Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Resource Equation

A recent post on one of the Dollar Stretcher blogs profiled a couple with different approaches to frugality: a compulsively tidy wife who is always trying to get rid of clutter, and a packrat husband who holds on to all kinds of things "just in case." The wife was forced to admit that her husband's approach had its benefits after one of her new car tires was pierced by a large chunk of gravel, damaging it beyond repair, and he produced the old tire from the garage as a replacement. This led her to wonder:
who is more frugal? Is it the person who doesn't have to buy things twice as they know where they have put it, who doesn't waste time searching for things, who doesn't need more room to store more stuff? Or is it the person who can nip into the garage and find a whatsit that will perfectly fix the whatchamacallit instead of the proper part, which costs megabucks?
This reminded me of a similar situation described by Amy Dacyczyn, the "Frugal Zealot," in her Tightwad Gazette newsletter (no longer published, but archived in book form as The Complete Tightwad Gazette). In an article called "The Frugal Balance," she noted that many people consider some aspects of the frugal lifestyle to be "too extreme" for them. A typical comment, she said, might be:
"Yeah, my sister Thelma is really frugal. You can't move in her house because of all the bread bags, Styrofoam meat trays, rubber bands, and toilet-paper tubes. But I just can't live that way. I guess I'm not the tightwad type."
Amy's response was that this isn't a case of being "too frugal": rather, it's frugality out of balance. Thelma is concentrating on saving just one resource–money–by keeping this huge stash. But because she is not using other resources effectively, such as the space in her home, she ends up wasting time, energy, and money because she can't find things when she needs them. A truly frugal person, by contrast, will try to make the best possible use of all resources, balancing the amount of stuff stashed with the amount of space available. A tightwad who lives in a big house with lots of storage space can afford to keep more things "just in case," while one who lives in a tiny apartment must take extra care to conserve space and save only the things that are most likely to be useful. "Because we all have different amounts of money, time, space, and personal energy and different ideas about what constitutes quality of life," she writes, "we must each find our own frugal balance."

For me, striking this frugal balance means taking the environment into consideration as well. In fact, when I have a decision to make involving money, I sometimes think in terms of a "resource equation": money plus time plus effort plus natural resources. Rather than just making the choice with the lowest dollar cost, I try to consider all these variables and come up with the choice that will give me the lowest total cost. Sometimes, a single option is obviously the best choice because it lowers several variables at once: for instance, switching out my incandescent bulbs for CFLs saves both money and natural resources. In other cases, a choice raises some variables while lowering others: for instance, hanging out laundry to dry saves money and natural resources, but takes extra time and effort. I have to reckon in my mind how much that extra time and effort is worth to me to decide whether hanging out the laundry is the best choice overall. (For me, the answer is generally yes in summer and no in winter.) And occasionally, I'll decide that a choice that costs me more money is worth it because of the other resources it saves, such as paying a bit extra for renewable electricity through the state's "CleanPower Choice Program." (Combining this with conservation measures means that I only pay a few extra dollars a month, and when the thermometer hits 100, as it did yesterday, I can switch on the AC without guilt.)

So basically, my whole idea of ecofrugality is pretty much the same as Amy Dacycyzn's concept of the "frugal balance." The key point is that true frugality isn't just about money: it's about using all resources as wisely as possible. Interestingly, I stumbled across a quotation recently on my favorite cryptogram website that expresses much the same idea. In the words of that most venerable of all tightwads, Benjamin Franklin:
Waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both. Without industry and frugality, nothing will do, and with them everything.
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