Awhile back my husband and I happened to both lose our jobs within a two-week period. (I was doing in-home care and the client decided to enter a Home. Meanwhile, the factory where my husband worked went bankrupt and closed its doors.)
Due to some peculiarities of our situation (my work being part-time and his factory neglecting the paperwork) neither of us could get unemployment. So we had literally zero income for around six months of job search. We sold some things, the truck got repo’ed, etc… During this time we learned a lot about frugality, what true luxury is, and how far you can stretch when you really have to. Here are some basic principles in no particular order:
1. There is always a way to do it cheaper.
It might not be as fast, efficient, neat, or convenient…but there’s always a way. In the overwhelming majority of instances, you are trading your money for someone else’s time. (Examples: store bought bread costs up to ten times as much as home-baked. A bus ride–for those on transit lines–costs, while the mare is much cheaper it takes longer. Homespun hats and mitts and scarves take LOTS of time, but very little money.)
2. A good proportion of the time, homemade/cheaper translates into better.
Think about it. When you’re doing it yourself, you are the quality control. There are fewer unpleasant surprises because the factory QC was tiring toward the end of a shift. Another example: home-canned meat is fairly simple, and I know there is NO gristle in it because I didn’t allow any. I could buy canned meat at more expense, but then I’d be subjected to someone else’s idea of “edible.” (We pause here for a reminiscent shudder about the time I opened a store bought can of tuna which turned out to be through and through with worms.) I also home brew, and I’ll say here that of the best beverages I’ve ever tasted, store bought stuff barely makes the top ten. (Other home brewers are generally willing to barter, too.)
3. Sometimes older is better.
I habitually haunt thrift shops and secondhand stores. It’s amazing what people will discard in not only usable but like-new condition. And sometimes it’s things that you simply can’t buy–either that, or the price is prohibitive. Old Revereware, for instance, with its thicker copper bottom to affect the heat transfer of the pan, is more responsive for cooking. The copper in newer pans, for the past few decades, has been nothing but a thin aesthetic layer. With old cast iron, let someone ELSE do the work of seasoning it and wearing off the rough casting surface. Old furniture is made of honest planks instead of pressboard. Wool, silk, cashmere, linen, and angora have all turned up on the shelves where I shop from time to time.
4. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it IS broke…
Repairs will necessarily be a large part of your life should SHTF or TEOTWAWKI. Learn to fix things. Plastic can be repaired (depending on type) by “welding” it with a candle flame, drilling paired holes along the crack and “stitching” it closed, applying the eternal duct tape, or gluing. Other times, plastic must be replaced. I have whittled wooden elements to replace broken plastic ones– cut to size, file to fit, and paint to match. Sock repairs are best darned in, not sewn. Learn to darn and effectively patch. Also, learn how to splice rope, sister a wooden beam, weld a straight bead, and suture when necessary. (Repairing yourself, eh?)
5. Even a small garden is better than none.
We were lucky in that our layoffs happened at the start of the growing season and I could expand our planned garden. I did learn that carrots dislike our soil, but potatoes love it, while our plot (hemmed in by Other People’s Timber on three sides) simply does not get enough sun for corn to mature. Tomatoes limped along (that sun issue again), but the hot peppers thrived. Beans and peas took the middle line, neither withering away nor flourishing. For long-term frugality, save your seeds. I found not only heirloom/open-pollinated varieties for sale, but also advice, techniques, and support at Seed Savers Exchange– www.seedsavers.org. In addition to freeing you from the chains of big agriculture, you will gradually select for the traits that favor YOUR microclimate, YOUR soil, and YOUR growing conditions. Besides, fresher is better. I haven’t bought greens in years. During the winter, indoor-sprouted microgreens provide variety to the routine of canned and frozen vegetables, and during summer the cutting patch thrives also.
6. Skills cost nothing.
Practice, practice, practice. Unused skills quickly fade.”Use it or lose it” is a truism for a reason. Even if you can’t afford ammo, dry-firing drills and practice keep the muscle memory going. If you can learn to enjoy skills, practice your hobby, such as sewing, and double- or triple-task by providing your own entertainment while honing your skills.
7. We meat again.
Stretch that food to its limits also. One of my favorite frugal meal(s) involve a chicken. (Stay with me here.) Chickens can be bought whole for very little per pound on sale. The first meal is Roast Chicken, with vegetables in the roasting pan. Make gravy to pour on the vegetables. Second day, prepare Hot Chicken Sandwiches by slicing up some of the rest of the meat and serve with the rest of the vegetables on thick-sliced bread, smothered in gravy. Third day, serve Chicken Pot Pie. To make the Chicken Pot Pie, make a shortening crust or a batch of biscuits, dice up the main pieces of remaining meat (freeze the bones and remaining scraps), mix with the rest of the gravy and some supplemental vegetables (assuming the roasted ones are all eaten by now), cover the stew with crust or biscuits, and bake until done. Fourth day, enjoy leftover Pot Pie. Fifth day (or at some indeterminate date in the future), serve Chicken Soup by boiling up the chicken frame, picking off any remaining shreds of meat, seasoning the broth well, and adding more vegetables and some noodles, rice, potatoes, or dumplings.
8. Self-medicating isn’t a dirty word.
We all do it whenever we pop a Tylenol for a headache. When you have no money and no insurance, your view of self-treatment may have to expand. I’ve stitched myself up before when it was necessary. It hurts, yes, but no more than a badly stubbed toe (for each stitch, mind you…and yes, it is cumulative). I was already a practicing herbalist for my own needs before this happened. Therefore, I had a stock of homegrown herbal remedies, including the ones that must be prepared ahead of time. But even without that stock, much of the time you just need to get out of the way and let your body heal itself. (There are exceptions, of course, but for most acute issues, they WILL get better on their own given time and minor first-aid.)
9. If you wait long enough, it will go on sale.
Clearance aisles and markdown racks. Sadly, some grocery stores refuse to mark down even day-old bread; avoid them for places that do. Buy your candy after Halloween; the cheapest source for baking chocolate is leftover bagged Halloween and Valentine’s Day candy. Furthermore, grocery stores generally operate on a rotational basis. By saving the advertisements over time (typically six to eight weeks) you can figure out their cycle. For example, if the local store puts bricks of cheese on loss-leader sale every five weeks, it would be silly to buy it on week four just because you ran out. It’s far more sensible to simply wait a week to restock. I highly recommend a full-size chest freezer for taking full advantage of food bargains. (Our freezer was a wedding gift we had before our personal financial crisis.) Our freezer would have been great for game, if hunting in our area were more than a gamble. Ted Nugent has been heard to characterize the blacktail deer in its native habitat as the most challenging critter he ever pursued, and after a few years of similar pursuit I’m inclined to agree.
10. Little by little gets you there in the end.
Adding one “storage” item to each grocery list was fairly painless, even when the grocery money was twenty a week. (Twenty per week is not as impressively skinflint as it sounds sincere there are only the two of us.) Add one extra gallon of gas per fillup. Stretch a tea bag to make two cups. The ocean is made of little drops of water and the mountain of little grains of sand. They do add up when you remember to be consistent.
A note on tea: I freely admit it’s my favorite beverage, and what’s not to love? In addition to black/green teas being good for you, it’s inherently healthier than raw tap- or well-water due to boiling during preparation, and tea comes in so many flavors and varieties that it boggles the mind. If we expand the definition to herbal “teas” or tisanes, not only do they give you the benefits above but they’re also frequently free for the growing or gathering. (Caveat: always be POSITIVE of what you’re picking–identify it from a field guide, preferably one with photos, if you can’t arrange for an experienced gatherer to tutor you in person.) Some of us can even grow the true tea plant, Camellia sinensis, in the right climatic zone (USDA 7-9, I believe). Even if you have to purchase your tea, it’s still one of the cheapest alternatives to plain water.