“There’s been a little incident at work...with my paycheck...” I don’t think I’ll ever forget that conversation from late January 2001. My husband explained that his payroll check had not cleared the bank - we were left in a lurch. In those days we had no buffer - no margin to help us navigate a surprise incident like a missed paycheck. We also had considerable credit card debt hanging over us. This was no little blip on our radar. This was a full-on wake up call. Thus began a family project I named “Frugal February”.
We only had three kids at the time; our little boys were 6, 4 and 2. We had just begun homeschooling that fall, and I had already outlined a Pioneer Unit Study for February. The plan was for us to introduce life skills, eat simple meals, play old fashioned games, and explore what living long ago may have been like. I had no idea that this would become a real life exercise in resiliency for all of us.
As the reality of our financial situation sank in, we began to look for ways to improvise and make do with what we had on hand. It was a frightening time for me, but still I tried to make it a game for the boys: “Let’s eat dinner by lantern light”. “Let’s read Little House in the Big Woods”. “Who wants to help bake some bread?”
My panicked and spontaneous action plan was something like this:
Eat from what was already in the pantry before going to the grocery
Meal plan: resourcing the cookbooks More With Less and Extending the Table
No convenience foods, carry-out meals, QT drinks, etc
Reread all the back issues from The Tightwad Gazette Newsletter.
Use the library for movies instead of Blockbuster (this was back in the days of VHS).
Find any cash we had on hand to use for necessities
Only spend for basic needs
In the years that followed, I read stacks of books on frugality, simplicity and personal finance. Every February, in honor of that first shock, we willingly shift from maintenance mode frugality to radical simplicity - 28 days of spending only for necessities: food, shelter, transportation. For many years it was a necessary action. Now the annual spending fast has become a reverent season on our calendar. It’s a mental reset; a renewal of intentional decision making about how we spend our resources. It’s also a reminder that we are only stewards of the time and money entrusted to us.
I enjoy it when we challenge ourselves to do without, and test our ability to delay gratification. Regularly tightening our spending limits for a short duration has helped us develop creativity, and learn better habits about money. It sounds so simple now, but it hasn’t been easy. Over the years we’ve realized that we can live on less than we earn. We’ve learned to be content with what we have, rather than constantly craving more possessions. We’ve also disciplined ourselves to plan for a rainy day, by building up a savings buffer for when trouble strikes.
This February marks the 15th year my family has played our simplicity game. What began under a burden of necessity is now a time of remembrance and gratitude. I never want to forget the years we lived with debt and lack. That reality still frames the way we live today. I also don’t want to fret and ruminate over financial mistakes we made years ago. We choose to look back and remember, and then set our sights on the days to come.
Mostly, we’re just grateful.