foilJune 22, 2022–One thing that recent lockdowns, winter storms, shortages of essential products, and economic fluctuations have taught me is this: I am grateful I know how to be poor.

Not poor like our parent’s and grandparent’s Depression-era poor, but poor as in “only having enough cash to buy gas to make it to the next job.” Hey, I was a musician.

And a college student.

For several years I lived in a one-room efficiency apartment. Not a one-bedroom apartment, but an apartment of only one room. The room was the bedroom. The bathroom was down the hall, shared with renters on the floor above. The kitchen was a table in the corner. The refrigerator was the space between the indoor window and the storm window. Remember, this was Iowa, where it’s winter 9 out of 12 months.

My kitchen had one appliance–a popcorn popper that was a heating element on which sat a metal bowl with a lid. It was either plugged in, or off. But with that simple piece of technology I could

  • boil eggs
  • prepare canned soup
  • make boxed mac ‘n’ cheese
  • cook hotdogs
  • warm up baked beans

And yes, pop popcorn.

I discovered other ways to protect pennies. I was particularly proud that with strategic planning I could make one roll of toilet paper last a semester. Boy that went out the window when I got married.

I think about the ridiculous lengths I went to save money.

Pencils were kept in service by buying replacement erasers.

I learned to sew so I could replace buttons.

Some of my techniques bordered on illegality. At one point I learned that a specific sized washer could be used as a dime in parking meters. They cost a nickel each, but that represented a doubling of value. It was more of a physics experiment than stealing–over the semester I probably saved $1.50.

As I grew in maturity, and entered the workforce, I was able to achieve more financial comfort. We were still a single-earner family with four children, and my earnings came from teaching, so we never considered ourselves wealthy. We were able to add a second vehicle and enjoy a nice meal out and take trips to the coast.

While I never cheated parking meters again, those habits of frugality were never far below the surface.

To this day, I hang my laundry on the line.

I reuse a bath towel for weeks. When you think about it, toweling off a just-showered body is really just washing a towel by proxy. Since I shower outdoors, I hang it in the sun and voila, it’s ready for the next shower.

For a long time, I also covered all the usual frugal bases–changing my own oil, handling small household repairs, haunting the resale shops. And not tossing anything. I still own and use the copper-bottomed pan my mom sent with me when I left home.

Even in my various penurious states, I never achieved the heights of frugality as did Amy Dacyczyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette.

She devoted three volumes to the practice of tightwad-ery.

She wrote chapters on dumpster diving, how to score at yard sales, and how to recycle greeting cards. Her tips included

  • making your own crackers
  • carving toy gliders out of Styrofoam meat trays
  • folding index cards in half to make Thank You cards
  • repairing frayed shoestrings by wrapping ends with cellophane tape

Some of her tips make me feel like Rockefeller. Dacyczyn actually described how to separate two-ply toilet paper and rewind it onto two empty cardboard tubes. I never went that far, but I did use her trick of making baby wipes out of paper towel rolls sawed in half and submerged in a concoction of water and baby oil.

I thought I was past that part of my life. But after a recent trip to the grocery store, I’m reconsidering. I just caught myself reusing a piece of aluminum foil.