My great-grandmother had a cross-stitch sampler on her kitchen wall, that read:
Use it Up
Wear it Out
Make it Do
This was her ethos. She had always known scarcity and hard-scrabble. Her grandparents were all pioneers – one of her grandmothers traveled from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains on foot. She was born into poverty, the middle of five children. Her father died when she was six years old. She went to college, then went to work, until she married my great-grandfather, a middle-class businessman. They had eight children between 1922 and 1934. Her husband remained employed through the Great Depression, and they stayed housed and fed and middle-class. But thrift was in her bones.
Some of her cost-savings habits were just a type of mindfulness. A version of what we now call “zero-waste”; Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. My favorite was the spot in her ancient refrigerator where she stored the wrappers from sticks of butter until they were needed to grease a cookie sheet.
But she also spent extraordinary amounts of time. Sometimes saving very little money. Torn sheets got mended until they fell apart. Slivers of soap were saved, to re-form into new bars of soap. Rag-rugs were made painstakingly from actual rags.
When she passed away a little before her 99th birthday, it turned out she had a substantial estate. Something about old telephone company stock. Even with her significant number of heirs, she had plenty to leave behind. She had had plenty, all along.
I’m not gonna knock Grandma-B and her thrift habit. It’s who she was. But as her descendant, in the modern age, I find myself having to be careful, because thrift has become a familial trait.
And thrift doesn’t always serve my interests.
In my mother’s hometown, including at Great-Grandma’s house, it is extremely common to have at least one fruit tree in the backyard. And to not let that fruit go to waste. Home canning, dehydrating, freezing… “Putting Up Fruit” is a social activity every fall. Family and neighbors get together to take turns – you help me with my plumbs, I’ll help you with your pears, and we’ll swap some of the produce. Children are put to bed, then adults stay up into the wee hours, their fingernails turning brown as they blanch and slice, pit and core their way through the mountains of fruit from these backyard trees.
Throughout my childhood in the nomadic black-sheep branch of the family, I envied this ritual, and wished my own family could ever live anywhere long enough to plant and grow a fruit tree. When I finally bought a house I was determined to do it, and when it was finally time… I went a little crazy. My yard now has two cherry trees, two apple trees, a fig, two blueberry bushes, two current shrubs, some raspberry patches, and some hazelnuts that mainly feed the squirrels. Experiments with almond and peach both failed.
But of course, in the way of life, just around the time when those trees finally really matured and started to throw out some serious crops… I was running my own business. My time is now worth real money. Last summer was the best summer yet, but in my passion to not waste a seriously glorious crop of organic sweet cherries and honeycrisp apples, I probably spent an amount of time worth a few thousand dollars.
Yes, organic cherries cost $8/pound. But there is a big difference between $8 and $800.
Xinnia is a relatively young consultancy— now in year four— and the feast-or-famine spikes are still pretty harsh. In a good month, I leave my old salary in the dust… but also work more hours than I did at my insane corporate job. In a bad month, I can barely pay my bills. Sometimes the work just rolls in, faster than I can keep up. Other times, it’s tumbleweeds, and I feel a huge pressure to hustle and sell. It doesn’t make for many of those pleasant lulls where I can just breathe and enjoy the roses (also growing in my yard).
Right now, I’m at the end of another one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for stages. My client hours in March are already record-breaking, and as of this writing, March isn’t over.
Meanwhile, while I’m fortunate that as a homeowner with good credit, owning a business with no full-time employees, I can weather most financial crunches, nothing will make you feel destitute faster than a revenue month that’s 20% of what you need, and 10% of what you used to earn. And I had a month like that in 2018.
So, as revenue flows in from this very strong Q1, it’s tempting to kick into that family thrift. Save it. Pay off bills even before they are due. Worry about service fees and 2% interest charges. Spend an hour comparison shopping to save $10.
And as my time frees up a little, it’s tempting to use that time in thrifty ways too. Plant vegetables. Fix the leaking toilet myself. Pull out the wood chipper and start breaking down the dead almond tree currently hanging out by my BBQ grill.
But in the hours I spend on one of those tasks, I could be creating marketing content, or attending industry events, or following up on cold leads, in ways that could win me thousands of dollars in new business. I could be delivering, flawlessly and focused, to my active clients, to win renewals and referrals.
So where is my time best spent?
And where is the joy?
On the other hand, I like to garden. I like to cook. I enjoy crafts and DIY. Making time for the things I love fuel me. They make it all worthwhile. I don’t want to get rich if it means I never get to make another stew, or harvest homegrown oregano, or make a piece of jewelry.
So, as business — hopefully— returns to some equilibrium… not too little money, not too much work… I’ll be seeking balance. If something gives me joy to do, I should still do it. But if it’s just thrift? Spend the money! I’ll earn more than I saved in the time I spent. That’s just math. And even Great-Grandma would probably agree.
By the way, does anyone want a dead almond tree? I have one. Serious offers only.