Frugality Isn’t Poverty

Recently, my wife and I have kicked around the idea of installing clotheslines in our backyard. We both grew up in the country and we both had clotheslines in our backyards which our family used for drying clothes in the spring, summer, and fall.

A quick cost analysis

An average dryer load costs about 30 to 40 cents to dry, so we’ll give it an average of $0.35 a load. Given the installation cost of the clothesline we investigated (about $30, all told), we could recoup the cost of drying the clothes with about 89 loads and after that, it’s gravy. Not only that, air/wind drying in the fresh Iowa country air makes your clothes smell fantastic, something that’s not recaptured with anything one can do in a dryer. So, it’s definitely a frugal move – and not only that, it’s an environmentally friendly move over the long haul. Using a clothesline for twenty years is far more environmentally friendly than daily use of a clothes dryer – just because you don’t see the burning coal as a result of your dryer use doesn’t mean it’s not burning.

But there’s a drawback…

We currently live almost in the country. If you walk out our back door and look straight ahead, you see cornfields. However, if you look to your left and look to your right, you see other houses. We live on the very edge of a smaller town. As a result, there is some social pressure and limitations on what you can put in your yard. There’s a standard look and feel to things – a reasonably well-kept lawn, trees in the backyard, and things like that. A clothesline does not violate any sort of use policies, but it definitely would stick out like a very sore thumb in all of this.

“I don’t care about what other people think”

This philosophy tells us that we should just go ahead and install the clothesline and happily hang our clothes on it. Frankly, if we lived out in the country a bit more, we’d already have the clothesline and be hanging most of our clothes from them, even if we had some neighbors that were fairly close.

Respecting our neighbors

There is also a need to respect our neighbors. Clotheslines are one of those items that are often associated with poverty and the appearance of such items gives an impression of poverty in our neighborhood. It’s similar to the reasons you don’t see people with their cars on blocks in the backyard while people are working on them – it’s simply not considered appropriate yard decoration in an area where you have close neighbors.

Furthermore, it’s not exactly something that will help everyone’s property values (including our own). People visiting homes will use a general impression of the neighborhood as a tool in determining property prices, and if some homes are giving off signs of low prosperity – whether justified or not – it will adversely affect property prices in the area. Not exactly something that would foster a good relationship with the neighbors.

Thus, for the time being, we won’t be installing clotheslines in our back yard. The negatives here from a social perspective and a property value perspective are much higher than the positives from a money-saving perspective. A clothesline is something that will have to wait for us.

Still, there’s a bigger issue at work here.

I find it very interesting that the financially sensible choice, the frugal choice, is the one that’s seen as socially unacceptable today. Why did this change? During World War II, it was considered highly patriotic and a very socially good thing to use clotheslines, grow your own vegetables, wear clothes until they fell apart, and so on.

My only conclusion is that the perspective changed because of marketing. In each case, things that went from being viewed as patriotic and a social “good” to being signs of poverty and a social “bad” are all tied to buying more stuff. I reject that sentiment and try to practice frugality in that old-fashioned sense. We have a garden and we wear our clothes until they’re falling apart (and then use them as rags). The only thing keeping us from the clothesline is the idea of a net value loss.

Go back and read about the things people did for the social good on the homefront in World War II. You’ll be shocked how many of them were great frugal tactics and were also considered to be great things to do from a social perspective. Since then, the only thing that’s changed is the social perspective – the association of such tactics with low socioeconomic status because of marketing. Whenever you think a frugal tactic is beneath you, remember this: your prejudice is often largely tied to marketing.

Being frugal does not equate to being poor. It just equates with enough intelligence that you realize you don’t have to buy your way out of every problem.