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Frugality: The Lost Virtue - Wolf & Iron

Frugality: The Lost Virtue

“If frugality were established in the state, and if our expenses were laid out to meet needs rather than superfluities of life, there might be fewer wants, and even fewer pleasures, but infinitely more happiness.” – Oliver Goldsmith, Irish Poet, 1730-1774“If frugality were established in the state, and if our expenses were laid out to meet needs rather than superfluities of life, there might be fewer wants, and even fewer pleasures, but infinitely more happiness.” – Oliver Goldsmith, Irish Poet, 1730-1774

Believe it or not, there was a time when the word Garbage didn’t refer to the all too common household trash headed for massive landfills. The term Junk also held a different meaning. According to the 1828 edition of Webster’s dictionary:

Garbage: “The bowels of an animal; refuse parts of flesh; offal.”

Not until 1913 did Garbage take on a broader meaning but still not specifically referring to household trash.

Junk: “Pieces of old cable or old cordage (rope).”

The reason for this? America was once frugal. The “garbage” of the day would have been tossed to the chickens or pigs, or at the very least thrown in the woods to make a meal for some lucky coyote or vulture. Even the seemingly useless bits of rope were reused. Most rope was made from hemp and the scraps would be saved and either sold in volume or used on the homestead. The bits of rope would be unwound and mixed with pine tar or pitch to make oakum, a widely used, all natural material, used to seal the cracks between beams in both ships and homes.

Our ancestors would be appalled to see the modern trashcan, filled with compostable food waste & barely used glass jars. If you have ever been to a dump or recycle-center you have no doubt been astonished (and possibly sickened and ashamed) at the amount of waste.

Frugality doesn’t just deal with money though that is how we typically think of it. It is a virtue that sees wisdom in contentment, quality, and ingenuity. And, it’s a virtue that we desperately need in the modern age.

Being Frugal was a National Creed

“Waste not, want not.” – Proverb

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” – Proverb

“The devil damns the man who lives by greed, Jehovah loves the man who only fills his need” – Author unknown

Prior to the popular posters of WWII asking wives to save kitchen grease for ammunition and people to send scrap metal in for the war effort, being frugal was something folks took pride in. They had to because they didn’t have much and what they did have was often hard to come by. Things were reused whenever possible. For example, greasy dish water was used to make lye soap. It was poured in a trough-like container that filtered the water of debris through straw, then rocks, then sand. When the water cooled the fat hardened on top and was mixed with lye. We might look at this practice today and be disgusted, but there was great pride in finding ways to use what you had.

Things were Made to Last

“They don’t make em’ like they used to.”

Nowadays we pass off the quality of craftsmanship from the older days by saying, “Of course, they didn’t have anything else to do all day!” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we have far more time in the day than they did. Most of their work was dependent upon the weather and the daylight. They didn’t have the benefits of electricity in many rural parts of the nation until recently. The truth is, they made things with quality because they made it. They took pride in their work. A basket, a door, a house, were all reflections upon them. Not only that, but they were things that would likely be handed down to family after they died. In the old days most wills consisted of “things” rather than money.

Compare that with the modern, consumer-driven society and you can see how in direct contrast we are with frugality.

Frugality’s Loss to Consumerism

Shortly after WWII, America, and much of the world, made a quick and final shift towards consumerism rather than doubling our efforts in thrift. People had long been moving from rural to urban areas and towards a faster paced, urbanite lifestyle. After the war there was a strong national desire to get America back on our feet so to speak. While we had won the war, we had lost much and we understandably wanted to move on as quickly as possible. With the building of an interstate highway system, authorized by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, the rise in farming machinery and pesticides, and the plastic industry boom, products of all kinds quickly became more accessible and cheaper than ever before. New meant not old. In other words, for many of the adults who were children during the war, it meant moving on and putting the past behind them.

How to be Frugal in the Modern Age

With all of the focus on recycling lately, there has been a re-commitment by many people to reduce-reuse-recycle. This is a good start, but it is usually out of a concern for the environment which is rather hard to quantify a benefit in a daily, practical manner. We certainly want to leave a clean and healthy world for our children, but a focus on frugality rather than environmental friendliness benefits the here and now and should get people on board more easily.

Stop Buying Cheap Plastic Crap

Cheap, flimsy, plastic anything is garbage bound. Whether it is a kitchen appliance or a power tool, choosing to buy what is cheap will most certainly bring you frustration and cost as much, if not more, than a quality product. In many cases it’s hard to find a quality product on the shelves even if you are willing to pay more for it. Often, I have gone to eBay or Craigslist to find a vintage version of what I needed. In doing so I also find something unique.

Also, something doesn’t have to be plastic to be cheap. I can’t count the number of thin drinking glasses that have busted around our house. We typically use Mason jars now but have decided the next set will likely be steel. The point is to buy less and buy quality.


If you have a garden you should be composting your vegetable kitchen scraps, yard clippings, coffee grounds and other items to make rich soil. If you don’t have a garden, you can still compost and share the soil with friends or use it in a small container garden.

Make Stuff

“People who buy things are suckers.” – Ron Swanson“People who buy things are suckers.” – Ron Swanson

Mr. Swanson is right, many things we have around the house we could have made ourselves. Not everything in the house is worth the effort, but much can be done by hand. Furniture, picture frames, kitchen tools, and many things around the garden. Sometimes making stuff will cost as much if not more than buying something cheap and mass produced. However, we tend to take care of the things we make.

Stop Keeping up with the Jones’

I don’t know who these Jones’ family is but they must have been doing pretty well. Being frugal means practicing something called “delayed gratification” (There aren’t too many commercials espousing this approach). Exercising delayed gratification requires two important virtues, Patience and Contentment: Patience in saving for what we want, all the while practicing Contentment in what we have. When we try to “keep up appearances” we usually buy what is cheap because we haven’t saved for the real thing.

Final Thoughts

I’ll close this article with a few quotes from President Calvin Coolidge. President Coolidge doesn’t come to the mind of men as quickly as Washington, Roosevelt, Lincoln, or Regan. Coolidge was not a boisterous man. He was level-headed and thrifty. In most of his life he was quite mediocre. However, when he took office in 1923 the National debt stood at $22.3 million, nine times greater than before WWI, the U.S. Dollar had lost half it’s value, and the federal budget had inflated to $5.1 billion. In six years the deficit had been reduced to $16.9 billion and the federal budget cut to $3.3 billion. He believed in the power of the individual and what he called “Economy” – his word for thrift.

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge  

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge

“There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no one independence quite so important, as living within your means.” – Calvin Coolidge, U.S. President, 1872-1933

“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. It may not be difficult to store up in the mind a vast quantity of facts within a comparatively short time, but the ability to form judgments requires the severe discipline of hard work and the tempering heat of experience and maturity.” – Calvin Coolidge, U.S. President, 1872-1933

“Duty is not collective; it is personal.” – Calvin Coolidge, U.S. President, 1872-1933



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