This week I attended the funeral of an old family friend. This man was a member of the “Greatest Generation,” growing up during the Great Depression and coming of age during WWII. Aside from his stories, the thing that always amazed me about this man was his ability to construct the most useful items from things that I would have thrown away. It was like knowing MacGyver. Give him some string, glue, buttons, and bottle caps and he could probably make jewelry that would be picked up by Tiffany’s.
His most famous creation was a wind chime made from nothing but some old wire, copper pipe leftover from a plumbing job, and some bits of broken glass. It was just a simple wind chime, but it made the most beautiful music. He built it and tuned it better than any mass produced chime I’ve even owned. Everything he built was like that; beautiful and useful. None of it was like the crap I tend to make when I’m trying to create something from recycled bits. Most of my creations belong in the garbage. By trying to build something from trash, I’m only delaying its inevitable trip to the landfill.
As a kid, I would watch him make or repair things using nothing but his brain and scrap materials. It never failed to amaze me what he could come up with and I got some of my best toys from this man; handmade, of course. I asked him one time how he did it. How did he manage to know what materials would work well together, how to create something from nothing, or how to repair something he’d never worked on before?
He chalked it up to his upbringing. Growing up during the Great Depression, nothing was wasted. Everything had a second, third, fourth or even fifth life. And even if it appeared that no further use was possible, an item was often kept, “just in case.” My friend worked on all kinds of projects in his youth, learning many skills from his father and grandfather as they worked to make ends meet during hard times. If he wanted something to play with, he had to make it himself as there was no money for toys. If something broke, it had to be fixed because there was no money for a replacement. If the item in question wasn’t something he had worked on before, he had to figure it out because there was no money to hire a technician to do the repair. Much of his life was like that until the end of WWII brought prosperity, but by then he had learned how to make or repair just about anything.
Those were skills he never turned his back on. Even when his post-war job brought him more money than he’d ever had before, he still kept right on saving scraps and creating new things. He had a garage full of items that he believed would be useful someday. To me it looked like the biggest pile of junk I’d ever seen, but to him everything had potential and most of it was eventually used in one way or another (unlike my garage where there are many “someday” items that sit collecting dust).
Because of his skills, he didn’t have to buy much since he could repair or create most of what he needed. His upbringing also taught him the difference between wants and needs. He was very clear about what was necessary in life and what wasn’t. He didn’t need to buy a lot of prepackaged do-dads because he got his pleasures the way he always had; by taking pleasure in the outdoors, gardening, talking to people, being with family, or by creating something he found fun to build like toys for us kids. He didn’t “need” a vacation every year or a state of the art home theater system. He didn’t need a huge house or a new car every two years (when he died he was still driving a ’58 Chevy that, thanks to his skills, was in tip top condition). To him, the things that many of us consider “necessary” today were all luxury items that he could do without. He didn’t even get air conditioning until a breathing problem forced him into it. He lived a very simple life and, as a result, died a very wealthy man.
While I listened to the minister drone on at the funeral, it occurred to me that my friend was the only truly “frugal” person I knew, in the traditional sense of the word. He lived by the WWII motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” He was the only person I knew who generated almost zero waste. Organic materials were composted for his garden and almost everything else was given a new life, either by his own efforts or because he donated it to someone who could use it.
He was the only person I knew who had a true grasp of the difference between wants and needs and AND PUT IT INTO PRACTICE. We all know that a vacation every year, a Wii, a DVD player, and cell phones are wants, but we all have a funny way of somehow turning those wants into needs. My friend didn’t do that. Wants were wants and needs were needs. Money was used to buy needs and only after all true needs were satisfied were any wants allowed into the equation.
Wants were only allowed very sparingly, which made them all the more special for him. Little things like ice cream from the local shop thrilled him in a way that I don’t see in people my own age. It was funny to watch the pleasure this old man took in eating an ice cream cone while the children around him (the ones who should have been thrilled the most) were acting bored and as though this was the least thrilling thing they could think of to do. My generation has so much of everything that the little things aren’t thrilling anymore. But to my friend, their rarity only enhanced the pleasure. Despite his relative lack of material items, I never got the sense that my friend felt deprived of anything because he had all his needs met and had some money left over for a few well-chosen wants. Everything else went into building his future financial security, which was the one thing he wanted above all others.
The people that I consider frugal that come from my generation or younger aren’t really frugal, not like my friend was. We all have luxury items such as DVD players, iPods, cell phones, houses that are bigger than we need, cars that are newer than necessary, etc. We may shop for the best deal on those items and call ourselves “frugal,” or we may congratulate ourselves on saving money by using coupons, but we don’t hold a candle to people like my friend who knew how to make every penny and item work for them in creating a secure financial future.
The definition of frugal today isn’t the same as it was for my friend. Today you’re considered frugal if you clip coupons, turn up the thermostat, or shop the clearance aisle. In my friend’s time frugality wasn’t optional, it was the way of life. Having not grown up during periods of true deprivation, most of us are not terribly resourceful or interested in learning how to become so. It’s so much easier to just toss a broken what-not than to try to fix it, and we think it’s more rewarding to go to the store and buy something new rather than fashioning something new out of something we already have. We’ve also convinced ourselves that we need so much more to live happy, comfortable lives. My friend was proof that we do not need even half the things we think we do. (He had the benefit of growing up before the advent of “marketing techniques,” which probably also helped him grow up with a less “needy” mindset than we have today.)
I was fortunate that my friend taught me some of what he knew. No, I still can’t make a decent wind chime out of trash, but I know how to change my own oil, how to create compost, and how to repair many things thanks to him. Even so, I don’t know half of what he knew. As I sat at his funeral, I found myself wondering if, when the last members of the Greatest Generation pass on, will we remember how to be truly frugal? Without them to teach us and pass on the lessons learned from true hardship, will we lose yet more of our ability to be self-sufficient? When no living person remembers the Great Depression and WWII, when it is all just facts in a history book, will anyone remember or care how to make something from what appears to be trash (beyond artists who create for a living)? Will anyone remember the true difference between a want and a need? Will anyone be left who knows that marketing hype and keeping up with the Joneses isn’t what matters in life?
I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it. I look at my generation and those younger and I don’t see anything except more spending and more artificial “needs” being created by the marketers. I don’t see anyone that I know making a conscious effort to be more self-sufficient or less wasteful. I don’t see anyone saying, “No,” to their kids or to their own desires. I see so few people really interested in building a secure financial future. All I see is people wanting to live only for today. Maybe I’m turning cynical, or maybe it’s just the post-funeral blues, but I just don’t see an interest in learning to live below ones means and an understanding that it doesn’t have to be painful. You can have money but not spend it all and still be perfectly happy. There is so much more that matters in life than money, and my friend knew that.
I know there is more that I can do to live by the example set by my friend and his generation. I can get better at saying, “No,” to some of my wants, knowing that by being selective I’ll enjoy what I do have more. I can learn how to do more for myself and be more self-sufficient. I can get better at enjoying the simple things in life instead of relying on mass produced things for my enjoyment. I can spend more time talking to the Joneses rather than envying their stuff. I can work on finding more ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, not only for the benefit of my wallet, but for the benefit of the environment and future generations. I can teach some of what I learn to others, so that they might pass it on. Maybe I can even learn to make a decent wind chime.
Image courtesy of scraphouse5