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This week my blog includes a story about my family. I have had an ahha moment this week, and the only way to illustrate it is to tell this story.

This past Fall, I started travelling down a road that many others have already travelled, but I had never done so before. This is the road of the “one income household”.

Last spring, my husband John came to the decision that he needed to make a substantial career change. He had been working hard over the past few years and had put aside money to be able to do this. He is a guy with a natural entrepreneurial spirit and it was clear that despite the financial rewards working in a huge multinational conglomerate was not exciting to him. He believed that making a change was now or never proposition and I could tell the routine was eating at him. He was able to come to mutually agreeable terms with his employer and left at the end of September.

Although it has been said that I am an entrepreneur, I am more of an opportunity finder than an entrepreneur. I am not enough of a risk taker. While I am a huge fan and supporter of my husband, the element of risk in his grand plan has been nerve racking for me to say the least. Add the abrupt change in the economy following September and you have to imagine my state of mind this Fall.

Faced with an uncertain level of income for the next few years, we did a lot of restructuring and rethinking of how we do things. Our foray into environmental efficiency and greener practices that I’ve written about is as much about saving the planet as it is about saving money. I feel we are well on our way to being able to manage this feasibly.

In our DINK days, it wasn’t unusual to go out to dinner at least twice a week and mostly to nice restaurants. We went on at least two vacations a year. We renovated more than 50% of the house. We always had at least one car that was less than two years old. We’ve been married for just under twenty years and I can’t remember a time when we said, “We can’t afford to do that”. Often the decision to go forward was more about timing than anything else.

There are some ways to justify this behaviour. After all, especially in the early days, both of us were workaholics and so when we had time off we spent it well, and we needed to do things during the week that made life more convenient. There just wasn’t time to cook or to pick the car up from the shop.

Until now.

I didn’t grow up in a well-to-do family. We had more than some, less than others. Let me describe what I mean by this. Both of my parents worked full-time. I lived on one of the best streets in a cute little old Victorian-era house in a picturesque but middle class suburb of Chicago. For a good part of my childhood, I shared a bedroom with my oldest sister. Until I was 12 there was only one bathroom. In the summertime I often slept on a lawn chair in the screened-in porch because it was cooler (houses built in the 1800s back then were not retro-fitted for air conditioning). That’s just the way it was. But, I don’t ever remember feeling poor or not being able to get something because we couldn’t afford it. What I will say though is desires for things came with a pragmatic dose of “Do you really need that”?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that pragmatism and frugality that permeated my childhood. The frugality in our home growing up stemmed from the fact that both of my parents were born and raised during the depression. For them, the delineation between needs and wants was crystal clear. My maternal grandparents barely survived the depression with our family farm intact (which had been in the family for several generations). They conserved everything. They left only one light on at a time. They bought clothes at the rummage sales or they wore hand-me-downs. They canned. They hung their laundry out to dry. They never threw away nuts or bolts or clips or anything that might possibly be re-used. They shopped during sales, even long after they were financially secure again. They bought things with Green Stamps. Cars were maintained. They ran a tight, spit-shine ship. They put some money in the mattress and some money in the bank (which my grandfather was one of three owners so they felt it was safe). Sure, over the years as their confidence grew there were a few luxuries. For example, they always bought nice cars, but they kept them for 10 years or more. They were GRATEFUL and excited about new things and seeing the next generation become successful. They were proud of America and proud of their place in the community. They died with money in the bank and set an example for future generations about fortitude.

I realize now how much my mother replicated what she learned as a child and applied to our home growing up. Sure it was the 1970s and things were more modern but the frugality remained. We ate more beef than anything else because it came directly from the farm. We ate canned foods from Grandma in the winter (which were delicious and none of us have ever been able to replicate). Orange juice was served in orange juice-sized glasses. Laundry was done when there was a full load. She LOVED garage sales. She could find a second purpose for just about anything! The TV, microwave, VCR, stereo and answering machine were all purchased on sale during a BIG SALE. For my sixteenth birthday, I got Grandpa’s 1976 battleship grey Oldsmobile Delta ’88. My first computer was purchased with a “Corn Check”. And, I never felt we were of less status because that is how our household ran. In fact, I’m pretty sure this story would be similar to just about everyone else I grew up with.

To be honest, I remember these times with such positive emotion that I am a bit sadden at how far away my life turned from what I came to know as a child. To make a grand over-generalization, I believe we’ve stopped feeling good about the small luxuries and gains. For me, it took John’s restructuring to make me realize the need to rethink our lives. The cost of convenience is uncontrolled consumerism and ecological disaster. I’m proud to admit that lately I’m clipping coupons, planning meals with leftovers in mind, canning, categorizing the contents of my freezer, turning out the unnecessary lights, darning my socks, growing seedlings for spring garden planting and avoiding extra driving. Funny enough, despite the fact that I’m still very busy at work, I’m enjoying the diversion of learning how to do these things again.

I haven’t read the Popcorn Report lately so I’m not sure what the experts are indeed predicting in terms of changes to cultural behavior in the next five years, but I in my gut I feel we are heading for another major shift, which in this case is right back to the lessons of our ancestors. My grandparents were frugal because they absolutely had to be, at one point in time. They however never stopped being frugal. It became a way of life. These were the same people who lived in the roaring twenties with beautiful clothes and a nice car and probably had more than the average family and then suddenly had almost nothing. Years later, they were still frugal and very discrete about money or showing any sort of flash. It was like this huge lesson you just had to learn. My parents were frugal because they thought that was how you were supposed to behave. They never really completely broke out of this. I have been less frugal because up to this point I’ve never experienced the fear or requirement to be frugal. Again, until now.

My point is that forced frugality is a life changing event, and I wonder out loud if this potentially deep recession will cause many many people who are not frugal by nature to very much batten down the hatches for awhile and if it will take several generations to get back to the psyche of 2006, if at all.

I don’t think this is something we should fear. Our ancestors recovered and then some. And wiser, I might add. The employment opportunities in this type of culture will be different but they aren’t necessarily any more or any less rewarding.

In these tough economic times, I hope you find new ways to cope with the challenges, to find joy in the small wins, and most important to find your footings for a great future.

Did this blog strike a chord? I’d love to hear from you.

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