Today I made napkins. I took an old dress and cut it up, made a rolled hem and voila! 8 new napkins. These join the stack of napkins already in the dining room. I can’t even remember the last time that paper napkins made an appearance in our house. On a whim, I looked up what 8 cloth napkins would cost, had they been bought at Target, and it was $19.99.
Today I also made muffins. The cost to make (including electricity) was $6.70. Those same 18 muffins, bought at Hannaford’s, would have cost $17.10 – a savings of over $10! The day-old bagel I got for free and stashed in the freezer, the turkey sandwich I made for lunch (vs. buying at school), and the ziti I’m making for dinner (instead of going out for ziti) saved me another $19. Just making those changes saved me $39 today alone. I feel so virtuous!
Thrift isn’t a bad word – it’s a good one. More people should embrace it. What is about the American psyche that shuns thrift? Why do we only want the newest, the latest, the shiniest, the best? The thought of fixing or reusing an item is abhorrent to millions of people in this country. If we don’t have the very latest in technology and fashion, there’s something “wrong” with us. We have to live in huge houses with beautiful gardens and 2.3 vehicles, take 2 vacations away from our huge houses and get a new wardrobe every year. We need to buy designer toy dogs and designer clothes and designer sheets. It seems that enough is never enough.
Perhaps this is a mentality left over from the Great Depression of the 1930s, when people were forced to be thrifty in order to survive. Buying a loaf of bread was a silly thing to do when you could make one for pennies. We fixed items and cobbled together new items from bits and pieces of older ones. If clothing was outgrown, but still serviceable, our younger sibling or neighbor got it. If it was too worn out, it became a pillow or dish rag or part of a quilt to keep us warm at night. The imagination of the American citizen soared during that period, as well, which is no surprise. The ancient maxim, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” was certainly true during this period. Car radios, supermarkets, tampons, chocolate chip cookies, the laundromat, the Xerox machine and the game of Monopoly were all “invented” during the 1930s. How the financial wizards of the day got through the Stock Market crash of 1929 without chocolate chip cookies is beyond me!
After the Depression, World War 2 brought in a new wave of thrift. From tires and nylon to butter, coffee, cheese and jam, a lot of items were rationed or not available at all. We still wanted those items, though, so we patched and recycled our tires, went barelegged and invented margarine to make our lives more normal. We had gardens and grew our own vegetables. We raised chickens and cows for meat, eggs and milk. We walked or rode a bicycle if there was no gasoline, and that was OK. We helped out our neighbors out in times of personal hardship, knowing that they would give us the shirts off their backs if the roles were reversed.
Once we got into the 50s, our hunger for “stuff” started to grow. People bought cars and houses. The aviation and electronics industries were born and there was no looking back. This was probably a fantastic morale boost to the people of the United States who had become so used to saving and scrimping. Imagine the delirious freedom in being able to buy whatever you wanted! In addition, the 1950 dollar bought more than it does today, so all sorts of crazy purchases were possible. This started the trend of needing bigger, better, and faster possessions, which has continued to this day.
Have we passed the point where need and luxury are balanced, where our lust for possessions has passed from rational to ridiculous and perhaps obscene? Yes, I believe so. A few weeks ago, the iPad2 was released. Louise and I had the misfortune to go to the Danbury Mall that day. There was a line of people stretching halfway down the mall, and all these people were waiting to get their hands (at 5:00 sharp) on the latest iPad. Seriously? Waiting in line today for something you can buy tomorrow or next week sans the line? It was an unreal experience, but it was a clear illustration of the insane desire to possess.
It seems that our craving for “stuff” has brought us to a place where it has become almost imperative to have the latest and greatest, even if it plunges us into the deep, dark world of debt. We are enslaved (and therefore made miserable) by the urge to keep up with the Joneses. We have lost the ability to think for ourselves; we just blindly follow what the manufacturers and marketing people tell us we “need”. We are jerked around by our attractions and repulsions, running around in a vain attempt to acquire that which we think will make us happy. But it doesn’t make us happy, and we fly off in another direction looking for something else to fill the void. In reality, the happiness and fulfillment we are looking for are inside us. We need to divorce ourselves from the compulsion to acquire more and more, and no longer give external “things” the power to make us miserable. Only then will we find a modicum of sanity and happiness.
The students I teach were positively apoplectic last week when I made the statement, “You don’t need a cell phone,” following that up with, “You WANT one, but you don’t NEED one. Think about the difference.” This concept was so completely foreign to them that they dismissed it out of hand. Having a TV in every bedroom is a necessity to them. Having a cell phone to keep in touch with their friends is mandatory. Life without an iPod Touch? Perish the thought! I often wonder what we’re setting our kids up for by not teaching them how to appreciate the value of a dollar. Perhaps they’ll only “get it” when the next Great Depression rolls around. My fear is that, for them, it’ll be too late and that thought frightens me more than any other.
Teach thrift as a positive, healthy way of life. There’s nothing wrong with it. We need far less than we think we do. We’re just spoiled rotten…
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