Updated on 12.19.06

When Is Frugal Living Taken Too Far?

Trent Hamm

MSNBC ran a story yesterday on a group of friends in San Francisco that is living entirely on second-hand material (except for food and very basic toiletries). The article is an interesting piece, as it seems to positively profile the group while adding in a few backhanded compliments.

These 10 friends vowed last year not to purchase a single new thing in 2006 — except food, the bare necessities for health and safety (toilet paper, brake fluid) and, thankfully, underwear, and maybe socks (they’re still debating whether new socks are okay).

This is a great goal to strive for. Not only does it save money, it reduces individual impact on the environment. As I read, I’m interested to see how it works, but the further I get into the article, the further their story goes from being a real experiment in frugality.

“I go on talk radio shows, and I’m amazed by the anger of some people, the Chamber of Commerce president who calls up and says, ‘You’re trying to ruin the economy,’ ” Lasn says. “I sympathize. I know you have to pay your rent, but try to take the larger view. We consume three times more than we did right after World War II. These things are connected.”

If this person is actually committed to living such a frugal and communal lifestyle, why is this person appearing on talk radio, which is largely the bastion of conservative America? The only reason I can think of is that this person simply wants to stir up passions.

This is a perfect example of why I rarely listen to talk radio. A person with a highly left wing economic perspective unsurprisingly stirs up the passions of someone with a right wing economic perspective. Of course the two sides are going to have different perspectives, so why is it newsworthy when conservatives and liberals fight on the radio?

One member recalls asking permission to purchase a new toilet brush, contending that it was a health issue. Overruled.

Although I admire the principles of the project, disallowing the purchase of basic home cleaning equipment based on abstract principles is simply disgusting. From this, I can only conclude that they are cleaning their toilet with an ancient brush – one that is likely leaving their toilet in a disturbing state. Once your frugality has reached the point that it begins to interfere with basic cleanliness, you have a problem.

Toys? The easiest. Perry and his partner, Rob Picciotto, a high school language teacher, have two adopted children. “I take Ben to Target sometimes and we’ll play with the toys and then leave,” Picciotto says. The kid seems happy.

Again, there are some roads that just shouldn’t be taken. They’re choosing to take their child into a store, have that child play with the toys in the store, and then leave without any intention of buying them. That’s wear and tear on the toys in the store (along with potential damage). Who pays for this? They could make up for it by purchasing an item on occasion, but instead they are teaching their child that you can use items without ever paying for them. Over the long run, that’s a form of thievery.

At the potluck supper, the family dog is playing with a toy, which looks like a ball of yarn. Technically, it is new, and thus a Compact breaker. “But if she eats it,” points out Rachel Kesel, a professional dog walker, “then it’s food.”

At this point, I chucked out the article. This could have been an interesting experiment in frugality, but it failed because of nonsensical decisions and politics. In no way is a dog toy food, and excusing it like this is no different than excusing pretty much anything else you might want. If you’re going to make grandiose claims about your project, you shouldn’t undermine them to reporters in such a blatant fashion.

I respect the tenets of the project, but this version of it is overtly political and bends and twists the concept at will, thus undermining the whole thing. Instead, I’d like to see a family of four implement this in their daily lives without the need to head to talk radio to defend their cause and realizing that a toilet brush is more important to day-to-day health than a dog toy.

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  1. David says:

    Ahhhh you beat me to it. I was prepping a post on this just now when your post came up in my reader. God job though, you said mainly what I was going to say, its a noble thing to try to do, but these people seem to take it a little too far. Thanks for the post. I think I might link to your post now!

  2. Richard says:

    I think you need to re-read the part about the talk show. The participants in the compact did talk about appearing on a talkshow, Kalle Lasn of Adbusters did. I didn’t read anything that led me to believe she was a member of the compact.

    I also don’t see why buying a new toilet brush should be considered always necessary. Without knowing the specifics of the vote I find it hard to judge. Was the brush actually so unsanitary that it couldn’t be sanitized with household cleaners? Was it falling apart? Or did someone just have a weakness of wanting to not clean it.

    As for the toys so what? Target isn’t going to resell those demo toys as new. Toys are put out there to be evaluated, if the kid gets what he needs in that amount of time then why should a toy be purchased? Who says they aren’t buying their underwear and other basic health items from Target?

    You seem awfully judgmental towards a group of people who are willing to experiment with what their actual needs in life are and share the experience with others.

  3. Patrick says:

    Your right about the toys (both child and dog types) but I am almost 180 degrees apart from your POV in the rest of this post.

    The group’s philosophy of reuse needs to be on conservative radio. Why preach to the choir on KPFA. Sure this cause discourse and drama but its needed. This type of dialog is “trial by fire”; after the smoke clears listeners can think about the ideas that survived in the crucible.

    Also the idea of using used toilet brushes sounds bad but don’t underestimate the power of bleach to kill almost everything.

  4. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    My concern here is that partisan talk radio is a place for people to reinforce their own beliefs and deride the beliefs of others. Listen to Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken and ask yourself where the fair and even discourse is. If the people really wanted to make an impact, they would go on National Public Radio, a reasonably nonpartisan audience that’s open to new ideas.

  5. bunkerbuster says:

    Trent, you seem to have a chip on your shoulder about politics.

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    As long as politics stays as partisan as it currently is, I will have a chip on my shoulder about politics. That’s why I usually try to avoid politics on The Simple Dollar.

  7. Amy says:

    FYI the link to the original article is no longer working, but I found a similar story at the Washington Post:


    and it reminds me a bit of the gal who did the Brown Dress project, her new project is “The Recycling project” http://www.littlebrowndress.com/recycling%20journal.htm

  8. Amy says:

    Ok, having read the full Washington Post article, I have to say, the Compact is… weird. Un-even. Unfocused. An odd challenge for the sake of a challenge, moreso than a political statement. I mean,

    “One Compactor points out that the group’s members are not really denying themselves much. Boyd says that, for example, by buying less new, ‘I drink way better wine now.’ Also allowed: services. So they could buy a massage if they wanted to. They can go to movies, theater, concerts, museums, bars, music clubs and restaurants. They can fly, drive (and buy gas), stay in hotels.”

    My first thought is “Eew, how do you buy used wine?” and the second is “Wait, they’re buying wine out of private cellars, right? That’s not used, that’s snobby.” At least, it seems that way to me. And the third thought is that they’re not really consuming less (re: the WW2 comment), they’re just consuming differently.

    I appreciate the challenge of spending less, of looking for pre-owned options, or waiting a while to see if I REALLY need or want the item. Taking that challenge and applying it solely to goods, but not service, and solely to new goods, not all goods, seems incredibly limited.

    Maybe some people “just need to start somewhere” but I appreciate a more wholesale approach.

  9. Suzanne says:

    As a (non-original, but for seven months now) member of The Compact, I wanted to add my point of view here. What the original post and most responses seem to miss is that this group is not about frugality as I understand it. The principle idea behind not buying new products is to reduce the impact we have on the earth by stepping out of overconcumption and overuse of resources. The group doesn’t take itself too seriously (apart from the purchasing thing), and I think you shouldn’t take some of their comments so seriously. I think the dog comment, for example, was intended to be a joke. And food (and drink) purchases are exempt from the compact (though people are encouraged to buy foods that are organic and local), so I don’t think the wine was bought used. There is, in general, a focus on supporting local businesses and artisans–thus people are allowed if not encouraged to patronize restaurants and other services as a way of strenghtening their community. And members are allowed to buy stuff used. True, there is no prohibition on driving, buying gas, etc., but most compact members were already environmentally conscious, and not buying new is a step on top of the usual recycling, driving less, composting, etc. So, again, perhaps some of the complaints here are misunderstanding the goals of compacting. You don’t have to agree with those goals–just understand that this is not a poor attempt to avoid spending money.

  10. MousePotato says:

    Letting their kids play in a store is no different than what the poor generally do at thrift shops. They come in, plop their kids in the toy aisle and go shopping. The kids destroy whatever is packaged and the parents don’t buy them toys.

  11. TJ says:

    I must have read a different article about these folks, because it had a very different slant, the one mentioned by Suzanne. (It also didn’t have any of the examples you quoted!) This wasn’t about being frugal, this was about reducing your environmental impact by “reusing” items – reducing consumption and production. It’s not just “what’s the cheapest way to get X?” but “do I really need X? If so, does X need to be brand new?”

    “Talk radio” – our NPR station carries ‘talk’ shows all day, so don’t assume talk radio means conservative! (or maybe the newspaper article mentioned specific shows?)

    The Targets in my area doesn’t have any toys open to play with (although you can read, peer at, or caress the boxes all you wish), but all of the high-end toy stores do. They expect kids to play with them, it’s one of their best sales techniques!

  12. rodgerlvu says:

    Trent, you seem to have a chip on your shoulder about politics.

  13. harm says:

    Trent MENTIONS politics occasionally on TSD, but
    I never notice him harping on it. Too many readers
    jump on him when he mentions a slightly liberal
    view on an issue, as though they are offended by
    the existence of such views. I have no problems
    reading a blog by someone with different views than
    myself, and indeed welcome such views….
    go Trent!

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