Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The best of all tightwad worlds

Last Earth Day, the "Live Like a Mensch" blog invited readers to "share your favorite low-cost, free, or money-saving tip for reducing waste, energy usage, or unnecessary purchases." I responded with the complaint, "Just one tip? I have a whole blog's worth!" and then compromised by presenting a short list of my favorite ecofrugal tips, including, "use your library," "bike to work," and "join Freecycle." Another regular reader, who goes by the handle "frugal_fun," quibbled with these suggestions, arguing that you have to use a car to get back and forth to the library and to pick up Freecycled items. I explained that I always walk to the library and try whenever possible to pick up Freecycled items on foot as well, or failing that, to pick them up as part of an already scheduled trip. But even as I was writing that response, I realized that the strategies I was suggesting really only work for town dwellers. If you live in a fairly densely populated area, you can probably walk to your local library (or get there by mass transit), and the folks you deal with on Freecycle will probably live within walking distance or, at most, a short drive. You're also more likely to live close enough to your workplace to make biking to work a reasonable option. But if you live way out in the country, it's much harder to get anywhere without a car—which means you can usually be more ecofrugal staying at home.

This discussion reminded me of an article from the third Tightwad Gazette book, called "The City Tightwad and the Country Tightwad." In it, Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) discussed the fact that some of her readers seemed to think it was harder to save money living in the city than in the country, especially since her newsletter seemed to focus so much on "gardening, canning, and squirreling away bulk purchases in a large house and a big barn." In truth, she argued, the city and the country have both have their own particular advantages when it comes to saving money. The advantages of town life include cheap transportation, more inexpensive shopping choices, free entertainment options (such as the library I mentioned in my tip), and more opportunities for "curb shopping" (otherwise known as scavenging). The advantages of country life, by contrast, include gardening, cheaper land, more utility options (like solar panels or wood heat), the ability to stockpile more stuff, and "more lifestyle freedom" (that is, fewer neighbors to expose your family to expensive brands or complain about your laundry hanging on the line). As for the sprawling suburbs, so often attacked as the most wasteful of all places to live, they actually combine the advantages and disadvantages of city and country life—as well as having perks all their own, such as plenty of yard sales.

I think this analysis is generally spot on, but after reading it over, it occurred to me that for those who aspire to the ecofrugal life, a good-sized town (like the one where I live) is really the best of all possible worlds. Here in Highland Park, we enjoy most of the advantages Dacyczyn cites for city, country, and suburban dwellers. For example:
  • Like city tightwads, we have a lot of stuff within walking/biking distance. Brian can easily bike to work in good weather, and I can walk to the grocery store, drugstore, doctor's office, post office, and most other places I'd need to run errands. We could use a few more stores in walking distance (like a bookstore and maybe some reasonably priced clothing stores), but still, we often go for days without getting behind the wheel.
  • We also have a pretty good variety of shopping options. While we have just one supermarket in walking distance, there are several others a short drive away, making it easy for us to cycle among them and choose the best-priced items from each one. On the down side, we really don't have any good thrift shops in our immediate area; the local one has a limited selection and even more limited hours, and the next nearest one is a Goodwill store that's about 15 minutes away by car, which I've concluded really isn't worth the trip
  • We have a good variety of cheap or free entertainment. True, it's not the same same variety you might find in a big city, but between our local library, the nearby museum, town-sponsored events, and all the stuff going on at the university, you can generally find something to do on any given weekend.
  • Housing options include the best of city and country. A quick search on Craigslist turned up three rooms for rent, ranging from $465 to $950 a month, which isn't at all bad considering that I paid $400 a month for my first shared apartment back in 1996. Yet those who want a house and land, with plenty of room to stockpile bulk goods and grow a garden, can easily find one. They'll certainly pay more for it than they would in, say, rural Kansas, but with the housing market still in a slump, there are good deals to be had for those who look.
  • We also have all the perks of suburban living without the sprawl. The schools are good; there's lots of stuff within a short drive, and a car won't cost an arm and a leg to park; we have yard sales from spring through fall, including a big town-wide sale in September; and carpooling is a viable option for lots of folks, since so many locals work at the university.
  • Finally, the "lifestyle freedom" Amy Dacycyn lists as a perk of rural living seems to be just as open to us town dwellers. She finds it easier to avoid "material excess" living in the country, where her kids aren't constantly exposed to temptations from junk food to Nintendo—but our town is so diverse that I think local kids accept a wide range of lifestyles without even blinking. Walking around town, I see Jewish boys with yarmulkes and Muslim girls in headscarves walking home from school, and neither attracts so much as a second glance from passersby, so I kind of doubt that a kid without an Xbox—or even without a TV—is going to be looked on as a freak. 
So while I would agree that both city and country have their own unique advantages for ecofrugality, I would argue that a largish town—and especially a college town—truly offers the best balance of both.
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