Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without

My shower is broken. The water comes out just fine, and it doesn’t leak. But the temperature control is busted, so it only comes out at one temperature: as hot as it gets.

Here’s the embarrassing part: It’s been like this for a year.

Frugal or Lazy?

When the temperature thingy broke (and here you see that household plumbing is not my strong suit — a year after this thingy broke, I still don’t know what it’s called), I made some small adjustments. I went downstairs right away and lowered the temperature on the water heater so that the water coming out would be hot but not scalding. That means no super-hot water anywhere in the house, but since we have small children I was keeping it on the low side anyway.

I let my husband know what had happened, and he declared that he would fix it himself. Household plumbing kind of is his strong suit; he fixed a similar problem with the shower at our old house. It’s kind of a difficult job, though, so I offered to have a plumber come in just to spare him the hassle. No, he insisted, he was up for doing it. Just not right away.

Then the task kind of got lost in his chore cloud. We grit our teeth and take hot showers. Every night when the kids take their bath, they make a game of dumping a few buckets of cold water into the tub to get it to the right temperature.

For months I’ve been embarrassed by this state of affairs. What kind of real grown-up lets a basic household repair go for a year? Clearly, my husband and I are being irresponsible ignoring the broken thingy.

Then yesterday morning, while taking a shower, I thought, “Maybe we’re not being lazy and irresponsible. Maybe we’re being frugal.” After all, the broken thingy isn’t getting any worse. It’s not leaking into the walls or damaging the house. It just makes showering extra hot. So far, we’ve done a fine job of making it do, leaving us free to put our money and time into other things.

Frugality is About Choices

Now, I’m not suggesting that frugality is about ignoring regular home maintenance. One of these days, we’ll fix the shower. (And probably soon now that I’ve confessed to the world that it’s busted.)

What I am suggesting is that frugality is about making choices. Every frugal person focuses on what’s important to them, and cuts away the excess to do so. In this case, experience shows that being able to adjust the water temperature in our shower isn’t very important to my family. We’d rather spend our weekends playing music and gardening than get into this messy, time-consuming repair project. I could hire a plumber to do it, but I’d rather spend the money on yoga classes or a family camping trip. These fun things might seem like trivial luxuries next to the shower repair, but the truth is they add more to my quality of life than being able to adjust the temperature in my shower.

I suspect that every frugal person makes some odd choices like this one.

J.D.’s note: I think so, too. Our clothes washer has a broken knob, for instance. Over the past five years, we — by which I mean Kris — have used a pair of pliers to select the laundry cycle. When we bought this house, the windows were caulked shut. They stayed that way until we could budget to fix them. And so on.

One of the tricks of frugal living is to recognize that with careful planning and savings, you can have anything you want but you can’t have everything you want. Making a commitment to conscientious, intentional personal money management means making some choices. You need to develop the skill of discerning what best serves your goals, and keeping your spending and attention focused on those things.

Another part of being frugal is being able to pare back your sense of what you need. My former, spendthrift self would have fixed the shower immediately, the next day, even if it meant paying the plumber with a credit card to do it. I’d have seen it as a need. I would also have needed to immediately replace several kitchen gadgets that broke over the winter, and to take my bike to the shop for a spring tune-up.

There’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things. It’s not spendthrift to fix a shower or replace a vegetable steamer. But nowhere is it written that they’re mandatory either. I’ve been getting clean just fine with a broken shower, cooking up a storm without those kitchen gadgets, and safely riding the bike that I maintain myself. Turns out, I don’t really need any of that stuff.

In contrast, I’ve been going to yoga classes three or four times a week. I paid for these with a deeply discounted Groupon, but I’ll probably buy a full-price membership when that runs out. Yoga is expensive. A few years ago I would have considered it an unaffordable luxury to pay for yoga classes. I could just do yoga workout tapes at home. Even a few months ago when I made it a New Year’s resolution to get back into yoga, I was unwilling to spend money on this studio. Now that I’ve tried it, though, I see what a big difference it makes to my quality of life. It seems like a bargain. I’m calmer and happier — more focused. Not only are those good things in themselves, but they support my career. I’m doing more and better writing because I’m so healthy. That translates to more money. I could argue that the yoga classes pay for themselves.

For me, this gets at the core of frugal living: realigning all my spending to fit with my values. At first glance, the shower seemed like an essential, basic home repair. For me, it turns out, fixing it is really a luxury. I haven’t done it yet because it doesn’t directly support any of my financial or personal goals. I won’t be a better writer after it’s fixed, nor will I be closer to living debt-free. As long as we can make it do, getting it fixed is really an extra. One we haven’t decided to indulge in yet.

How to Make Frugal Choices

The mechanics of conscious spending are pretty simple. Before you buy anything, ask yourself some simple questions:

  • Do I have the money to cover this expense, or would I be going into debt for it?
  • Does this expense forward my financial goals?
  • Can I get this need or desire met without spending money on it? Could I spend less money?
  • Does this money need to be spent now, or can it wait thirty days?

These questions can be very useful for curbing impulse buys and keeping you focused on financial goals. I’m finding they can also help with less obvious resource sinks.

In getting ready to plant my garden, for example, I found that several of my large pots had broken during the winter. My first thought was that I needed to replace them, right now. On second thought, I was able to dig up a bunch of old plastic storage bins that will serve perfectly well as replacement containers for my garden. They’re not as pretty as new flower pots, but they were already here. Now I’ve got less clutter, more money, and a garden that’s ready to plant.

The core motto of frugal living is “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”. How you’ll choose to live that motto is up to you. It’s important to question every expense and ask yourself how necessary it really is. Sometimes, the answers will surprise you.

J.D.’s tangential note: You have no idea how excited I am that after all these years, I’m finally able to link to my chore cloud concept. The chore-cloud is well-known among my friends, who find it amusing, but I’ve never found a way to bring it up at GRS. Now my life is complete.
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