to, but as they grew their savings they eventually set aside most of the frugal techniques they’d begun with.

Dad thought “Five Acres and Independence” was pretty cool when he had his own horse. He was not quite so enthused when it came to milking cows twice a day, seven days a week, for what seemed like his entire life. I’m sure that the book and the lifestyle “inspired” him to get an engineering degree and an office career. He’s never grown a crop again in his life. However, he enjoyed doing his own small-engine maintenance, building his own furniture, and tackling every home repair on his own. He poured concrete patios and built wooden decks. As an electrical engineer he took it personally when an electric motor broke, and he’d repair components that today we’d just replace. During the 1970s recession and inflation, Mom & Dad would barter their skills with the neighbors for almost everything.

Dad’s reference library was Popular Mechanics. This magazine taught the 20th century American male (and “housewives”) how to build or repair just about everything. When an issue came out with a “popular” project, it could cause a national retailing run on certain types of wood or concrete mixes or wiring or car parts. While you were building your own homestead, you’d also enjoy their articles on the flying cars and personal jetpacks of the 21st century.

Frugality was also popular in the 1960s hippie movement to forsake a material lifestyle. However, I think young adults quickly realized that it was a lot of work, and that era still gives frugality a bad name. Forming a commune and making your own yogurt sounds pretty fun, especially when you can grow custom crops for “personal use only”, but there was nothing glamorous about the manual labor. The peer pressure and group strife practically guaranteed that the vast majority of these frugal efforts disbanded after a few years.

But Baby Boomers got another frugal nudge when Dolly Freed burst on the national scene in 1978. She wrote the short lifestyle manual “Possum Living” to explain how she and her father survived on just a half-acre lot outside of Philadelphia with no jobs and almost no cash. Her father seemed to be a curmudgeon who didn’t get along with society, but he homeschooled Dolly (her pseudonym) in an era when it was considered strange at best. She taught herself how to learn and gave herself a wide-ranging classical and scientific education that put her far ahead of her peers. Their “extreme frugal” lifestyle taught her even more skills about building a home and living off the land with very little money. Then she literally wrote the book about it.

They didn’t just quit the rat race– she never even started it. She and her father grew most of their own food. They raised chickens. They hunted and fished. They made or repaired or recycled almost everything or just did without. They maintained a home, dressed well, and stayed healthy. They enjoyed their leisure and lived a middle-class lifestyle with only a few hundred dollars a year.

Dolly’s accomplishments, youth, and folksy writing style made her a national sensation. She wrote her text in pencil, taught herself to type, and used the local library to find an agent and a publisher. She even appeared on the Merv Griffin show to teach the nation how to value free time and control of our choices over an addiction to spending money. Public demand for her book led to a documentary.

Dolly dropped out of the public eye after her TV appearance– she wanted to go to college and start her adult life, and it never occurred to her to pursue celebrity status. She’s enjoyed a successful career (as a NASA engineer, no less) and raised a family near Houston. In 2010 a publisher re-issued “Possum Living” and a journalist tracked Dolly down for an update. Dolly herself even ran her own blog that year, then slipped back into her under-the-radar frugal lifestyle.

I still have six other people to write about from the 1980s to the present, so I’m going to break this post into two parts. If you’ve already read “The Military Guide” then you can probably figure out who they are and what they’ve accomplished– don’t spoil the ending for the rest of the readers!

Related articles:
Frugal living is not deprivation
Military retirement with low savings
A complete waste of money
Do you have affluenza?

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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