Monday, October 24, 2016

F is for Frugality

Being frugal, according to, means being:

economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful.

Living frugally means imposing austerity on yourself in order to have better control over your life. It means wresting control away from the exploitative systems that govern the world we live in. Frugality is not a competitive sport to be boasted about online; it's more of an aspirational art form.

There are endless ways of being frugal without incurring any loss of life quality. In fact, most people report that their lives feel more grounded once they begin practicing frugality.

There are many good reasons for being frugal. In his 1970s book Muddling Towards Frugality, Warren Johnson lays out a whole philosophy regarding living well by focusing on what you need rather than what you want. One of the best reasons, however, is that it might save your life. Living in a state of permanent entitlement is a  psychological achilles heel for many. Watching middle class people lose things they consider themselves entitled to is usually a very sorry spectacle. Frugality, or voluntary simplicity, or voluntary poverty is about jumping off the work-to-consume treadmill and getting onto the (much slower) work-to-live one.

Living frugally does not mean living in poverty. Poverty is a trap that can be impossible to escape from. The systems of our industrialised technocratic psychopathically-designed society are set up to funnel wealth upwards from the masses to a few people at the top. Those caught in the trap often find they have no way of escaping it: they are literally powerless.

Some people have the good fortune to be able to practice frugality before it is thrust upon them by outside forces. If you are one of them you should count your lucky stars. It's no fun going from being comfortably middle class to being without a place to call home and unable to afford even a cup of coffee (as I can attest) but if you get enough practice in you can at least salvage the basics of existence and then fill the upper levels of your hierarchy of needs pyramid with things that are free, or very cheap. These things are free (presently):

- Going for a walk
- Keeping fit
- Singing
- Creating works of art
- Making love
- Meditating
- Talking with friends
- Stroking kittens
- Joining a fight club

We live in a time where, in some ways, it is easy to be frugal. Our societies are awash with cast-off clothes, toys, electronics and materials that nobody wants. 90% of our fossil fuels end up as waste heat, and about half of the all the food we produce ends up in landfill. There is plenty of room for frugality at either end of the scale.

But that window is rapidly closing. Within ten years we're likely to have witnessed the end of industrial civilisation as the EROEI of oil drops below 1. At this point those who do not know how to live very cheaply and simply will be - let's just say - at a considerable disadvantage.

If you want some ideas, have a look at Britain's most frugal pensioner.


  1. Yes, frugality is in the end a mindset, not a rote list of things you check off.

    Funny, here in the heart of mass consumerism, there has always been a quite, less noticed subculture of thriftiness and frugality, which has endured, and at times acquires many more followers. I think now is a time of increased awareness, but it takes a bit of thought and attention to do it well.

    The pensioner's list is pretty good, but I would like to point out an amazing resource for those just wanting ideas and tips. "The complete tightwad gazette" is a book from the 90's that compiled newsletters by a homemaker who got very serious about frugality. The book also does a lot of examples of the maths, to confirm if you really have taken the most economical choice, as it is sometimes not obvious.

    On the other side of the coin, I have met many people who "don't know how to be poor". Thy miss so many opportunities to spend less, but don't do so. It will only get worse for them, unfortunately.

    1. Hi Steve. Thanks for the resource - I shall certainly look into it.

      There were two things about that pensioner article that caught my eye. Firstly, the same story is published across a range of different news sites - which always makes me suspicious. Secondly, one of her tips is to make people bring their own teabags if they want a cup of tea.

      Frankly, I don't believe it. Sure, I believe she exists and all that, but I would bet money that she was tricked into making a jokey comment about people bringing their own teabags, which was then given prominence in the articles. The sub-text is "If you are frugal then you are also an anti-social scrooge and people will hate you."

      Of course, being frugal is anathema to the consumer society, which is an extension of a control paradigm forced upon us. And given that as economic reality is squeezing 90% of the population frugality is becoming popular we start seeing articles like this one appearing in which they pretend it is a good thing but the underlying psychological message is that it's a bad thing. If people are happy with less it's much harder to control them.

      Furthermore, as someone who keeps an eye out for frugality tips, I have noticed that the kind of articles that are appearing have moved subtly away from outright frugality (i.e. living with less) towards consuming MORE but getting it cheaper by buying in bulk or using coupons. Case in point, I just saw this one this morning.

  2. Frugality is certainly a philosophy I have lived by over the last decade. No car (homemade trike and trailer instead), no TV, pedal powered washer and mower, house heated by found wood etc. I am fitter, healthier and happier. And all it has cost me is all of my friends and family. It doesn't make you popular.

    1. As a father with a family I'm somewhat limited from being frugal in extremis. We still have a TV, a washing machine, a car and other things, although I try and limit their usage. I don't kid myself though that we will be able to get away with that forever, so I regard these things as temporary and I already have the alternatives ready to bring into usage.

      I'm lucky in that my dad was extremely frugal. He was born during the depression and, in his own words, "grew up kicking a ball of rags around in the backstreets of Manchester." Thus he instilled frugality into me from an early age. I remember once leaving a light on and him getting furious with me. "It costs about a penny an hour to run," I retorted, and he replied "And you have no idea if you'll need that penny one day."

      Ironically, in his later years, he bowed to the pressures of the consumer society, and started spending a lot of money on large electrical items. When he died his house was full of bigs TVs, video recorders, stereos and all the rest of it.

  3. Hi Jason,

    This series is a good idea. Hey, F is for Foo Fighters! :-)! I liked your point that frugality is not an affectation. That was a very profound insight. It also has to be regularly practiced to get good at it as I have found that it is not as easy as it seems. I saw a Grand Designs show recently (my only TV fix) about a couple who run a steam timber bending business in a forested area of South Cornwall. They achieved a remarkable build with some very interesting ideas. Your part of the world looks stunning!



    1. Chris - this is totally remarkable!!! I was intrigued by your comment and did a bit of online research. What I just found out has blown my mind. These people that you saw on tv LIVE IN MY WOODLAND!!!! I don't mean my actual woodland, but the same block, probably about 1/2 mile away from me.

      I've never heard of them before, and they must keep themselves to themselves as I've never heard anyone else local mention them either. Quite incredible that it takes someone literally on the other side of the world to tell me who my next door neighbours are!!!

      Anyway - thanks for that - I shall try to flog them some of my oak (they don't seem short of money - probably why they don't mix with the locals).


  4. Oh my god, thank you for the Grand Designs reminder. I love that show :-) Just the other day I was musing that there might be a new series out but I forgot before I got back to an internet terminal.

    My favourite episode remains the hexagonal 'bee hive' house built mostly by one guy with hay bale walls and a lovely tree feature piece holding up the roof. He did it in 18 months for under $50K and IMO the results were far better than the many $400K+ homes the show usually features.

  5. "Frugal" comes from the same root as "fruitful"... says it all, really, and it's the exact opposite of the image that's generally presented to us of miserly self-denial. I've followed Ilona's blog for a number of years, and am on a couple of forums (fora?) with her; she's very genuine, enjoys life & is wonderfully resourceful.

    I was brought up in a very frugal household, but our parents had high ambitions for us to be "successful" in the eyes of the world and leave the penny-pinching behind. I was thrown back into the deep end of frugality years ago by the sudden doubling of our family with the arrival of twins, which made it impossible for me to return to work, as childcare for four small children (which later became five) would have cost more than I could earn. So we had to learn fast how to survive on one wage, in a bigger house than we'd have chosen, with a correspondingly bigger mortgage, complete with rising damp, falling damp & Edwardian drafts! And in a "top-10-places-to-live" town, full of rich & forceful retirees from the Home Counties, who think our little medieval town needs to become an "upmarket shopping destination"... Frugality was a somewhat different lifestyle choice, which has set us apart from mainstream life here.

    I make my living, such as it is, as a "Vintage Market" trader, rescuing, refurbishing & re-inventing stuff that others have rejected; my fellow-traders are the nicest, most creative & most resourceful group of people I've ever had the privilege to meet (my past includes a stint as a Whitehall civil servant and some years working in computing & social housing) and our customers are mostly delightful, intelligent & resourceful people too. But certainly not wealthy, and mostly quite frugal; they know the true worth of a tool or piece of furniture that's lasted 80 years and still does the job it was made to do, and it isn't anything to do with how much it costs or what it looks like.

    And we have a lot of fun... we eat well, for less than you'd think possible. We cook from scratch, we dehydrate & ferment, we buy direct from reliable local producers. We make music, we make things that we ourselves use & other people want to buy, we hit the beaches in the evenings when the sunburnt tourists have retreated to their holiday homes, we swim in the river. We walk, several times a week, in the most glorious countryside a couple of miles from our door, and forage for wild food. (In fact I forage for tame food, in other people's gardens, with permission, much to the now-grown-up offsprings' embarrassment.) We camp, we visit ancient monuments and inspiring gardens, we take pictures, we borrow books from the library. It may not include glittering prizes, but it's not a bad life & we don't owe anyone anything. There's a lot to be said for frugality!

  6. Hi Jason,

    I'm enjoying this series of posts. Great idea to do use the alphabet. Are you (or your readers) familiar with "Farmers of 40 centuries" written in the early 1900s, which describes how farmers in China, Japan and Korea supported large populations on relatively small areas of land by practising extreme frugality?


    On the theme of frugal building here's a link to a straw bale house I built a few years ago for a material cost of less than £1000. I've now replaced the woodstove with a far more frugal rocket stove mass heater which uses an old propane cylinder.

  7. Hi Jason,

    Glad to be of service! How awesome is that and I wish you well in your endeavours. Certainly they will need the timber given that they claimed they only steam fallen timber. It sounded like your part of the country, but I didn't think that it was that close! It is all six degrees of separation isn’t it?

    Now G... hmmm. Well that may be for the Australian band Gyroscope who's biggest hit was perhaps: Baby, I'm gettin' better. But I must say I was quite fond of their songs: Beware Wolfe; and also Safe Forever. They had the rather unfortunate problem of their label releasing a best of album before they quit playing... OK, they're an obscure band...

    Hi Damo,

    Hehe! The woodsman cottage was one of my favourites and also the guy that rebuilt the listed historic castle. Look, you just have to give the bloke 10 out of 10 for sheer audacity of vision. With a portable timber mill here...



  8. Proof that some of the best things in life are (currently) free. And walking to the store or work saves energy, too, while staying in shape.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.