When you can’t afford to be frugal, or unexamined assumptions conservatives have about frugal tips

Frugality and being a good steward of the household income are not impossible goals.  However, what “frugal tips” are available to housewives these days rely on a bevy of unexamined assumptions that don’t apply to an average SAHM these days.

It is possible to make your own curtains, to store meat in small portions, to bake your own bread, to make your own household cleaning products and to keep a price book, to name some fairly typical tips one will run across on the old intertubes with a quick google.  But frugality of these types is generally not compatible with the current domestic setups of most American housewives.  They have no spare capital for a deep freezer, or to buy meat in bulk quantities to take advantage of sales or direct-purchase opportunities.  They don’t have domestic help even on an occasional basis, so whatever they do has to be compatible with kids underfoot.  And of course kids aren’t young forever, but how can good habits be established when it’s full-tilt survival mode when they are young?  Teaching little kids to be useful or even to consider other people and obey adult rules about where and when to talk/run/etc. takes focused effort and isn’t readily done with a casual phrase here and there.  That can be the way of it only after the habitual behaviors are in place.

Thus you have a pretty major obstacle to frugality early on, even if you are “saving money on daycare”.  The other obstacle is pregnancy.  A lot of frugal tips involve large amounts of ongoing physical labor that is difficult to manage during pregnancies.  If you haven’t spent your years growing up doing that kind of labor, you are unprepared for the extent of it later in life.  You’re also out of luck if pregnancy is hard on your body.  And some women never get back to pre-pregnancy fitness/endurance levels whether it’s one kid or seven.

I come back a lot to the physical stuff because there’s a parallel unexamined assumption among conservatives (not just the male ones) that modern technology means no real physical labor is necessary for a housewife to expend.  Pregnancy is always easy and quick to recover from, barely a speed bump, nursing is also no big, not even requiring extra food or effort (except of course many women switch to formula with “many” kids precisely because they can hand a bottle off and let the older kids feed baby so they can get stuff done).  And even if all that stuff is a little bit difficult, KIDS R FREE.  There’s a weird fixation on the infant and toddler years as being super-cheap by default among conservatives and this is used to extrapolate that children are extremely cheap to raise to 18-21 years because somehow breastmilk production costs nothing (not even calories, it’s like magic) and you can just rely on an infinite supply of thrift stores with appropriate clothing and insert all the rest of the stuff you hear from conservatives about how totally cheap it is to raise infants/toddlers, so therefore have eight.  I guess they’re supposed to drink breastmilk and wear cloth diapers until they marry at 18 somehow?  It’s a quirk I never really noticed until a recent clickbait article about tradeoffs appeared on some home decor site and conservatives tore into the writer of the article for being selfish and stupid, didn’t she understand kids aren’t expensive because BREASTFEEDING and CLOTH DIAPERS?

So, let’s recap some of the unexamined assumptions conservatives dump on housewives regarding frugality:

  • Assumption of “traditional” domestic economy skills that actually date from the middle of the 20th century and rely on a pretty vast industrial infrastructure (including exploited labor by women and children in foreign lands) to be feasible as “economizing” at all.
  • Minimizing the physical risks and stresses of childbearing and nursing, as well as the physical labor that is still necessary to run an “economized” household.
  • Fixation on the early years as being so cheap that there are no real expenses added by having more and more children
  • Parallel dismissal of the importance of child spacing or domestic support in being able to have children doing chores effectively at young ages.
  • Dismissal of chaotic early years as a major obstacle to domestic tranquility and structure, while assuming that such structure is there (no need for a sitter while homeschooling, for example, because infants and toddlers and young kids will just play quietly while you instruct older children…somehow, or alternatively that older children will not resent the play of younger children who aren’t ready for academics partying in front of them because no big kid ever envied a little kid getting to play instead of write an essay or do math problems).  Without structure, frugality is hard to consistently achieve.
  • Assumption that the average housewife was educated in domestic skills by her mother, and if she was not, that she can instantly acquire these skills in a few days’ time via youtube and blogs and immediately apply them effectively.

Feel free to toss more into the comments.  The core issue with having all these assumptions is that without them, it’s nearly impossible to economize systematically.  And that means rebuying things, buying more expensive versions of whatever because you don’t have the skills or time to go with cheaper approaches, and stress spending.  But to help people who need to be more frugal, the assumptions have to be dropped and conservatives have to start looking at the actual conditions people are living under, not the idealized conditions a small percentage of conservatives manage to live under.  Here’s hoping!

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16 thoughts on “When you can’t afford to be frugal, or unexamined assumptions conservatives have about frugal tips”

  1. Oh, amen to this post! I really dislike so many frugal tips because they are detached from the reality of life. One financial tip that just makes me cringe is how much money you can save in a year if you just give up your daily Starbucks latte. Say what?? Do I look like I spend five bucks a day on what is not even good coffee??

    One tip that I do really like is to cut down on the busyness of our lives. Simplify everything. Sometimes it seems counter intuitive to only work 20 hours a week, but if that frees you up to have more time to make your own repairs, to cook and shop at home, then you have actually saved money. This works for my husband too, rather then trying to work 50 hours a week, cut that back and spend more time at home doing the things he would often have to pay someone else to do. Also, income taxes go down, you spend less on gas, etc, etc, so what seems like a pay cut can actually put more money in your own hands.

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  2. I’m obviously not sure about the costs with children as I don’t have any yet. But I do find that a lot of money-saving advice assumes that you already have the skills and setup for it. For example, a small chest freezer only costs around £200. But you need to save that £200 and make space for it first. Meal preparation from absolute scratch, cleaning, budget shopping, full time home management and budgeting can be done when working 45+ hours a week, I should know, I’m doing it right now. But you need to ease each thing into your timetable, not just leap in and try doing everything at once.

    The incompleteness of most homemaking and budgeting advice is what’s driving me to write several books on the matter. “Beginner homemaker” is done, finally finishing my “on a budget” exhaustive money-saving book, after that onto paid homemaking and staying fit and healthy whilst homemaking, and I’ve got a “baby budget” book started that will be completed as we conceive and raise the baby. And the more I do and subsequently write about, the more I realize how incomplete most advice on this matter is. For example: bulk buying. NEVER does anyone mention that you need to set aside several hours for unpacking and proper storage, or your bulk produce will go off. NEVER do you hear how to deal with potatoes and seeds that are sprouting. Most advice assumes you buy in bulk and it just magically sorts itself out until you need another order.

    On the plus side, I think I’m on my way to becoming a modern day Mrs Beeton. :p

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    1. Slaviswife,

      You can do all that while working 45 hours a week because you dont’t have to do it while managing 3 kids under the age of 5. Trust me, it ain’t the same. And that’s even if you aren’t working any other hours to generate income.

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      1. I know my situation is very different and I appreciate that kids would make it impossible to sustain in its current form. But many people also think my current situation is impossible because when they try and copy it, they throw themselves into it and make a mess.

        What I’m saying is, I think some of the conservatives offering advice like this essay mentions might actually be doing what they talk about. But they don’t really understand how their situation came together to allow it. You need to see the path that led to that situation, not what the end destination is. After all, owning Apple is an end destination, but nobody would tell you “just start a company with worldwide following and multibillion profits”, would they? 😉

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  3. The assumption that garage sales and thrift stores and Craigslist are excellent sources of cheap clothing for growing children–and they are, I could probably outfit any child most excellently for under $10 at a good neighborhood garage sale. But try dragging a cadre of young children/toddlers to the number of garage sales necessary to accomplish this, or to multiple thrift stores, or to multiple Craigslist meet-ups. I read one large family blog that boasted of an extremely low wardrobe price for her many children. And I believe I could wardrobe a large number of children for that price–if I had all day and someone else to watch all the children. To be honest I have no idea how she is able to do that–does she have a babysitter? Is she actually capable of dragging 5+ young children to a neighborhood garage sale? Is she making it up?

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    1. “To be honest I have no idea how she is able to do that–does she have a babysitter? Is she actually capable of dragging 5+ young children to a neighborhood garage sale? Is she making it up?”

      Right, and then time to blog about it all with 5 young kids, probably perfectly edited too (assuming a blog since you said “read”). Things that make you go “hmmmmm…..”

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  4. I’ve noticed that there is hostility towards what it takes to actually manage a household with several small children effectively. Laundry service, cleaning service, baby sitter that comes in long enough to let you get things done without having to stop every 3 minutes for child care. Some think that a clean, well organized well run household with several small children can happen on a shoe string budget with no help and without the mother being completely worn out.

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  5. Gardening is often recommended as a frugal endeavor, but I live in Arizona and my yard is mainly pool and concrete and what open ground there is may as well be concrete. I can grow enough tomatoes and peppers in containers to make a few batches of salsa, that’s it. Environmental factors aside, we have nowhere near the acreage necessary to grow enough vegetables to feed a family of six.

    I understand what you are saying regarding pregnancy and childbirth. I had a great amount of fatigue when pregnant. I think I could have slept 20 hours a day at some points. Frugality is unsustainable when you can’t keep your eyes open.

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  6. But they don’t really understand how their situation came together to allow it. You need to see the path that led to that situation, not what the end destination is.

    This is true. And it depends also on your upbringing and homemaking skill set upon marriage. All I had was cleaning, laundry and rudimentary cooking skills which is more than many women have when they marry nowadays. There is also how fast you start having children (we had 3 inside the first two years because multiples). It could take decades to reach the level of proficiency that many of these people advocate, as I am just now beginning to be able to tackle some of it after 19 years as a full time homemaker.

    And again, it presupposes a budget that can handle the measures along with the space to do a lot of it. Oh, and good soil, LOL.

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  7. This article is spot on. It is true that outfitting a baby or toddler in thrift store clothes and hand me downs is very easy. People would literally give us bags of clothes. I don’t think I bought my daughter a new pair of shoes until she was 5. However, as children grow older thrift store finds tend to be more worn out, quality garments are few and far between, and require many hours of hunting. The hand me down gravy train stopped by the time my daughter was 4. I also find that by cooking from scratch and using healthy ingredients, I actually spend more than if I had just bought some processed garbage. (Part of this may be that I live in Canada, where basic foodstuffs are expensive). Industrial style food is quite subsidized in north America. Thirdly, I had a wonderful mother but I did not learn from her some of the things I would love to know how to do, like sew. Where I live, I can’t seem to find someone to teach me and progress is slow teaching myself. Paying for a class is not an option. I for one would appreciate more practical frugal advice.

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  8. I am reminded of the rotisserie chickens many groceries story carry. Often, like at Walmart, they can be cheaper than a raw chicken, but wait if you don’t cook it from scratch…are you not a real homemaker? Nevermind its the practical solution. Cheaper and time saved. I feel like with a lot of conservatives or with certain parts of the blogs I travel in, there is heavy emphasis on doing something for the sake of tradition. Tradition says its always better from scratch and women can be easily looked down upon as not properly feeding their family unless its from scratch. What if though by buying that ready made item, you get an hour back of your day to spend with kids?

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    1. We ate a rotisserie chicken from Sam’s club for dinner Saturday. It was 4.98. big enough for all of us to eat, and tasted great. Sometimes you need a short cut and a break from the kitchen.

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    2. I like those rotisserie chickens. And just like with any other chicken, you can toss the bones in a pot and boil up some stock.

      of course then, you either have to use it right away, or have enough space to freeze it, or time and material to can it…

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      1. This is true about the bones. If your freezer is too full for stock or you’re not ready to use it right away, the bones can be frozen in a freezer bag until you want to make a pot of soup. They don’t take up as much room as stock.

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  9. Y’know, I’d say got some pretty solid “traditional” domestic skills from my mom and grandma, all things considered, but they didn’t translate into a well-run household. Lot of that is much less cooking/sewing/gardening/deep cleaning and more… inventory management/clerical work, basically. Not as romantic or countercultural or whatever, but there you go.

    When do we decide to finally throw away that tangled mess of mismatched Tupperware, how do we decide whether to hang onto clothes for another season vs donate, how DO we organize this pile of toys or books, how do we manage all these scary piles of papers and gadget cords and “stuff we plan to get around to fixing”?! Are these random old souvenirs and “heirlooms” really worth the dust they collect and the space they take up? How long do we have to keep the tax paperwork?

    That stuff is really more important to running a halfway decent household than hobby stuff like sewing curtains or whatever. (Which is a bummer ’cause I love sewing.) But you know, you start falling behind on the “piles,” and saving 20 cents a pound on chicken doesn’t make up for the fact that your gas bill has a hundred dollar late fee since you overlooked it in a pile, and you hardly have a clear space to cook or serve that discounted bird anyway. 😀

    Anyway, my five cents, lol. (When I got married I could knit socks by hand and make chicken soup from scratch, but give me five years worth of tax paperwork mixed with old bills, random receipts, warranties, assorted email printouts and mortgage documents? *shoves into nearest available box and backs away in bewilderment* Yeah, I was TOTALLY ready to have a baby, lol)

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