Sunday, October 2, 2011

I'm cheap. Seriously cheap. This has been a frequent theme throughout the past two years or so; I doubt it comes as a shock to anyone who knows me on any level at all.

How cheap am I? Well, I bought my sister's Christmas present the other day. In a thrift store. For $3. If it had been more I would have seriously considered walking away from it. (Please--no screams and comments about how selfish I am. She KNOWS I buy used things for her because she's the one who started it. She is the queen of thrift stores and garage sales. I kneel in her presence. She can haggle like you cannot believe. She could talk a Bedouin camel trader into giving her the beast in question for a smile and the slightly creased postcard in the bottom of her handbag. I'm cheap, but she is miles ahead of me. Come Christmas I will find under the tree a large box full of fabulous loot from her forays into thriftland, all of which will be vintage, retro-chic, and utterly perfect--and it will have cost a total of $2.50. And I will hang my head in prodigal shame.)

How did I become so cheap? Well, to massacre the immortal words, "Some are born cheap; come achieve cheap; and some have cheap thrust upon them." I was born with a latent cheap gene, which finally evinced itself during my college years (when my food budget ran to $5 per week. Thank goodness for food-service jobs!). But what really sent me happily down the frugal freeway was buying a house.

We bought it from my parents, at very favorable terms, but there was still a huge gap between the money we had and the money we needed. We had two options: make more money, or slash our expenses dramatically. The first was not much of an option. My husband was already gainfully employed, and I was not--and could not be, because our first child had been born with severe developmental disabilities. All my time went into caring for him. ALL my time. And I was pregnant again.

So the only real route was to cut our expenses to the bone. We examined everything that had to be paid for with some form of money: food, supplies, clothing, living style. And we discovered that a lot of the things we were paying for were actually non-necessities, in the strictest sense of the word. That is, if a natural disaster had hit at that moment, we would not die from a lack of those items. Discomfort was a possibility, but not death.

That became our line in the sand. Air-conditioning? In the day, yes--necessary. At night, no. (We slept with ice packs for several months.) That winter we shivered without central heating and piled on the sweaters. (We bought one small space heater to place in our son's room, then, since I'm a worrier, we took turn sleeping on the floor in his room to make sure the heater didn't start a fire. The floor was hard, but toasty. And, yes, I did this while pregnant.) Diapers? Cloth, not disposable. Food? Vegetarian, basic staples, and lots of creativity. New clothes? None for us, homemade for our son. (Remnants were cheap, and I copied the patterns by hand so I never had to cut them apart and thus buy another to use in a bigger size.) Home decor? I couldn't live with blank walls, that would be death to the spirit for me, so I painted one picture to hang over the fireplace, and to fill a large empty wall took some old wooden hangers printed with hotel names from cities I had visited, and hung them in rows. We had only one car. We did not have cellphones or cable.

In the process I learned everything I could find on making a small budget stretch. I devoured Shattering the Two-Income Myth, and made The Tightwad Gazette my daily consultant. I begged tips from my frugal aunts. I sought out stories from the Great Depression and World War II, figuring that people had made it through those experiences with wisdom I could use.

It's been exactly eleven years now--to the day--since we moved in, and cheap became our lifestyle of choice. We're still cheap. We spend more these days--we also have four more children. But my mantra has become the rhyme my grandmothers used to repeat to me: "Use it up; wear it out; make it do, or do without." Trust me--you can get far more usage out of something than you expect at first.

So, I'd like to experiment with sharing some of my frugal moments. What's the use of being cheap if I can't have a little fun with it? (Hey, don't worry. I figure I can be snarky, and sharp
-tongued WHILE being cheap. It's a working theory--let's just see how it plays out, okay?)

Drum roll, please. (Ratatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatat)

Make-Do Monday

We just reclaimed out master bedroom. (After five+ years of "loaning" it to our sons, whom we figured were safer on the ground floor in their earliest years.) Gasp not, gentle reader, we did not splurge on luxury fittings and decorator redoes. Actually, we used the leftover extremely pale yellow paint from re-painting the living room--improving the color-flow throughout the living space, as a cable-show designer might snootily say--and our largest expenditure was for laminate flooring. (69 cents per square foot. Whoo-hoo, big spenders!) Everything else was stuff we've had in our room for ages. (Cedar chest my dad made me for high school graduation, dressing table my parents gave me when I was an insecure 16-year-old. My parents have been EXTREMELY generous furniture- and all other ways-wise.)

Slight problem: Our bedside tables were being used elsewhere (living room and laundry room--long story), and we needed places to stash stuff that would otherwise fall to the ground with loud thuds when we dropped them.

Our solution:

We had bought some IKEA Trofast frames for our sons to use as dressers. They worked, but the boys outgrew them quickly. And since the soul of frugality is to use what you already have, I thought we could re-purpose them as bedside tables. So we added legs, cafe curtain rods, and some curtains I whipped up from fabric my mom gave me years ago (thanks, Mom!). And suddenly, we had very useful, very capacious, very CHEAP pieces of bedroom furniture.

Here's a view of the interior:

Look at all that stash space!
(Ignore the fact that one of the bins is askew. Not even I am perfect. Cheap, but not perfect. And would you take a gander at that babe in the picture. Me, circa 1997. Sigh.)

I got a place to put by bedtime book and reading glasses, with a clean, simple look (I hate fussiness; it tends to cost more), for a minimal price. Waste not, want not.