The Year of Living Frugally

Mary Ann King hasn’t let the neighbours in on what’s happening inside the walls of the pretty cream-coloured house in Point Grey. Her colleagues, even many of her friends, don’t know it, but last August she stopped buying things.

Oh sure, you’re economizing these days, too. Everyone is. But you’re probably cutting back on lattes and putting off the purchase of a new car, not sitting in a tidy, chilly living room talking about how to mend a garden hose, what to use as a watering can, how to preserve food when you refuse to shell out for containers, which friend you’ll ask to cut your hair, how to maximize your vegetable production, how to do without muffin-tin liners. You’re a late-to-the-party dabbler. She’s the one who took a vow of austerity, determined to live for 12 months while buying almost nothing except for whatever food she couldn’t grow herself.

The few exceptions she allows herself are telling. The vintage Corolla (which the Prince Edward Island native liltingly calls a “Ty-ota”) still sits out front because her grown children use it as a kind of co-op vehicle, but it is restricted to one tank of gas a month. The BCAA membership was retained because the car is old. Magazine subscriptions have been stopped, but she still gets the Saturday paper. The books that provide her favourite leisure activity come from the library, but if she and her three grown children hadn’t agreed to make it a spend-nothing Christmas, she would have shelled out for a few volumes because she knows that her experiment, if widely adopted, could become a hardship for others and she wants to support the publishing industry.

Because she has a visitor, King has turned the heat up. “It was a very mild fall,” she says, explaining that she drifted into living without heat except for a brief blast on particularly chilly mornings. During the cold snap at Christmas she only turned the furnace on overnight after the pipes froze-“a case of false economy,” she admits. What will she do when the sweaters she sometimes wears three at a time begin to wear out? “I’ll have to start knitting.”

She laughs at herself as she says this. “I recognize I’m different,” she says. “I know I’m beginning to sound like a kook. But it’s not a sackcloth thing. If I ever felt I was suffering I would just go out and buy something.” For now, though, that doesn’t seem likely. “Going to a store is the weirdest thing for me,” she explains. “It’s become almost anthropological. I walk into Safeway and I go, ‘Wow!’ ”

King, 54, is a lecturer in developmental psychology. When she was growing up in the land of Green Gables, she says, no one spent much. If you had a little money, you certainly didn’t use it in a way that might draw attention. But she does not believe her behaviour is simply a response to her upbringing. “It has more to do with my genotype,” she says. Although she’s always tended to be frugal, others brought up similarly might behave differently. Her own children illustrate this. “With my daughter, it’s complete species recognition,” she says. Shelagh, 28, is a health researcher, while Ben, 25, teaches high school and Isaac, 22, is at UBC. The boys’ attitude has been more along the lines of “Well, what can you do?”

King sometimes worries about the effect she’s having on her kids-not on them personally, but on their jobs. Our economy is based on consumption, after all, and as people buy less, she hopes we’ll make a smooth transition. “I imagine a shifting of resources. More librarians,” she says. “More horticulturalists.”

That would certainly mark a break from the recent trend, wouldn’t it? As an exercise, cast your mind back nine months and think of the future you imagined. Was it characterized by shuttered shops and expertly staffed library desks? By halted condo projects and expanded vegetable gardens? By emptier bars and more people making their own fun?
Mine neither, and I’m something of a veteran on the austerity beat. Back in 1985, as a journalism tyro, I detailed B.C.’s inability to pull out of a recession the rest of the continent had already waved goodbye to. Vancouverites were shuddering at the hardship that seemed to be turning into a permanent reality.

Or not. A current of Asian immigration charged up the economy so thoroughly that our city was almost able to coast through the recession that slammed the rest of Canada in the early 1990s.

Then again, not quite. So in 1991 I was back on the train with an article called, somewhat prematurely, “The End of Excess.” This time the sudden popularity of penny-pinching seemed out of proportion to the locally mild economic downturn, leading me to posit that society had been gripped by a cultural transformation and was returning to the frugal, communitarian, environmentally conscious values of grandpa’s day. I quoted a market researcher as saying, “People are re-examining their love affair with consuming.”

As it turned out, consumers and consuming made a marriage that could still be saved. Within a few years, grunge fashion and Rollerblade commutes had been abandoned in favour of bling and SUVs. By then the big picture was becoming obvious, even to me. Finally recognizing covetousness as the human condition, in 2001 I assured readers that-as much as they may have hated the fast ferries and leaky condos that characterized our stagnant economy-good times were just around the corner, so no need to stock up on root vegetables this time round.

And boy, did you agree. In 1991 I’d marvelled at the way cautious shoppers had boosted the nation’s personal savings rate from seven to eight percent. Continue that trend and you’d soon have a nice ball of string. But start remortgaging your house to shell out on spa treatments and home-entertainment devices and you’d quickly get down to zero, which pretty much describes the current condition. And still we kept spending. As recently as last summer, Canadian retail and motor-vehicle sales were at record levels, and real-estate values continued their seemingly inexorable rise. In August, when King began her personal austerity drive, it wasn’t because her financial Spidey sense was tingling, but rather for environmental reasons. “My notion,” she says, “was ‘This just isn’t sustainable.’ ”

Not long afterward, the U.S. plunged into a credit crisis, dragging behind it the rest of the globe. Stock exchanges plummeted. Shoppers tried to keep the party going, even extending the spree into fall, but in the run-up to Christmas we lost our enthusiasm. In the third quarter, U.S. motor-vehicle sales plunged an astounding 32 percent and retailers endured their worst drop since the Second World War. By the fourth quarter, after numerous variations on the theme of “It won’t be so bad here,” we followed our southern neighbour down the recessionary road.

It’s quite possible these troubles will soon give way to a joyous shopping spree-or so it would seem, based on my quarter-century record of predicting the future. Still, that doesn’t preclude the potential for recession-induced change, some of it significant, some permanent.

When King’s year of living frugally ends, she plans to continue spending less. The way the world’s been unfolding, she can see where others might behave similarly, for reasons related to both the environment and the economy.
For example, something probably has to happen to that nonexistent savings rate. Everyone said it was a disaster waiting to happen, and they were right. In the U.S. especially, consumers are attempting to right the wrong in a hurry, spending so little that they’re in danger of triggering the so-called paradox of thrift: if everyone saves, the economy will be so adversely affected that incomes will drop, thus sending savings rates even lower.

The sudden drop in spending is already having visible effects: the fine-dining restaurant that now sports a bistro menu; the architects’ offices where the phones have stopped ringing; the golden handshake that employees find themselves being offered. These all make sense, but what about layoffs at law offices? In the U.S. litigators usually thrive during a downturn as people fight over the scraps. What about those “affordable luxuries” that people are supposed to console themselves with? With ad revenues crashing, how long before newspapers stop publishing and radio stations go dead?
Some mall tenants and automotive marquees will disappear, but which ones? What about brokerages and real-estate offices and developers and, well, everything? One of the hallmarks of the current crisis has been the seemingly random shrapnel pattern, from Norwegian fishing villages invested in subprime mortgages to the volatile price of gold, when in theory the metal should have gained favour as a safe haven. Banks won’t lend money, investors won’t buy stocks, homeowners won’t trade up, and the cycle continues.

In a strange way, the cinematic scope and unpredictability of these events have provided King with a source of inexpensive entertainment. She doesn’t watch TV. She hasn’t been going to movies. She hasn’t left city limits since an epiphany at London’s Gatwick Airport when the endless crush of holidayers headed off to Spain and Miami convinced her the world had finally lost its mind. But she has permitted herself unlimited computer time, much of which has been devoted to following the unfolding economic crisis.

In the weeks leading up to the crunch she’d wondered if something strange was in the offing and even asked people she thought might know. “Everyone would pat me on the head,” she says. “They told me that because the economy is so rich and textured, there’s no problem.”

That there was a problem confirmed her growing suspicions. In fact, King’s behaviour has more to do with these suspicions than with her personal situation. The house in Point Grey is mostly paid for, and the drop in her variable-rate mortgage will help her retire it that much faster. The place is worth significantly less than it was a year ago, as is her RRSP, but she won’t be cashing in either for a decade or so. And the irony is not lost that during rough times people tend to return to university, meaning that she has less chance of losing her job, and so less reason to be frugal, than do many people.

Then again, New York and other U.S. states are even now responding to unexpected budget shortfalls with cuts to education. Meanwhile, her original concern-the environment-has not receded as a worry. Indeed, she can’t understand the disconnect that has developed between finance and sustainability. That’s what we should be losing sleep over, she thinks. “The natural world just seems to have lost the spring in its step.”

Only a few months ago, experts seemed assured that with the property boom receding, it was just a matter of time before the next big thing came along to tow us back onto the economic superhighway-and almost certainly, the new saviour would be green tech. Instead, the sustainability industry seems to be yet another victim of this most diabolical of downturns, as people cut their carbon footprints the old-fashioned way, by parking their car and squirrelling away their dollars. King wonders if returning the economy to the way it was should even be a goal: “Is Japan such a terrible place after their decade of low growth?” Still, if money must be spent, she hopes some of the government billions go toward making us greener as well as more solvent.

In August, when King’s year is up, she doubts she’ll buy much beyond the odd muffin tin or garden hose. The generation who lived through the Great Depression remained savers the rest of their lives. This time round, how likely is it that others will follow King’s approach, and what will it mean for our system if they do?

Economists, analysts, market researchers, definitely journalists like me-no one seems to have a clue what’s next. The most accurate forecasting technique might be to take one of those carefully conserved coins and flip it.