The work of radical frugality

There are people who are frugal by nature, some who practice frugality as a mandate of their faith, and some, like me, who adopt frugality out of necessity. I live with a limited income as a bulwark against a consumer culture and capitalist agenda that would rather we consume our way to oblivion, ours and the planet’s. We are in a quagmire given the enigma of the capitalist agenda, a system that requires endless consumption and growth to survive, and a planet that begs us to stop. Personally, I prefer to receive my instructions from Mother Earth.

Of course, there are those who might ignore my call for frugality. They are the ones who, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to live within their means even if they wanted to. The working poor are just that: they have one, two or three jobs and are still unable to make ends meet. For them and for us, defending workers’ rights, fair wages and enacting legislative policies aimed at economic equality is vital. But this is not a position of choice: we can be the defenders of economic parity while lowering the pressure on a historically rapacious capitalist economy by becoming producers and consumers in the domestic economy.

Over the years I have taught and written about living in a home economy. But it’s less a return to a domestic ideal of the 1950s than an approach aimed at undermining an American psyche and economy that has put us unnecessarily in debt, encouraged us to buy our way to happiness, and all but drove us out of our homes. we.

By “home”, I am not referring only to a physical space, although we are being driven out, evicted and displaced from our homes these days more and more, which is why we have become homeless in both form and function. I’m talking about the transience and dependency that defines and sustains capitalist consumer culture. Having neither the skills nor the desire to stay put or do it ourselves, we turn to the market for our needs. (Not for nothing, there is an irony to all this talk about creating places when no one wants to stay put anymore.) This addiction has a long history. It is not for nothing that we have become, for all intents and purposes, indentured servants, living on credit and before our souls at the company store. This is how the system is supposed to work. Contractors make docile workers, and Amazon will gladly bring you into its fold.

Beyond that, there is value and comfort in making a home. My reverence for “home,” or the kind of work life in a home economy suggests, is due, in part, to my childhood. Growing up as the daughter of two immigrant parents who moved to New York after World War II, I understood, or saw, what usefulness born of frugality looked like. My father worked as a tailor and my mother worked to make a house in a railroad apartment shared with relatives and boarders, and later in our own apartment in the Bronx.

Together, my parents sewed our clothes, made curtains and bedspreads, mended, repaired, cooked all the meals at home, and basically made for themselves or did not. But, more importantly, they provided a sense of home, security and comfort that was tangible to me as a child; the one I carried forward as an adult. And yet, despite all my skills, my knowledge and my refusalnik foundations, I don’t have what my parents had. In fact, many of us don’t have that: the relationships bound by the need and commitment to create a self-sufficient home.

It was the ancient Greeks who first coined the term “economy” or “oikonomics”, as a household system (oikos) management (name). Economy therefore refers to the management system that serves your home. What that house is may vary – the planet, your body, the market, or where you live – but knowing how you define it should determine how you manage it. It’s too simplistic to think that home economics is all about making cupcakes or jam. It’s the serious effort towards creating a management system that works to meet the needs of your home.

For me, that includes working in and with the seasons, setting up the harvest, avoiding packaging, and cooking my meals from the “stores” I have at the end of the season. This includes doing without or coping by fixing, fixing and being grateful for the blessings I have received, and, of course, being frugal – radically frugal. But it also means living in community with what I call the “new farm family,” that distillate of days gone by where generations lived and worked together to care for each other, and an ethic and way of life that I adopted after my time as a small business owner.

Running a business these days requires the kind of branding and niche marketing that may seem more competitive than cooperative. Also, as a former small business owner, I know how indebted we are to institutions (banks, insurance, etc.) and goods that originate or are regulated by international markets or organizations. Plus, if you calculate the amount of carbon used for the buildings and equipment needed to start and run most businesses, you’ll quickly realize how unsustainable “local” can be.

However, I understand the “buy local” theory. Buying local allows our dollars to flow more within the community and support the people and businesses we care about. But it’s no panacea, especially when you’re trying to stick to your budget.

As I like to point out, a lot of people are lucky enough to make $15 an hour, but we live in a $100 an hour world. Every time we go out and enter the market, we are faced with costs of goods and services that have exceeded our income.

However, I am not advocating cheaper products. We haven’t paid the true cost of anything for some time. Still, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know where living off your income will take you. We can’t spend money we don’t have to support local businesses, but if we’re not participating in the local economy, we tend to feel guilty.

That’s why when a friend of mine who was still running a small business once said to me, “Your frugality is killing my business,” I was heartbroken. I knew what she was saying. It’s not easy being a business owner these days, but I’m very careful with my “disposable” income, and, well, with a planet asking for limits on growth (or no growth ), I can’t help but wonder when we’ll start taking it seriously and how we’ll respond to it.

One of our answers may be the type of collective life implied by this new agricultural family. And yet, we moderns have become addicted to a philosophy of independent living, uprooting ourselves from our home communities to seek better jobs or schools elsewhere. We no longer “need” each other as we once did. Our modern culture of consuming at all times has made our need to rely on others almost obsolete.

This is why living collectively seems such a challenge. Mired in the independence mindset, collective living is seen by many as a way to keep rent cheap, making it unstable, temporary and resistant to the wider commitment to reduce pressure on this capitalist monster. Without asking or learning the functional and emotional skills needed to live in a home economy, our community experience will do little to effect permanent change.

Speaking of peasant families, however, I confess to being poetic about a way of life that, from a historical point of view, was more complex and compromised. Farmers fell victim, during and after the Great Depression, as the capitalist system demanded greater economies of scale. “Grow up or get out” was the call, and many farmers perished trying to meet it. More soberly, many landowners in this fictionalized past were responsible for the displacement and genocide of cultures that only today we are willing to acknowledge, even if we don’t do more than talk about it.

But survival is an unbiased leader. The lot of immigrants coming to America is not pretty. Neither the history of slavery or genocide nor the feeding frenzy of those who came from England to gain access to land and resources for the crown. Damn if Jefferson’s “Farmer Nation,” a rallying cry for many small farmers today, hasn’t been simplified too much for easy reading.

But the is a movement of young farmers returning to the land, and they too are attempting the daring act of living outside the bonds of the capitalist system. It makes us bedfellows in a movement, which is really the essence of home economics: an effort to stand up against an economy that is doing its best to steal the best of this life, a home itself, both in form and function.

But believing in the virtues of home economics will not magically change our values, or immediately confer the skills or intention to live with the seasons or make us people who would rather make, fix, sow, grow or store our food. than buying them at the store. And that won’t immediately turn us into capitalist refuseniks, or even someone who wants to save the resources and time we have to support the efforts of young farmers.

But in time, our lives as consumers in the capitalist economy will appear fragile compared to a life in the domestic economy. And eventually, we’ll come to understand that it’s not just about making cupcakes. Much more.

Teaser photo credit: By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium – Colmar, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Maria D. Ervin