What Does It Mean to Live Frugally?

by Michelle Lasley

Michelle Lasley is a mother, wife in Pacific Northwest learning to balance green dreams with budget realities.

November 21, 2008


Categories: Family, Food

Flowers from Sauvie Island Farm, u-pick; muffins made from u-pick blueberries and bulk flour.

Flowers from Sauvie Island Farm, u-pick; muffins made from u-pick blueberries and bulk flour.

I’ve been noticing a lot lately, a lot of talk regarding living frugally and what that means.  In large part, I have sought information out because I want to glean what I can from others who have lived well frugally.  I wanted to see their tips on how to “think outside the box”.  I want to get tips, simply, that I haven’t thought of.  I forget, honestly forget, how engorged we are in spending.  The concept, for example of “Buy Nothing Day” has been one which I have been familiar with for upwards of 8 years.  The idea is not new to me to avoid shopping malls on the day after Thanksgiving.  It helps, to be sure, that my parents saved their Christmas shopping for December 24th, every year.  An argument for waiting?  The prices are lower and no one is in the stores.

My husband and I have about $2100 take home pay to work with every month.  We don’t have the luxury of deciding to live on a frugal budget, we must or we will be using lines of credit from the bank, furthering debt and giving them pennies we could have put towards items like milk.  We use W.I.C. and recently qualified for energy assistance.  We are college graduates and we qualify for government aid; how’s that but a humbling reminder to sometimes inflated egos?

Living frugally, though, forces creativity and has urged me to get back to whole foods cooking.  After we got married, I found I couldn’t cook the way I like because Peter’s tastes didn’t jive with things like arugula and tofu.  So, I went back to meat and potatoes cooking, and lack of imagination even showed how Hamburger Helper could be a happy medium.  We’ve finally gotten serious, and about at the same place on the same page, this past year, so we’ve been able to all but eliminate foods like Tuna and Hamburger Helper.  (We did find it’s much cheaper to just buy the box of Mac & Cheese rather than make it homemade.)  So, what do we do to live frugally?  Lot’s of different things.

Buying in bulk is the number thing.  We’ve been buying very large containers of TP, for example, for months.  We do not have a membership to Costco because there are local alternatives that offer the same bulk rates without the membership fee.  How would a membership fee help us to live frugally?  It’d be $40 we could have put towards car registration, for example.  So, everything we can manage to buy in bulk monthly, we do.  We buy flour in bulk, meat in bulk, vegetables in bulk.  This means I have to prepare things, and has increased our spending on quart and gallon-sized freezer bags, but I have found that as I get in the habit of doing it, these minutes of prep save hours in the end.  So, the 4 lb bags of veggies are pared down to 5 or 6 quart sized bags of veggies.  That 5 lb package of ground beef distributed out of Clackamas, OR was split into half and 1 lb sections.  We’ll use 1/2 lb for those remaining Hamburger Helper meals instead of the suggested pound.

6 lbs of blueberries picked and separated in June.

6 lbs of blueberries picked and separated in June.

We eat more vegetable dishes rather than more meat based dishes.  I’ve gotten back into my protein combining with beans and rice (Thanks Frances Moore Lappé!).  This was one thing I couldn’t do when Peter and I first got married because he simply wouldn’t eat much of the food and we’d have leftovers that rotted in the fridge.  But, we’ve come to a middle ground where my cooking and his palette have both changed.  So, he can eat and enjoy Walnut Cheddar Loaf now.  We’ve explored U-Pick farms, not farmer’s markets, for vegetable options and have fallen in love all over again with Sauvie Island.  Since my beloved mother got me a food processor, we found that truly homemade pumpkin pie is much better than anything canned.  And, because we’re getting back to whole foods, we’re doing what I love: controlling ingredients. Controlling ingredients helps our budget and it helps our health.  I get the satisfaction of using what sugar I went and how much, and I also feel like I am free to be less guilty about those occasional hamburger helper meals because I’ve gone local and organic where we can afford it.

We’ve read advice books and listened to some advice radio, namely Larry Burkett and Dave Ramsey.  Peter’s aunt gave us a Larry Burkett book for our wedding gift, which I found helpful for suggesting what pecentage of income should go where.  I had no idea how housing costs, for example, should break down and equal 38% of your net pay.  If you have to overspend in one category, what can you give up to make the budget balance?  This continued control has given us freedom to buy ice cream because we’ve only spent 2/3 of what we allow ourselves on food for the month.  We know what has to go where and together we are accountable so it’s not just a selfish justification but a double check.

As we’ve gained control, we’ve also been able to lighten up.  Peter loves to check out craigslist for deals and fun things.  So, now, when he asks if he can get that $50,000 boat, I feel free to say, “Yes,” because I know he knows that I know that we can’t afford it.  And, we hopefully now have the hindsight to continue this accountablility especially since we know our income will increase sometime in the future.  I still have loans to pay off.

So, what does it mean to live frugally?  It means we are accountable to each other, first and foremost.  It means for us, that we talk about how to trim the budget discussing what we can go without (soda and coffee).  For us, it means we shop together.  It means I cook and Peter works on the cars.  It means we use cost-saving environmentally methods for cleaning.  I think it has brought us closer together and continued to show that we know the answers and those outside books (like the Yankee How to Live on a Shoestring) only offer random tips that won’t add significantly to what we’ve already done.  It means we use the library more and get new a lot less.  But, how often do we really need new?


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