Mary: “It’s time for our outing in the park.
Michael: “ I don’t want an outing. I want to tidy up the nursery again. “
Mary: “Enough is as good as a feast. Come along, please.”
Amir and I were watching a video (yes, a video) of Mary Poppins last night. Michael had so much fun tidying the nursery with magic that he wanted to
do it again. To which Mary Poppins, in her transcendental and infinite wisdom, replied, “Enough is as good as a feast.”
Ever cheerful and optimistic, Mary Poppins declares that “Enough is a Feast!” Feasting in itself, however, often leaves you with that empty feeling. Better to just have enough.
(I also noticed that I somehow missed the arrogance and vanity of Mary Poppins' character when I watched it as a child....)
Now why hadn’t that line jumped out at me before? It could be because I haven’t watched Mary Poppins since I was about 12, and decidedly unenlightened, all claims to the contrary aside. But this time the line delighted me. Because with all the scrimping and saving and cutting back we’ve been doing around here, we are finding ourselves satisfied with less and less. Not just satisfied, actually, but increasingly satisfied.
Because I enjoy picking on Starbucks as much as the next person, I’ll start there. Growing up in surrounds of Berkeley, California, we had our pick of atmospheric coffee shops serving proper coffee drinks. Peet’s Coffee, of course, being the precursor to Starbucks. I spent a couple of summers in my college years working at Ortman’s Ice Cream Parlor on Solano Avenue. The venerable, aged and spry Mr. Ortman would be there in the back room every morning before opening, making up the batch of the day and then some. Old timers and local merchants filled the parlor for lunch, sitting on ornate wrought iron chairs around linoleum-topped tables, ordering delectables such as grilled cheese sandwiches and egg salad on rye from the equally old-timer wait staff (with the exception of a couple of whippersnappers like me), most of them finishing off with a scoop of ice cream – butter pecan being a favorite.
Ortman’s seemed like it would be there forever. But within a few years, it was a Starbucks. And in true Starbucks fashion, it was also right across the street from their inspiration and competitor, Peet’s Coffee. This made me mad. Partly because my mom, who is Dutch, was friends with Alfred Peet, who was also Dutch. And because something old-fashioned and good and true was gone. I vowed never to drink Starbuck’s.
I probably liked Simonds in Cairo for the way it reminded me of Ortman's with its old-fashioned decor. Or maybe it was the 50-something barista who would stare at you silently with a poker face until you ordered, making you wonder if you were really welcome there at all, but then deliver the most perfect cappuccino with a little flourish on the foam with a wink as he placed it in front of you.
Simonds Coffeehouse in the upscale Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo now has the claim to living through not one, but two, revolutions in Egypt. Same goes for the Barista, most likely!
But that was the 1990s. And before I left California for Egypt, where there was yet no Starbucks and only one or two slightly decaying European-style coffee shops from the old days where you could get a decent cappuccino in a thick porcelain cup and saucer. I started looking forward to downtime in international airports on my trips to visit family abroad so that I could sneak a forbidden latte – from Starbucks. But I still refused to use their pretentious vernacular for cup sizes, always ordering a “medium” latte, and having the barista confirm my order with a call of “Grawn-dey.”
When Starbucks came to Cairo, I knew the end was near. The next year, I found myself ensconced in Northern Virginia, the home of my sister and her family, where all things were shiny and new. I quickly discovered one of the area’s few independent coffee shops and was reassured by the quirkiness of the clientele there. One guy, an ex-electrician, showed me the scar on his leg from when a few thousand bolts of electricity had shot through him. Shortly thereafter, during therapeutic art classes to heal his brain, he discovered his artist within and left his job to become an industrial artist. He also showed me a picture of an old-fashioned fighter plane that he was commissioned to paint, you know, with snarling teeth and everything, as a lawn ornament for some military establishment. Pretty cool.
The Java Shack is a refreshing piece of authenticity in the middle of Clarendon, the yuppie capital of Northern Virginia. Plus there is an awesome massage therapist upstairs!
So when I got married and started farming, the world of leisurely hours at quirky coffee shops became a thing of the past. That was just not something farmers did. Besides, we were saving up to buy our farm. That’s when the lessons in frugality began. First, it was never going out for coffee, and satisfying myself with brewing up the gourmet supermarket brands at home – $8.00 for 12 ounces – which would last us about a week, brewing just under a pot a day. “That’s like $0.25 per cup!” I reported proudly to my husband, adding that the same money would only buy two cups at Starbucks.
Then we discovered Walmart. And that Walmart had a fair trade blend of gourmet coffee for $5.99 a pound. I was giddy with pride at my ability to save money. My husband, who had been out of work for over a year before we married, gave me a version of a supportive smile which suggested incredulity at my naivety. And after we bought our house and both became full-time farmers, we discovered Maxwell House, in 44-ounce plastic containers for $12.99. That’s like 100 mugs of coffee for the price of 3 Starbucks! And you know what? It’s actually pretty good. I don’t have any cravings for coffeehouse coffees.
But here’s the cool thing. Now, instead of using Starbucks as a barometer for coffee savings, I’ve finally transitioned to rational thinking. It’s not what I can save by buying for less, it’s what I can have by not buying it at all. When I don’t need to have coffee, TV, new clothes, new books, dinners out, gourmet cheeses, groomed hair, fancy phones and luxury linens, then I can have a chance at having peace of mind.
So while Amir and I had a good head start on living a frugal life as new farmers due to a combination of generosity from friends and family – which left us with a down-payment, plenty of furniture, a lawnmower or two, and a bunch of good clothes – and decent-paying office jobs that led to money in the bank, we have come a long way on the path to self-sufficiency that starts with frugality. And here is a list of our favorite frugal actions:
1. Minimize driving. Gas is expensive, as is car maintenance. Make a plan for what you need and find a way to combine errands. Why, I haven’t left the farm since going to the market on Saturday! And today’s Thursday. That’s typical. While you’re at it, stick with your old car. It’s cheaper to insure and cheaper to fix than getting a new one for sure! But don’t worry about fixing every little thing NOW. That exhaust system I was supposed to replace to the tune of $1,000 last year on my 2001 Subaru according to the mechanic is still intact. And it turns out the head gasket wasn’t leaking after all! (Time for a new mechanic, I think.)
2. Do it yourself. My husband and I had virtually no experience with tools of any sort, beyond using a hammer to bang a nail in the wall to hold up a picture. But rather than pay someone, my husband quickly learned to use a drill, skill saw, miter box, level, hammers, screwdrivers and other manly items, while I mastered chicken wire and staple guns, and we’ve built us three very decent chicken coops. And he repaired broken legs on tables, hammered in warped deck boards, and replaced the blades and changed the oil on the riding mower, and reinstalled the baffle on the mowing deck (after I ran over a 6-by-6 hidden in the tall grass, before I was banned from using the mower). Meanwhile, our neighbor is installing a hardwood floor in his home. Amir is eager to help so he can add yet one more DIY skill to his burgeoning repertoire. I’ll stick with home canning and berry winemaking.
3. Keep your thermostat high in the summer. We kept ours at 80 degrees, and believe me, it felt refreshingly cool coming in off the 100+ degree fields! For the winter, we’re planning on closing off rooms, using space heaters, and keeping the thermostat down in the 60s.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for things you need. I have gotten great furniture from Freecycle, as well as books. This weekend, I hope to get a bread machine and some tomato stakes from some kind souls who posted on Freecycle. But more important than receiving from strangers is becoming a part of a giving community. Have a spirit of service and give your time helping out and sharing with others. And if you find yourself needing something, like say, some empty plant containers, an old mower, a chipper-shredder, some accounting advice, it’s likely that someone in your circle of community will be there for you. Accept it with gratitude, the close cousin of grace. And keep giving back.
5. High deductible health insurance. Let’s face it. Health insurance is one big racket, and a messy one at that. If you are lucky enough to be relatively healthy and eat right and stay in shape, then don’t be paranoid and fork out hundreds of dollars every month “just in case.” Put some money aside each month for that high deductible, but pay “the man” his share just in case you shatter many bones from falling out of a tree or some genetic or chemical time bomb goes off in your system. Make sure you get your money’s worth by getting that annual physical check up that the insurers have to pay for out of the money you gave them.
6. Prepaid cell phone service. My husband just downgraded his phone and phone service. He now has a “dumb” phone with prepaid service. We don’t use our phones all that much, even though we don’t have a landline at home. Savings per year: About $500!
7. Bartering. How great is it to trade some produce you have an abundance of for something different your neighbor has an abundance of? Pears for beans! Chickens for heirloom onion sets! Molokhiya (Egyptian greens) for eggs! Tomatoes for homemade wine! Chickens for beef! Squash for blueberries! And my favorite: Chickens for volunteer laborers on processing day.
8. Eat what you grow. And make your own bread. We haven’t paid for a vegetable since April. And we eat plenty of them every day. Fresh from our garden. With plenty left for freezing and canning to get us through winter. Why, we’ve got 18 quarts of pole beans in our pantry, and in our freezer, 6 quarts of molokhiya, 2 quarts of raspberries, 8 quarts of yellow squash, 5 quarts of pureed cantaloupe, 6 quarts of Romano beans, 3 quarts of sweet and hot peppers, and 8 quarts of pureed tomatoes. All from our garden. Not to mention the 55 whole pastured chickens, all manner of livers, hearts and necks. (We hope to sell most of those before too long, though!) We also make our own whole wheat bread, the nice artisan crusty kind that fills and nourishes. The kind that would cost about $3.99 or more in stores, but we make at a total cost of about $0.70.
9. No TV. This is actually of paramount importance. You would not believe the FREEDOM you have when you are freed from the tyranny of TV and those incessant ads and hyped up news stories! We barely realized it was the anniversary of 9/11, or that a hurricane was passing through. Does that make us bad people? We didn’t install our digital converter box on our 12-year-old TV, nor did we spring for cable or satellite or whatever it is. In addition to the monetary savings, we have more time without the temptation of distraction. This means time for cooking good meals, making bread, canning produce abundance, reading books. But it’s not like we’re monks or something. Monk is our latest favorite TV show, though. Because we have Netflix. Yes, for less than $20 a month, we have all the movies and old TV shows we want delivered to our mailbox for our ADVERTISEMENT-FREE viewing pleasure. And so shows that used to take an hour to watch because of annoying ads, which would prompt you to rummage around for an unhealthy snack or ice pick to stab yourself with, now can be enjoyed thoroughly with no nerve-wracking cliff-hangers before ads. And in about 40 minutes. (In our never-ending quest to downsize – to give up everything and follow Jesus is how we try to look at it – Amir has broached the subject of cancelling Netflix in favor of borrowing DVDs from the local library. He’s such a radical, that one! Why I married him.)
10. Eat less. This was going to be a “buy in bulk” tip, but that’s too obvious to be worth a mention here. I was intrigued to see this tip mentioned in another blog, and it was an “aha” moment. Let’s face it, most of us modern Americans overeat. And then punish ourselves by trying to go without for a day or two, or sweating it out at the gym. But now that we are homesteaders, we know the real value of the food we grow and prepare, and we don’t gulp it down mindlessly or needlessly. My husband has made the ultimate sacrifice and even cut down on his serving size of pasta. (We used to go through an entire pound, just the two of us, in one meal. Now we have leftovers!) When the body has high-quality food, it is satisfied more easily with less.
Enough really is as good as a feast. Bon Appetit! (And city dwellers: support your local independent coffeehouse!)