Saturday morning, up at 5AM, that was my dad’s version of sleeping in. When I was a kid my dad worked six days a week putting my brothers through college and getting ready to send me there too. Saturdays were his “light” day. Up at 5 and done by noon instead of up at 4AM and working twelve hours. Incredible. He gave me my first job by hiring me to clean the office of the oil depot where he’d risen to general manager. Here I sit forty years later in a mildly reminiscent setting, selling art beside a general store (unsubstantiated factoid: Bailey’s Corner is the 22nd oldest building in Washington State) which puts me and my art beside used books, fuchsia baskets, and a rack of motor oil. We return to our roots but never exactly.
My dad did the classic climb: truck driver to dispatcher to general manager to division manager. I think it was only in the last one that he was wearing a tie and when the company car was finally a car. Before that he wore work clothes and had the company truck, a big stake truck, a flat bed with detachable wooden sides. It wasn’t my mom’s idea of a company perk, but I loved it. It looked, acted, sounded, and smelled like the archetypical truck and was big enough that I had to climb up into it. Ah, the sounds and smells of diesel in the morning. Harleys wake me up and annoy me because the noise is unnecessary, but the cough and rumble of a commercial diesel is comforting because I associate it with honest, responsible work. That’s no stranger than citified farm kids catching that waft of a newly manured field. Their friends may balk, and neither may have a desire to plow, but that aroma can be an olfactory comfort zone.
Frugality was not a word used in my childhood home. Money wasn’t discussed, but money wasn’t wasted either. From today’s point of view we were resourceful, and tended to reduce or reuse before recycle was common. Coffee grounds went into plant pots. Bacon grease was saved for later. (It wasn’t until I started cooking for myself that I understood the wonders of bacon. It’s not just for sandwiches.) We had what we needed and didn’t worry about the rest. The cars were washed every week and waxed every month. The chore wasn’t simply to keep us kids busy. A washed car lasted longer, especially back when car paints and coatings weren’t as good and when Pittsburgh salted the streets to make the winters survivable.
We all worked and thought it was normal. How else could we afford the little extras? I thought we were rich because we’d taken a vacation hours away at a beach house in North Carolina. Later I learned that there were neighborhoods where the houses weren’t all the same. (Common floor plans were handy for us kids though. We always knew where the bathroom was when we were visiting friends.)
Frugality is now considered an alternative lifestyle, a cause, a reactionary response to social and environmental issues. I’m continually surprised that respecting time, money, resources and others is something different, something that must be learned. We had a certain amount of money and we didn’t act as if we had more. Our planet has a certain supply of resources and it’s probably enough to enjoyably and sustainably live; after we learn or re-learn how to do that. In either case, it’s a matter of choice, not a matter of debate – at least not after it’s become engrained.
I want, I want, I want. Of course I want. We all do. Even the Dalai Lama talks about desire.
“From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment.”
Even when I desire an exuberant excess, it usually is based in the anticipation of the contemplative contentment that follows. More, more, more is a ever-accelerating trip that ends in an abrupt and disastrous stop.
I’m board Secretary of The New Road Map Foundation, an organization that advocates personal financial integrity and literacy. There’s a need for coaching and support of people interested in frugality and responsible personal finance. Most people associated with New Road Map have some aspect of their life that deviates from archetypically perfect frugality or financial independence. Temporary situations, jobs, unexpected expenses, changed relationships, all can upset carefully laid plans and superbly organized lives. Even a windfall can be a monetary encumbrance if the windfall is like a house that has taxes due.
The Foundation and others encourage me, but I am most encouraged by communities that self-educate and self-support. The Simple Living Forums and similar sites like The Motley Fool (if you can get past their advertisements) collect people learning to live a more considered and sustainable life.
Most of the lessons for a frugal life are the tested habits of those who lived through the Great Depression. Some became trapped in fear, but many learned simpler ways of meeting needs and better understanding the difference between need, want, and desire.
Our home was simple, but it felt fancy, too fancy for a ten-year old boy; but in retrospect, I recognize that my mom picked the few things that made a big difference, French Provincial furniture wasn’t and isn’t my style. She wanted mullioned windows, so she artfully drew them out in electrical tape in a manner I see in Martha Stewart, if Martha Stewart was a bit more suburban. My dad had control of the rec room, which he built and tweaked until it became his comfort zone, including the obligatory recliner where he’d fall asleep after he finally got home from work, especially if it was his second job. It wasn’t fancy, but it had everything he needed.
Without knowing it, my childhood was years of training in the value of resourcefulness and personal effort. I don’t think I have “enough”, because I won’t make that claim with the current uncertainties in the market; but, at another level, inside, I think I have probably enough. Probably is the important word. It isn’t a sure thing. Nothing is. But my investments are in good companies that I expect the market to recognize soon. My lifestyle is such that even a slight increase in wealth can mean large increases in comfort. And I’m aware of how much can be done with extra-wealth directed towards philanthropy (New Road Map could use your support!), innovation, and entrepreneurship. I’m also aware of the benefits of a bit of work.
So here I sit beside the motor oil and folk art, listening to trucks rumble up, glad that I didn’t have to wake up at 5AM, and wondering if some of my art will find new homes (sales = good). It’s Saturday, might as well get some work done – but I’m making sure that I sleep in tomorrow.