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It all began with blips on the financial radar in 2006. I was pregnant with Declan–the hero of some of these stories. The universe was about to come crashing down. I felt it. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen only that something was wrong in the universe. Our business was struggling. I researched taking a home equity loan to tide us over, and was told the house has doubled it’s value. They were willing to roll me into an adjustable rate mortgage and allow us to cash out some equity in the house. Luckily, I know my fine print.

“But I have excellent–no–pristine credit.”

“Oh yeah, but that’s just the way things are these days.”  It doesn’t take jumping off a fiscal cliff and being reincarnated as Alan Greenspan to know something’s wrong. I declined. There would be no home equity loan–we would find a creative solution. When the market did crash–and I remember sitting by my fish tank watching the Wall Street shark tank devour itself on TV–I was not surprised. Mystery revealed.

And so began The Fourth Season of Frugal.

Frugal isn’t new to me.  For my parents, it came with a jump from banking into doing the good work of the Lord. They started soup kitchens and helped humanity. God might be good, but he doesn’t pay in cash and stock options, and so ensued the First Season of Frugal. Government assistance, job hunting during the Little Recession, trying to move back to the community they left to follow the Lord, scrimping and saving–Dad taking a job with a friend of the family entirely across the state to make ends meet while mom saved cash from couch cushions because government programs will let people buy candy and chips but not soap and toilet paper. She never let us buy candy and chips. I never understood.

My Second Season of Frugal came during college when I was paying massive tuition bills while working full-time and overloading on courses. After making the large cash payment each month to cover the difference between The Bill and The Aid, I remember having  $11 remaining one month. I said a prayer on the way to Wegman’s, our local grocery store, that some shape of pasta would be on sale. And it was.

A few times a week, I’d eat dining hall breakfast for $2.65, and fill my Tupperware for the rest of the day. Technically, I now know this is stealing, but at the time it seemed justified, because it was all-you-can-eat, and I ate little, but the football team vacuumed up food. I converted what I should have eaten into take-out to balance this out. Then at dinner time, I’d eat something during my nightly shift at the diner. I never starved.

In fact, I remember always having enough food to scrape up a sorority or fraternity dinner in my off-campus house. And the laughter that filled the air.

The Third Season of Frugal came when I took a massive pay cut, and racked up grad school loans leaving Corporate America to go into teaching. This fear led me to hold onto my corporate job on the weekends. My pay working two days in Corporate America was $40 less than my pay teaching. I kept both for a while–because money is the great temptress–but eventually left to teach full-time.  I said The Wegman’s Prayer once again.

So when the Fourth Season of Frugal arrived, I’d like to say I was prepared, but this time I was terrified–because this time I owned stuff. I had stuff to lose. That made all the difference in the world. Before, it was just me walking down the street hoping for pasta; I was free.  Now, we had a business, a home, and a car to lose and a family to support. That is the perfect equation for terror.

When we perceive we have things to lose and we worry about protecting our things, our fear only multiplies.

Thankfully, my deep reservoir of frugal memories helped me focus. I would be able to re-engage in minimalism, even though I had been tainted by the mindset of the Alex P. Keaton era and the robust Clintonesque 90’s along with the spending habits of one in possession of the out-of-college corporate paycheck. I would readjust my mindset about “stuff,” learn to be creative with my budget, commit to going zero-credit and paying down student loans and the credit which had already been extended. I would dust off the Wegman’s Prayer once again.

This was going to be ground zero for spending.

I sold my car. The diesel that was going to save the universe by letting me collect fry oil had to go. I converted it to a near antique little beetle, which was okay because I could enjoy the sight of teens punching each other as I drove by, “Punch buggy, silver!”

I cancelled credit cards.  I have them now, and I keep them at zero. Credit is the great American addiction. I was reading a post by James Altucher, inferring that we, as a society, shouldn’t consider income when making job decisions, because we’ll just spend our raises anyway. Not true for this individual.

I studied self-sufficiency. I wrote about that in my last post–canning, planting, making bread, yogurt, cheese. It’s not just about eating, it’s about the act of creating. The miracle of producing food, of being free from the store, and about breaking bead with friends and family is the lesson of self-sufficiency.

I wanted less. We don’t do this as a culture. We want more. I realized that I’m fairly happy with a pair of running shoes, some books, and a piece of paper on which to jot down my thoughts. Turning my daily habits into hobbies–sustainability, cooking, simplicity, organizing for example, eventually converted them into Zen-like acts. In this mindset, every act becomes something we can use to become more reflective, more peaceful, and more content. We embrace “wabi-sabi,” the perfection in imperfection. We enjoy who we are and what we have in the present. It makes all the difference.

One day, I was cleaning the garbage can. My mind froze and took a snapshot–I saw myself performing this odious chore.  And I realized I was happy. Happy cleaning a garbage can. That made all the difference in the world.

The Great Recession hurt many of us. But I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and their outcomes. Somewhere on Wall Street, there are people to whom I owe a large debt of gratitude, in all sincerity. They might have received their golden parachute, and America may hate them, but I’d shake their hands. I was reminded that living simply makes me happy, whether I have $11 in my hand or a million in the bank.  I hope there’s no Fifth Season of Frugal in my life, that I won’t need a refresher lesson or wake up call. That every day will prove a simple exercise in gratitude, and that I can do something to make the world a better place.


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