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CHASING THE MUSE: Frugality has its rewards

“The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”

When I was a little girl, my great-grandmother used to collect string. She’d stand at the sink in her kitchen and carefully untie the packages from the butcher or the produce man and lay the strands across the pale yellow tile counter. Bits that wrapped the newspaper were added to the mix. Each strand was tied to the other, and the end attached to the growing white ball that lived in her scissor drawer.

My great-grandfather was a successful builder and they were not poor, but they had lived through the Depression, and were frugal with their money. Even something as simple as string was an object that could be saved.

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I think of these things in the aftermath of the holidays when the streets are laden with spent packaging and papers from gifts, and a voice in my head keeps saying, “too much, too much.”

The specter of an announced $1.2-trillion national debt for 2009 — well, I admit to hardly having words. The fact that this number is 2 1/2 times greater than 2008 seems surreal. I don’t have an appropriate reference for anything that connects dollars with trillions. It is an “oh-gee” number. But I do sense its weight for us as a country, and for each one of us personally.

I’m not crying doom and gloom, however. I’m wrapping my arms around change — the one thing that I know is constant — and envisioning how the world might look somehow weaned from its decades-long spending spree. We have lived with obsolescence as a manufacturing watchword, and now we have a chance to return to a more value-based consumerism.

We have been sold on new — new clothes, new cars, new computers, new phones — whether or not we need them. Marketing works best when it keeps us believing that we have to have the latest and greatest.

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It doesn’t seem to matter that there are not many “things” that will actually make our lives better — richer or fuller — but the media is a powerful force.

I am saddened by reports that 40-some stores have shuttered their doors in Laguna. I can’t name them personally, but for each one that closes, there is a loss of dreams for their proprietor.

It seems most likely, though, that they didn’t sell something that either the locals or the tourists couldn’t live without. Or they had prices that were based on an economic bubble that has recently burst.

In a needs-based economy, those that thrive will be those that provide what is wanted most. Food always comes to my mind.

I am pleased that several of our local eateries — included trendy 5’ — understand our continuing desire to commune with one another over a meal, and have created small-plates at reduced costs. It means they are catering to their constituency and finding solutions that can work for us all.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, or better, maybe I’m becoming old fashioned. I’ve begun to rethink purchases of all things and prioritize.

Just how many pairs of shoes does a girl need?

Mind you, I’m not a shoe collector. I’m just using it as an example.

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I think that in the coming year, most of us will change the way we allocate our resources. Maybe put more into savings. Learn to walk or bike more often to our destinations. Travel closer to home. Enjoy our friends more often than our stuff.

I never have had string to save, but I’ve got a drawer full of rubber bands collected from celery, green onions and asparagus.

It’s a hangover that my namesake, Catharine, passed down to me.

The pile of different sized pieces of elastic are a reminder of her frugality, and also means that I never have to buy them.

They come to me as part of another purchase, and are mine to save or discard.

A free gift, actually, and not even advertised.


CATHARINE COOPER loves wild places. She can be reached at ccooper@cooperdesign.net


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