Frugal hedonism


In April 2015 we really tapped in to the zeitgeist with our article about Marie Kondo and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (in other words, decluttering.) We had more hits then than we’d ever had, so it seems there is something about the struggle to contain our possessions that hits a nerve.

Now again we attempt to prove to you we have our fingers on the pulse of society.  Did you think Gert was just a book-reading dilettante?  No, she has a social conscience, she knows  that frugality is the latest trend, that minimalism is good for us, and that not spending keeps us alert and open to new ideas.

Our patron will be Wordsworth. He was there well before us. Here is what he had to say:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.

How does that play out in modern life?

Here is Family R in Annie Raser-Rowland’s book, The Art of Frugal Hedonism.  It’s school holidays and Mr R has Tuesdays off. He decides to take his boys to see the latest blockbuster, but they are bickering so he promises them he will buy them the latest game after the movie. But when the movie is over they say they’re starving, so he buys them a whole lot of greasies and fizzy drinks. The younger one vomits all over the car. The game, when they finally get to the store, is out of stock, they all return home so disgruntled that Mr R can’t be bothered cooking the lamb roast waiting in the oven. He bins it and they order Thai take out for their dinner, crank up the heating and settle in for a night in front of the TV. In the meantime Mrs R has been out shopping, where she falls in love with a dress that doesn’t quite fit, but which she buys anyway. How much have they spent? I’ll leave you to work that out. And are they satisfied? Far from it.

That day would not be unusual for many of us. Stuck in traffic, trying to consume what seems easy and readily available, but which ultimately proves to be stressful and unsatisfying. How could their day have played out?

Mrs R arranges to meet three friends at the Botanic Gardens. Each brings something for lunch, including a bottle of wine. She takes the train to avoid the traffic and enjoys the short walk to the gardens. The women pound around the Tan twice and then, hot and sweaty, throw themselves on the grass. They have a great picnic with lots of laughs. Mrs R comes home relaxed and pleasantly tired.

Mr R lets the boys sleep in a little, then they all get into a glorious mess making banana pancakes. When the kitchen is cleaned up a bit Mr R packs a rug, a picnic lunch and their cricket set on the back of his bike, they put their helmets on and cycle a short way to the local public park They have a strenuous game of cricket, only stopped by a terrier running off with their ball. They can’t stop laughing and then they settle on the grass for their picnic. Mr R has put the rug down so the grass is not prickly. After lunch they lie on their rug picking out the shapes in the clouds. Scottie dogs, snakes, castles. They chat and laugh and are sometimes silent. Then they pack up and return home. The boys go out to the garden to pick the lettuce and tomatoes for salad, Mr R makes the pizza dough and together they assemble the pizzas. When Mrs R gets home the delicious smell of cooking makes her mouth water. After dinner they have a game of Twister and then the boys crash off to bed too tired for a bath. Mr and Mrs R snuggle up on the couch and quietly chat about their day.

Raser-Rowland advocates a slower (and more low-spending) life that takes pleasure in the day to day. Becoming aware of the stresses of consumption, seeking out quiet moments, perhaps lying on a blanket gazing at the clouds, sitting in a cafe for an hour observing people coming and going, relishing the pungent smell of eucalyptus leaves on a warm afternoon, rediscovering the joys of conversation with friends over a cup of tea. Homely, simple, enjoying the now.

She suggests working just enough to keep afloat. Living somewhere cheap, growing your own fruit and veg, only shopping in charity shops, never having more than you need. Like decluttering, it sounds very attractive,  this freedom from being weighed down by too much Stuff.

But, let me say, she speaks from the point of view of a young (ish) woman. She has no children, she and her partner manage to earn a modest living through their books, and are able to ride their bicycles everywhere.  And I don’t know how many older people are happy to go dumpster-diving, or dragging home the hard rubbish put out on the neighbourhood strip for Council pick up.

But Raser-Rowland has many simple ideas for improving the quality of life. She stresses the joy of having good friends with whom one can have simple meals, conversation, food swaps, skill swaps, child minding swaps.  She shows how time is what we lose in our pursuit of money, consumables, electronic media. There are many useful and practical ideas here, even if dispensing with the car and using the bicycle as one’s main means of transport is out of the question for many of us.

I must say though I did love this account of a little trip Annie and Adam took, partly on foot and partly by train.

Last summer the two of us ‘travelled’ for a mere twelve hours. We decided to walk all night long, aiming to reach a semi-rural train station on the farthest fringe of the city. We selected a date with a full moon and clear skies, and took a long afternoon nap with an alarm clock set for sunset…we started walking [and we saw] a surreal tableau in a back window, a giant topiary mouse in an otherwise conventional garden…we marched along the moonlit train tracks singing, jumped when kangaroos bounded across our path, paddled our aching feet in the cool dark silk of 3am streams. We arrived at the final station on the line just as the stars started to evaporate, and let the first train of the day whisk us back to the city.

I also dipped in to Everything that Remains, by Joshua Fields Milburn, one of the writers (with Ryan Nicodemus) of the highly successful blog The Minimalists. They were young successful men who jumped off the corporate ladder and applied these principles to their current lives. They espouse simplicity, and low spending. They seem to be able to live from their blog and their books. Joshua has some simple tips about meditation, twenty-minute workouts, and so on, but the book (he describes himself as an introvert) has a more self-focused feel about it. I can’t see Joshua or Ryan on a jam-making spree, but they have radically changed their lives.

If you’re inclined to take this path,  you may be interested in this short essay by Michelle McGagh in The Guardian

McGagh, a finance journalist,  decided to live for a year without spending anything, except for paying bills and buying food.

Good luck with your new frugal life.

9 thoughts on “Frugal hedonism

  1. Much as I like Marie Kondo, I haven’t managed to move all that much stuff out. You do a really nice job both making this slowed-down life style sound appealing, and at recognizing how many people aren’t in a position to enjoy it for whatever reason. I do love the world — both the restaurants and plays, as well as the Internet, the afternoon walks, and the challenges of a job that involves research and politics. Thanks for your thoughtful and realistic take, and especially the night-time walk. That did sound like fun.

    1. And I also think there is the factor that having choice is the key here. For the many people living lives of miserable poverty with insecure accommodation, it must be hard to enjoy the empty hours. And there is also something isolating about poverty.

  2. I wonder if decluttering is like dieting: you shed a few pounds by being abstemious, but when you’ve reached your target and have patted yourself on the back, the excess you’ve lost starts creeping in and up again. There’s a whole science around y0-yo dieting which I find applies equally to, say, book management: last year I recycled a lot of read books and forced myself to pass up on new acquisitions, but this year … You can guess the rest!

    As for the art of living simply, I’ve mostly held to that through most of my life, holding off learning to drive and then buying used cars, eating up all my food and avoiding throwing any away — all that ‘waste not want not’ mentality — so find it relatively easy not to go for the instant gratification hit that modern life offers us. (Though, with the continuing squeeze on finances and public services, instant gratification may be out of the reach of many more of us as time creeps on.)

    1. I like the idea of yo-yo book buying.I take a hard line these days, using libraries as much as possible, and if I buy I pass on to someone I think would like it on the condition they pass it on after reading. I only keep the very special ones.

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