A few days ago, my 13-year-old started a load of laundry and the knob of our ancient washing machine came off in her hand in three pieces. Given the age of this washer (It came with the house when we bought it 17 years ago, so no one even knows how old it is. . .) I immediately started leafing through ads for a new one. After all, I'd been wanting one of those more efficient front-loading ones anyhow. . . .
But money's tight in my household these days, as I'm sure it is in yours, and every caregiver's. So on a whim, I pulled out the yellow pages (yes, the good old yellow pages!) checked under appliance repair, and started calling around. Turned out my town has an old-fashioned family run appliance store that was happy to research and order the part for me. Just $17 dollars later, my washer's back up and running.
I was inspired in my newfound thrift by Little Heathens, Mildred Kalish's memoir about growing up on an Iowa farm during the great depression. In addition to amusing tales and stirring anecdotes, Kalish offers up a wealth of tips about how a very poor family "made do" during years when there was little -- or no -- cash coming in. Her salty, practical wisdom reminded me of the do-it-yourself attitude my own mother brought to household tasks, influenced by her upbringing during the tough times of World War II. And it appears to me the times are ripe for us to revisit -- and revive -- some of the practices that allowed families to flourish even when paychecks were small, or even nonexistent.
- Repair, Don't Replace. Not only household appliances can be given new life -- so can furniture, tools, technology. Put a new belt in an old vacuum cleaner, refinish a table with some sandpaper and oil, upgrade your laptop with new software and memory; the list goes on.
- Cut Grocery Bills in Half by Cutting out Cleaning Products. Kalish makes the clever point that during her childhood it was quite possible to have a clean house without the plethora of cleaning products that occupy an entire aisle in most stores today. Vinegar mixed with warm water does a great job cleaning floors, furniture, and countertops. Baking soda mixed with water cleans silver and glassware. Salt makes a great scour for pots. Leah Ingram's blog, Suddenly Frugal, has more great cleaning ideas, including a recipe for homemade laundry detergent. Now, you may not be able to do without your Ajax or dish soap, but turn your eyes away from all those grease-cutters and fancy dusters, and your budget -- and the environment -- will thank you.
- Refurbish Your Closet Without Hitting the Stores. I may never be the whiz with a Singer that my mom was, but even I can darn a pair of socks or sew a bra strap back on. But with my mom's "Waste Not, Want Not," admonishments ringing in my ears, I decided to take it a step further and give a second look to items in the giveaway bag. A pair of jeans that shrunk up in the wash? My 16-year-old's new favorite pair of cutoffs. A trashed pair of boots? Gorgeous dyed black to hide the scuffs. A dowdy pencil skirt? Hemmed up three inches it'll make the perfect spring mini. Other cash-strapped friends of mine have taken this idea even further and organized fun clothing swaps.
- Skip the Drug Store and Make Your Own. For a month, try this experiment: Instead of your usual face products, try an oatmeal mask for anti-aging, beaten egg for acne, tomatoes for softening and whitening skin. For cuts, try peroxide, honey, or both; for rashes or swellings, soak in Epsom salts. Doctors don't give out antibiotics lightly anymore and they don't work for viruses anyway, so save the copay costs if all you've got is a cold or flu. Instead, drink tea and juice, eat lots of onions and garlic (natural antibiotics), rub your chest with mentholatum, breathe steam, and sleep.
- Cut Energy Bills by Hanging Wash and Closing Vents. I recently stopped in to visit a friend, whose 80-year-old mother just moved in with her. In a corner of the dining room were three large drying racks festooned with clothes. "My mom couldn't believe we were drying whole loads," my friend laughed. "We started hang drying everything but sheets and towels, and not only did our gas bill go down, but our clothes aren't fading as fast either." Kalish makes the additional point that in the winter, depression-era households heated only the main rooms of the house, closing off other rooms to keep the heat in. When it was bedtime, everyone ran to bed and jumped under the quilts. Try it; my family's discovered that having everyone together in the evenings is actually a lot of fun.