Monday, November 10, 2008

On scrimping

"We can tell our values by looking at our checkbook stubs." --Gloria Steinem

JAN: My mother, were she still alive, would have an awesome carbon footprint.
Although she had a dishwasher, she preferred to handwash dishes because it used less energy. She was okay with the washing machine, because it was gas fueled, but spurned the dryer, because it was electric. She hung clothes to dry outside in good weather, and in the basement otherwise.

She also recycled religiously because she couldn't stand the idea of anything being wasted. Once she yelled at me for pouring a leftover pot of boiling water down the drain. "You could let that cool and it could go on the plants, you know."
But my mother wasn't green. And God knows she wasn't politically correct. What she was, was a child of the depression. She was forever telling stories of having to wash the floor in her father's bar with a scrub brush, and the economies of sewing her own clothes.
So each night as I hear some new dire economic prediction on Kudlow and Company or Charlie Rose, I wonder, will we all learn to scrimp and save? I've already cut out the gym and lowered my thermostat. But more importantly, could that scrimping and saving be a good thing for us all, benefiting the culture and the planet in ways we couldn't predict?

HALLIE: Learn? I've always been green. AKA cheap.
Call me what you will, I have rarely buy paper towels or plastic wrap. Dish towels work. I mortified my kids by wrapping their peanut butter sandwiches in wax paper (not made of petroleum). Store leftovers in bowls with plates for lids. Compost organic waste. And of course nowadays I bring my own cloth bags to the grocery store.
We also eat a lot of beans--white, kidney, black.... Still a great bargain and very healthy.
And...tah dah...I used cloth diapers for both kids!
HANK: Yes, I remember asking you, Hallie, for a paper towel. And got a nice cloth instead.
Today I took back a container of fruit to the grocery store. The berries had gone bad, gray and fuzzy, in two days, and that meant the fruit was old when it was sold. In the past, I would have just tossed them, angrily.
Now. I saved $3.00 by taking back the fruit. I spent--how much? by driving there. But--here's what I'm learning. I only buy EXACTLY as much as I think we'll need. No more random handfuls of green beans. I think: One bunch for me, one for Jonathan, done. I'm not throwing away any more food.
RO:This is hard to answer..because in some ways I'm thrifty and green and in other ways not. I don't bring my own bag to the market but when I remember I ask for paper (when I have plastic ones I use them for dog poop, which I'm sure will horrify some people.) I've changed most of the light bulbs to the squiggly ones, don't use chemicals in my garden, and I'm very happy shopping at tag sales and thrift shops. I rarely eat meat which makes me feel good about both my health and the fact that I'm not a part of the ginormous beef industry. And we only have one car for the two of us. But I don't compost. That's my dirty little secret. I've tried it a few times and the raccoons drive me nuts.
Right now my refrigerator in CT isn't working. Bruce and I went food shopping and spent $34. Maybe we shouldn't bother getting a new one.
(BTW that gray fuzzy stuff on the berries is botrytis. If there's even a speck of it, your berries are goners.)
ROBERTA: I love seeing all those cloth bags at the supermarket! It's just a matter of getting the old brain cells to remember to put them back in the car.
Maybe some of you read the article in the NY Times this weekend about the couple who decided to try eating on a dollar a day for a month. They ate tons of beans and homemade tortillas and had to cut out almost all vegetables and fruits. The woman said she almost wept when the month was up and she allowed herself to have strawberries. But she also noted how time-consuming it is to cook from scratch. Bottom line, I worry less about the conserving my family has to do--I think it is a useful exercise for us and good for the world. But what about the folks who are already living on the edge? these times are going to be hard, hard, hard.if

JAN: Roberta's right, it's a lot easier to take satisfaction in scrimping when it's not a matter of survival. But I think all of us are going to find ourselves scrimping more and in all this gloom, there might be an upside. (Researchers are already predicting a decline in obesity because of fewer restaurant meals.)

I'd like to hear from everyone out there who may be viewing the world with new or even old-fashioned frugality.


  1. I'd love to get some of those little green bags to put my grocery shopping in but I, too, use the plastic ones for dog poop! Then I'd have to buy plastic bags. They do supply biodegradable ones on the bike path at the poop stations, but I don't always walk all the way out to the path, and sometimes the dog just has to go before we get there!

  2. I feel better now that Peg uses them too.. Once I bought these brown plastic baggies with for the doggie doo but, then I thought "You just spent money on a receptacle for dog poop? Have you lost your mind?"

  3. I have several of those lovely store bags--Trader Joe's, Fresh and Easy etc, and I forget them ninety percent of the time. And the only times I bring them along, I buy so much that the items won't fit and I have to use extra plastic.
    But we have made our house totally efficient. All squiggly bulbs (as one of my writer friends described them so eloquently), gas appliances, recycle everything.
    However, we live half the year in Arizona where the sun shines every day and NOBODY HAS A CLOTHES LINE. This is ridiculous. Free sun. And it's about time somebody invented an efficient solar unit to power individual houses.
    And I have a husband who rinses out every jar and tries to store it for future use. I have to sneak them into the recycling when he's not looking

  4. Peg,
    My theory is that if you use the plastic bags for dog poop, you ARE recycling. And Ro, I bought those bags with the shovels in them once, too. They were awkward and just plain silly. And like you, anonymous, I've tried those cloth bags at the supermarket, and although I really like them, they hold so much -- I have yet to perfect the system so that there are actually enought of them THERE when I need them.

  5. I love those cloth bags. And they really are the perfect size. But I have to KEEP buying new ones because I keep leaving the old ones in the trunk of the car.

    But there's a domino effect--now I don't have any brown paper bags with handles to use to recycle the newspapers.

    Does anyone have the scoop on those vegetable keeper bags?

  6. Between marriages, my father used to re-use paper towels--he would rinse them out and dry them. And he hung his underwear on the chandelier to dry. Can you believe he was married three times?

    I've inherited generations of linen dishtowels, but I feel guilty using them. They're so lovely when they're crisp and ironed.

    But I've started a compost heap? It's a week old. Let's see how long that lasts.

  7. Regarding green vegetable & fruit keeper bags--I think author Krista Davis (the Diva Runs Out of Thyme) has something on her blog about them.

  8. Sheila,
    I'm surprised your father never married my mother -- they would have been perfect together!

  9. We live on the border of Berkeley and fit right on in with our own cloth and Trader Joe's bags and compost bin. We're even planning to grow our own vegetables next year. That's our version of scrimping and we have an ulterior motive - getting the twins to do all the hard work (in the name of education and fun!)

  10. Ro, you can compost with a big black plastic garbage can--just make sure it has a "locking" lid. Drill some holes in the bottom for drainage, and voila! You're in business. (This is an easy way of composting.)

    I take all my canvas conference "book bags" to the grocery store. I get a lot of weird looks because they usually have "murder" printed on them somewhere, but they work just great!

  11. Hi Lorna and Clare,

    I must be the world's worst gardener.... I flunked composting, even with the specially purchased barrel. I think it had to do with not turning it enough....

    I'm much better at turning off lights and keeping the heat at 60 degrees.....

  12. Oh,"Lorna"!

    You're a genius. (But we knew that.) I actually have a bag of those bags. Which is ridiculous.

    Now I'm toting 'em to Trader Joes.
    Love it.

  13. I've been a composter and clothesline nut for years. If you layer the garden refuse with vegetable trimmings and dry leaves, and then turn it every three days, you can put it on the garden in two weeks! Free nutrition for your soil, just like that free drying for your clothes. I used to hang those cloth diapers on the line every day, even on cold January freeze-dry days.

    Rosemary, if you make sure you don't put in any animal products or fruit pits, you might have better racoon luck. A good lid helps, too. I can't imagine a gardener who doesn't compost!

    We reuse, recycle, and compost so thoroughly that we take pride in having less than a paper grocery bag full of actual trash per week. My thrifty Depression-era dad would have been proud.

    If I ever finish writing Murder in the Greenhouse, I'll have a whole scene featuring composting...


  14. Hi Edith,
    Clearly I'm missing something, I think its really hard to turn the compost when its in one of those barrels. Or maybe just too hard for a lazy, neglectful gardener like me. I keep thinking of getting one of those spinning barrels, but they cost over a hundred dollars (or did the last time I looked) and that somehow seems wasteful....

  15. Sheila IRONS dish towels? That's like ironing your underwear. Really.

    On that problem of leaving the bag in the car, have you seen "Envirosax" ( Capacious lightweight bags that roll up so tiny they can easily go into your purse. Perfect Xmas gifts. But this is a way to SPEND not save money.

  16. Okay, nazi environmentalist here and I won't even start. LOL. But, I did want to point out to Mom that, in fact, modern dishwashers require much less energy to heat a smaller amount of water than what is used by handwashing the dishes, assuming hot water is used.


  17. Dani,
    That's great becauase now I can use my dishwasher -- environmemtnal-worry free!