I grew up never hearing the word “frugal.” My dad would say gently, “Let’s make do with what we have, ok?” In this way, my family was frugal — and never “cheap.” No frills, but when we did have a real need, it was the best we could afford at the time. “False economy” is something I hear myself saying to my own kids now, warning them to avoid “deals” that will fall apart with daily wear.
Economizing meant planning, thinking ahead.
Frugality as a value extends behind material things. Making the best use of resources looks like gathering simple seaweed and shovelling manure, instead of buying commercial peat (destructive to wetlands) and expensive amendments. When there is no money, resources are time, effort, and physical energy. One way to economize is through movement, for workflow. I taught my kids to crouch when weeding, vs. constant switching from sitting, kneeling, standing, walking. Steadily weeding, bundling without pause, until both hands are full. In one fluid movement, rising, tossing to a wheelbarrow, returning to a crouch. In this frame of mind, work is grace and your body thanks you. In the same way, frugality is about conserving energy, with an eye on potential.
We learn by watching, and it starts young. Remembering comes in waves. Last week I remembered moments when there was no shampoo in the house, and knowing there’d be a wait. When you run out of shampoo, there’s always dish soap. When you run out of dish soap for dishes, laundry soap can work, but you need to rinse it really, really well. Memories piling up, I remembered my grandma’s homemade soap by her kitchen sink. Reflexively, I kept the habit of filling tin cans with the bacon grease, but without the next steps of making soap.
Poverty is public, everyone knows. It’s the reasons that are private, complex.
After various types of “school” I ended up in retreat mode on Cortes Island for a summer, and later returned to stay. Pregnant with my first child, I happened across John and Sally Seymour’s Farming for Self-sufficiency: Independence on a 5-acre Farm. Two years later, we were in a converted school bus, on ten acres of alder forest. One of my art school friends came to visit my off-grid home. “Off grid” for me didn’t include solar panels, generators, or lithium ion batteries. It meant no power, and a hand pump on the well. My friend tactfully didn’t mention poverty, and reassured me in the middle of a doubt. “You make the most delicious dinner, with less than $2 – that’s real love.”
“Off grid” for me didn’t include solar panels, generators, or lithium ion batteries. It meant no power, and a hand pump on the well.
I was proud to be working with the land, with hand tools only. Gems were the rubies and emeralds of seaweed mulch, the diamonds of condensation on water jugs. A wheelbarrow full of cold, hand pumped well water. The handpump was a joy to me, worthy of an oil painting. I’d found it, magically hidden in salal bushes. It was put into immediate use, a surprise solution to the water question.
My days felt like confirmation of all the skills I’d picked up, things I’d forgotten and then re-remembered. I was sure my family would be proud of my work ethic. When they visited, I saw my dad’s set jaw. I was confused, and disappointed. My mom frowned when I gushed about the well always being full. My celebration was met with dismissive shrugs.
Thinking about it, I realized they had worked so hard to move away from their childhoods of handpumps. Pépère installed electricity but only to the woodshed, my dad said, so he could keep working after dark – splitting wood under the one bulb. I thought of my dad’s big floodlights he had for drywalling and painting. He’d use them to extend his work hours, to go back in the middle of the night for second coats. I realized they had been conditioned to think “moving forward” meant moving off farms, away from living on the land. Any unspoken hardships of their early years rose up when they saw my handpump. Second-class citizens, my dad would say. My mom wouldn’t say anything – her silence filling the room, the house.
My kids have learned how much work is behind a beautiful garden. They know, hour by hour, what goes into building a home.
My mom did tell us a story about her grandma buying her shoes. It was rare to hear a childhood story from her, and even more odd was the repeated telling every fall. When we’d go to buy school shoes, she’d describe in detail the shiny black patent Mary Janes. Her voice was different – love and pride, mixed with something else, complex layers. For her, memories of the first day of school was at residential school, and her Grandma had been a safe place. She didn’t tell us that, though – she made it a lesson to care for our feet, by buying good shoes, as a priority.
If the right winter coats were bought for the oldest, they would last, to be passed down through the younger siblings. My dad’s eyes smiled at seeing a peacoat on my toddlers. It reminded him of his hand-me-down coats – from his cousins, the Dionne quintuplets.
“This is philosophy”
The school bus eventually became a one room cabin, surrounded by a garden in the woods. People would drop by – always unannounced when there’s no phone line or internet! – and bring their friends. It was attractive, a young family making a go of it, with hand tools only. Friends from Berlin nodded, “This is philosophy!” When we did save up enough for hydro, the line was installed atop a ladder by hand. An enthusiastic neighbour had loaned a hand drill, and stayed to cheer the slow work on. A basic hydro connection goes to one pole, so our power only went to one spot, for a freezer – echoing my Pépère’s single lightbulb.
Eating from the garden meant the fridge we’d gleaned from the free store sat empty, except for condiments and extra storage – safe from raccoons – for pails of honey from our hive. Mason jars of goat milk were kept surprisingly cold in a pail of water, set against the shady back wall of the house. When friends dropped in for tea, the positivity was generous on their part, valiant on mine. Sitting in an uninsulated shed, feeling lucky to be able to offer fresh goat milk and honey for sweetener. Sunlight warmed the space, while our kids’ giggles grew louder outside. They were eating ladles of honey – a peak moment for them – and listening to their laughter felt reassuring.
My kids have learned how much work is behind a beautiful garden. They know, hour by hour, what goes into building a home. They walked to the outhouse carrying a candle, taking care to not let the wick burn too quickly. If it’s straight, it will last eight hours – and that’s a night’s worth of reading.
As a kid, if I asked my parents for something they couldn’t afford, it was explained with love. “Ask me for things that I have to give,” Mémère told my dad at the end of her life. She wasn’t speaking of material things, she was flipping the generosity question – true generosity means giving what you can, not withholding. Vice versa, a generous spirit doesn’t ask someone for more than they can spare – sometimes that’s an explanation, or an apology.
When philosophy shifts to necessity
We never received recognition for the zero footprint… it didn’t count, because it was a necessity. Society praises wealthy people for downsizing, or comfortable people finding small solutions “in ways they can.” Poverty makes people uncomfortable – conservation and frugality are overlooked when practiced out of need. I pretended it was a choice, long after it was no longer. When I couldn’t share the reasons for my poverty, the tone shifted.
It’s easier to focus on the positive, like bringing up canning and listening for the memories. So labour intensive, people will say, recounting marathons in the heat, the rows of jars. I’ve described my mom canning peaches, tomatoes, pickles too. It felt different when I was a mom, standing in a store adding up the cost of all the jars that I didn’t have money to buy. Standing in the aisle with a sinking feeling – until I remembered my mom’s jam cupboard… paraffin wax! I could recycle jars, and seal with melted wax. With the tip of a knife, chipping out the first chunk of wax, lifting the layer in one piece. Smooth on top, berry-bumped texture beneath. Gleaming blueberry jam, perfectly preserving those long hours of picking.
When I asked my kids to finish a plate of food, it was never begrudging the expense. It was out of an awareness – that’s the end of that crop. Savour it, next month there will be plainer fare. Their little hands helped, and they watched every move. I’m grateful they have these skills, when they need to return to them.
Behind the grainy photos and stories, lie the ways of knowing we’ve held through generations. Love lightens the load, and hope moves us – but it’s our bones’ remembering that will lead.
Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is a guest on Klahoose, Homalco, Tla’amin territories. Her journalism can be found at Watershed Sentinel, IndigiNews, the Discourse, APTN, and the Toronto Star, among other places.