Frugality in Balance

 Posted by on September 14, 2009  Add comments  Tagged with: ,
Sep 142009

A few years ago, I met a very nice woman at a Bible Study group that I attended. Our meeting was actually in the parking lot, because I pulled in next to her as she was attempting to mop up a terrible mess on her van seat. She was bringing a dessert for her small group fellowship, and it had tipped over and spilled everywhere. She asked if I had some napkins or baby wipes, because, though she knew she had some in her car somewhere, she couldn’t find them.

I showed her a shoe box under my car seat, where I kept a stash of wipes, napkins, small litter bags, diapers, and other emergency supplies. I helped her clean up, and after group was over, she invited Bee and me to her house for tea, so she could “pick my brain.”

When I arrived at her house, I understood why she invited me. She really needed help. My first clue was that her garage was so packed with boxes of stuff, from floor to ceiling, that there was only a narrow path to walk through, (kind of like a maze). Bee tripped over a box of junk at the bottom of the stairs, and I carried her the rest of the way up because there was stuff piled dangerously on every step. When we got to the living room, I had to push aside a pile of laundry to find a place to sit. Bee seemed nervous and disoriented, and though there were toys set out for her to play with, she preferred to stay close to me. I think she worried that she might get lost in all the stuff.

As I visited with this woman, I learned that she was desperate to get her house and her life in order. Her husband was upset with her because he hated living in chaos, but she didn’t know what to do, or how to begin. She had four children and a modest income, so she kept absolutely everything “just in case” she might need it someday. In a misguided attempt to be frugal, she kept every twist tie, rubber band, paper bag, plastic container, item of outgrown clothing (because what if they had another baby?) and child’s toy. She even kept old, worn-out bras, because she thought that she might need the elastic for a sewing project someday. She also compulsively purchased anything and everything that she found on clearance, because bargain hunting was a form of entertainment for her. It gave her a sort of “high” when she was feeling depressed. She rationalized each purchase by telling herself that she might have a use for it in the future, or maybe she could give it to someone as a gift. Unfortunately, most of the stuff was packed away…somewhere. She didn’t know where, for sure.

I understood where she was coming from, and bless her heart, I knew that she was trying, but after talking with her for awhile, and making some suggestions, I realized that I couldn’t help her. She rejected my ideas and attempts to help her de-clutter because she didn’t really want to change. She hoarded things out of fear and insecurity, worry that she wouldn’t have “enough,” and a lack of trust in the Lord’s provision. The problem was that this woman’s hoarding in the name of frugality was ruining her life. She didn’t have the space to stockpile so much stuff, or the time and energy to keep it organized. She couldn’t find most of the stuff she saved anyway, so it didn’t actually save her money, and she and her family were miserable because they could barely move in their own home. They couldn’t relax, they couldn’t find things they needed, and they were ashamed to have people over because the mess was so embarrassing.

This is a perfect example of frugality out of balance.

In my small circle, I’m well-known as an advocate of frugality. However, I’m also known as an organized person who practices voluntary simplicity. Though I do stockpile certain items when I find good sales, no one would ever call me a pack rat. I have designated storage spaces for stockpiled goods, and I buy exactly enough to fill those spaces. When my supply begins to dwindle I start looking for great bargains again, but I’m careful to never buy more than I need or can use. My frugality is in balance.

In my opinion, a smart, successful frugal person regularly monitors what they have stored, keeping in mind what is readily available and easily obtained, and uses what they have first before buying more. The point of frugality is to achieve the highest quality of life possible by being careful with our precious resources – and I don’t just mean money. Time, space, energy – these resources are valuable as well, and most of us wish we had more of them! Unfortunately, they can be easily squandered in the care and maintenance of “stuff.” Those of you who have read my husband’s guest posts realize that I know this first hand.

Though he has largely overcome his pack-rat tendencies, my husband still struggles sometimes with his hoarding instinct. He still keeps every nail, screw and bolt, because he might need them “someday,” but because he has a bolt cabinet in his shop, and he keeps it very organized so that he can always find what he needs when he needs it, I simply let this go. He’s found a balance that he can live with, and so can I. Sometimes he’ll be tempted to save something, like a bread sack, but when I point out that we already have a dozen bread sacks, and we’ll get more the next time we purchase bread at the bakery thrift store, he willingly tosses it in the trash. He just needs a little reminder every now and then.

What it comes down to is that we all have varying amounts of time, space, money, and energy, and “quality of life” means something different to each of us. If your income is very small, but you have plenty of time, space and energy, (and a knack for organization) you may want to employ every frugal strategy, no matter how small. However, if you’re lacking in time and/or energy, but have a larger income, you may choose to apply only those strategies that offer you the most savings. If, like me, you live in a small home, you’ll need to be careful about stockpiling, but you may be able to engage in other frugal practices that don’t require much space, such as making your own laundry detergent, scratch cooking, or baking bread. Because our life circumstances are different and unique, we must all find our own “frugal balance.”

Have you found yours?