Andy Schmookler: The quiet pleasures of frugality

Andy Schmookler

Both my parents grew up poor. Born in the second decade of the 20th century, they and their families struggled to get by — even before the Great Depression.

Especially my mother, who said of her childhood, “We didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” Her father had died in the great flu pandemic that claimed the lives of many millions worldwide after World War I. My mother’s mother — perhaps because of all the resulting stress– developed a heart condition (that would eventually kill her at 44) so that it was necessary for my mother to quit high school (at the age of 15) to work to support her mother and younger sisters.

She never did finish high school, but once my brother and I were both in school, she got herself a college degree, two master’s degrees, and a career as an educator.

But her adult experience never overrode her deeply ingrained habits of frugality — with money and other resources.

Those habits of hers have served me well in my own adult life. I’ve needed them because I’ve consistently placed a higher priority on “following my calling” than on “making a living.” To afford the luxury of doing what I think God wants me to do, I’ve had to find ways to make the most of whatever I’ve got.

Over the years, I’ve noticed how the habits of frugality work because of the quiet pleasures that come from the disciplines that make it possible to live well on little. It is the satisfactions experienced from living that way that sustain the frugal behaviors.

For example, I got great satisfaction the day I said goodbye to my 1972 Datsun. (This was before they were Nissans.) It was back in the 80s, and this little station wagon had done yeoman service for more than 200,000 miles. But it was spent – multiple systems were giving out. I wasn’t sure the car would get us to the salvage yard on our final drive. But get there we did, and as I said goodbye to the car, I took great pleasure from knowing that the car – like an orange from which every last drop of juice had been squeezed – had been completely used up.

I get the same pleasure with my regimen with pants and shoes: when relatively new, they’re for going out into the world; when too worn, they’re for around the house; when further deteriorated further, they’re for dirty jobs like weed-whacking.

My mother hated for anything to go to waste. Admittedly, that meant her place was stuffed to the gills with things that – some day — might come in handy. I, too, loathe waste. At times, that raises issues between me and my Wife, who is also frugal but who thinks getting rid of clutter is as holy as avoiding waste.

A good friend of mine, who grew up in Ohio’s part of Appalachia, tells the story of his father and an anvil. When the family moved from one place to another, the anvil always made the journey. “Can never tell when it will come in handy,” the father said, insisting on carting along this 40-pound item that had never yet come in handy. And then one day, after some 40 years of this, there was a job to be done for which the anvil was the perfect thing. “I told you we’d need it someday,” he said, feeling entirely justified in his long-time policy of not letting a perfectly good anvil go to waste.

So it is in our house, with one of us —usually but not always, with me in the role of the anvil-keeper– suddenly, unexpectedly, making excellent use of something that has long sat uselessly around. “Another anvil,” we say with delight – the thing that might have been discarded, but that’s now the very thing to use.

I get a kindred little pleasure whenever I unload the dishwasher. Here are these dishes – nothing fancy, but quite nice (and which, incidentally, I acquired 25 years ago at a yard sale) – that we just used and cleaned, and lo and behold, they go back into the cupboard ready to use again. Serviceable forever. (Unless, of course, they get dropped, which doesn’t much happen. Only one item out of the whole set in all these years.) A kind of joy from the never-used-up.

Ultimately, the quiet pleasures of frugality have a spiritual dimension — a gratitude and humility akin to that of saying grace to give thanks upon beginning a meal. With so many humans now living on this finite planet – with perhaps a billion people (including most Americans) now enjoying a level of consumption that people in earlier eras could only dream of – I get a feeling of rightness from holding down how much burden my life imposes on the earth. The pleasure of being a good steward, a grateful guest.

Andy Schmookler is an award-winning author, and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012. His newly published book is “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – And How We Can Defeat It.”