Monday, May 11, 2009

A case of consumption

An old New England aphorism has been rattling around in my head:
"Use it up, wear it out;
"Make it do or do without."
That led to my thinking about a couple of my grandfather's favorite expressions:

"There's nothing so satisfying as leaving a store empty-handed."

"If a ball of string costs seven cents, two for a dime isn't much of a bargain if you need only one ball of string."

Frugality, or simply the ability to differentiate between wants and needs, comes to most of us either later in life or out of necessity. Common wisdom tends to make more sense as the years pass. My grandfather, a dairy farmer raising a family during The Great Depression, had no choice.

For me, it's a little of both.

Like most kids, I was a dedicated to thoughtless consumption. Our teenage spawns are the same way, totally focused on turning every waking moment to their personal material advantage and getting their hands on The Next Big Thing. It drives me nuts.

I understand that it's the nature of dependent children to be selfish. It still drives me nuts.

At some point -- and honestly, I can't tell you exactly when -- I began deriving less satisfaction from consumption and more pleasure from making material things last. A quest for shiny new things receded and a more thoughtful approach to utility emerged.

It wasn't that I stopped buying stuff, as George Carlin put it -- I just felt the need to buy less stuff, less often. I kept the stuff I had, and if my stuff broke I did my best to fix it instead of replacing it. When I did buy stuff, often I bought used stuff.

I finished leftovers rather than giving in to momentary cravings. If there was a tool I'd likely need only occasionally, I'd borrow. Wanting for a bolt or a bracket, dipping into a bucket of salvaged parts took the place of a trip to Home Depot. I developed an arguably strange sense of pride in wearing a 20-year-old sweater.

Foolishly, I thought I had the whole consumption thing licked -- and then my financial situation went south, revealing that I wasn't nearly as frugal as I thought I was. Suddenly aware that I still had far more stuff than I possibly could need, I saw many other ways to make do and do without.

Building on previous efforts, then, my personal economy continues to evolve. It's not a matter of living like a Quaker or a Scrooge -- it's about being responsible and accountable instead of caving to the wish for material gratification.

Today I live well within my means. Even though I got here relatively late and out of necessity, I think my grandfather would like that.