Freedom and Frugality

I am told there is an Italian saying that translates as “It is raining again… PIG OF A GOVERNMENT!” The saying makes me wince because I can see myself raising a fist and shaking it in reproach at the drizzling sky. I spend so much time railing against statism that I risk defining myself by what I oppose. I risk taking the state inside me and allowing it to filter my approach to life.

This is another reason to Go Galt: to reclaim an unfiltered life and carpe the heck out of every diem. One of the ways to do so is deceptively simple. For want of a better word, it is “frugality,” by which I mean something quite different than most people.

For centuries, the North American way has been for people to work harder and earn more to ensure that their children had a better life. For centuries, the strategy succeeded. But today’s children are more likely to be crushed by debt than to inherit their parents’ wealth. Today, hard work is discouraged and punished. It is discouraged by a maze of regulations that police home businesses, for example. It is punished by soaring taxes and disappearing retirement funds.

Meanwhile, the political elites maintain power by draining productivity from society and funneling it into entitlements for the unproductive. As white-hot printing presses increase both the currency supply and prices, the average working person reaches out for some control of his own economic future.

Many people turn to frugality in response to economic bad times. That is, they view it as a necessary, but bitter pill they are forced to swallow, but would rather spit out. Viewing frugality as a form of poverty, they are driven to it through desperation, rather than a desire to increase control over their lives. To them, frugality must be a dreary thing, but in my life, the contrary is true.

A few years ago, my view of frugality changed due to an obvious realization that I had never fully grasped before. Material goods cost money; money is acquired in exchange for my time; my time is literally my life. If X costs $100 and I make $25 an hour, then X costs me four hours of life. Or rather, it costs four hours plus whatever time is consumed by the transaction costs of making money, such as the time and expense of a commute.

This was a paradigm shift for me. I ceased viewing possessions in terms of money and saw them in terms of time. And my time is a scarce good. The hours available can sometimes feel boundless, and it is easy to fall into the trap of valuing each unit as if it were part of an infinite supply. Of course, it is not. There are only so many hours left for me to live.

With no morbidity, I apply a version of “marginal utility” to those hours. This economic law says that a person values the first unit of a thing according to its highest use and values subsequent units less. For example, if you have one unit of water, then you value it highly for staving off dehydration and death. If you have a large number of units, then you value the last one for watering a house plant. You would be willing to spend far more for the first unit than for the last. I try to view my hours as though each one were a first unit and, so, highly valuable.

When I look in my closet, many possessions now represent wasted time: a dress I never wear, shoes that go with nothing… I won’t waste more time reproaching myself, but I need to learn a lesson from that closet. I traded irreplaceable units of my life for possessions I do not value; I call these possessions “the useless shoes of life.” They are things that are neither necessary nor worth the time I traded to acquire them. Instead, I could have been reading or writing, laughing with friends or watching movies with my husband.

And then there are the purchases I will never regret: books, DVDs, my sporty little econocar, our farm, the ingredients for a superb meal. Those items provide a utility that is well worth the cost. And yes, I include pleasure as a “utility.” Pleasure is one of the most useful things in the world. It makes you spring out of bed with energy in the morning; it makes you fall asleep with a smile on your face at night. But even pleasure should be balanced against the cost in time and purchased at bargain rates, if possible.

People respond to the idea of possessions representing units of their lives in different ways.

Some people redouble their efforts to earn more and so reduce the amount of time that any one purchase represents. This is a return to the traditional American dream: Work hard and prosper economically. I wish these people the best, but their choice is not mine. At this point, I find it difficult to understand why anyone would spend years at a job they don’t enjoy in order to own a bigger home than they can use, especially since the upkeep absorbs more time and cash. The trade-off doesn’t make sense.

Also, for the political reasons mentioned earlier, I no longer believe the American dream is functioning.
My choice is to earn and spend less in order to control my own time and to avoid fueling the State through more taxes. I have called this choice “frugality,” but some people are more comfortable with the term “voluntary simplicity.” The point of such simplicity is not to save every possible penny. It is to ensure that your time and money are expended on your goals. Voluntary simplicity can be viewed as a “business plan” for getting the most out of life. Ask yourself what your goals are and what is necessary to get there. Of equal importance, ask what is not necessary.

Every person will have a different answer. Some of my choices, for example, seem to run counter to frugality. For one thing, I live on a 40-acre farm, not in a small apartment. The choice is odd only if you equate frugality with cheapness, however. If you equate it with spending your resources to achieve your own values, then the farm is eminently frugal. An apartment would be cheaper, but it would also impoverish my life: no dogs, no walks down a gravel road, no garden, no privacy…

I look forward to my garden each spring and to cooking complicated ethnic meals so that the aromas of the world flood my kitchen. I intend to travel and experience the places that fired my fantasies as a child; someday, I will know what the stars look like in Africa and how a jungle smells. Rather than diverting time into “useless shoes,” I intend to live.

That is, after all, the purpose of freedom.