Extravagantly frugal – an oxymoron that isn’t

Lockdown is terrible for people who have a tendency to over-think. With nowhere to go, nobody to talk to, and little outside stimulation you can easily get lost in trains of thought that end up tying your brain in knots. This morning, an advert came up in my Facebook feed for toilet roll in paper packaging. The accompanying photo showed a huge pile of plastic loo roll wrappers, with the claim that you could avoid all that plastic waste by buying their product. Now I have no issue whatever with avoiding plastic, but the display was so enormous that I clicked through to find out what size of family it was supposed to represent. It turned out the person posting it claimed that was for one individual. So then I had to google to find out how many toilet rolls the average person used, and the answer was 127 per year. It just happens that I’ve been paying attention to how much I buy, and I get through around one a week. I don’t think I have especially poor personal hygiene, so now I’m wondering what other people do with so much toilet roll.

I often have moments like this when I read articles or watch TV programmes about saving money. Having been a single parent on a teacher’s salary for a decade, I’ve had to be careful about money, but more importantly, I just wasn’t brought up to be wasteful and I care a lot about sustainability. I’m nowhere near as frugal as my grandmother, who was the type to keep ends of string in a tin and to cut up her old elastic stockings into rings ‘in case she needed to tie a plant to a stake’. When she died, there were new vests in her wardrobe still in their packets because she was ‘saving them for a special occasion’ – we never found out what occasion in the life of a 92-year-old would merit a new vest, but the ones she hung out on the line were full of holes. She never bought decent teabags even though she drank tea all the time and could easily afford better ones. Having seen this makes me determined that as long as I have the privilege of being able to make some choices about how to spend my money I will not deny myself simple pleasures, but that often means avoiding waste in other directions.

There was a perfect example of this a few years ago when my little group of dining buddies and I went out for a meal one January evening. We weren’t anywhere particularly expensive, but we like to try as many different dishes as possible and to share them, so we ordered lots of starter-sized portions and had a thoroughly good evening. When the bill came we laughed at how long it was, and I took a photo, which I later posted on Facebook with a lighthearted comment about us getting through the entire menu, tagging the friends who were there. An acquaintance of one of them posted a comment calling me disgusting for ‘boasting about how much we had spent’ and saying that if they had that much money to spend on food they would take all their mates to Wetherspoons instead. I was fuming. Firstly because of the sheer rudeness of criticising someone on their own Facebook page for the choices they have made, but secondly at the assumption that any of us was boasting about spending money. As it happened, much of that meal was paid for by a Christmas gift card I had been given, with instructions to use it to treat my friends, but that’s not the point. The point is that I am frugal in order to be extravagant.

Statistics on average spending on food and drink outside the home in the UK vary enormously depending on the methodology used to gather them, but a widely-reported survey a couple of years ago put the typical spend on takeaways per person at £451 a year, and another survey claimed that the average person visited a coffee shop three times a week, which would add up to about another £450 if you only had a drink most times and a cake occasionally. So that’s £900 a year. (I’m not sure if any of these figures include lunchtime sandwiches from a supermarket, which most people probably don’t even think of as takeaways.) In my case I have a takeaway around once a month, averaging about £10 a time, and even before lockdown when my job involved spending all day travelling around the county, I only bought a coffee about once a week – adding up to £270 a year. The £630 a year I am saving by not eating junk food, and limiting my Costa/Nero habit, pays for occasional nice restaurant meals with my friends three times over. That’s the choice I have made – don’t waste money on things you won’t really enjoy very much, but save it for treats that will bring real delight.

At home, I eat and drink extremely well, buying organic fruit and veg, free-range meat, sustainable seafood, artisan bread and keeping a full drinks cabinet, but I run a no-waste kitchen. I am appalled at the fact that 20% of food that is bought ends up in the bin – in my case the only things in the bin are veg peelings, eggshells and occasional chicken or fish bones (after they’ve been boiled for stock!). Fruit that doesn’t look very appealing any more goes into smoothies; veg goes into soups, curries or tagines; bread becomes toast, croutons or breadcrumbs; and any leftovers I can’t get through while they’re good are put in the freezer (reusing lidded pots, because I really do want to cut down on single-use plastic!).

So ‘extravagantly frugal’ may sound like an oxymoron, but I don’t think it has to be.

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