I was born thrifty. I’m a fifth generation Salvationist, born to officer parents who both had officer parents themselves—I simply didn’t have the money-spending gene!
My grandparents were Salvation Army officers in the time when their wages came directly from the community. Granddad used to tell us about his ragtag brass band that would play at the foot of the blocks of flats, hoping for people to throw their pennies into the bells of their B-flat basses. (This was secondary, of course, to their hope that listeners would turn to Jesus—many did, in their hundreds!)
For a few years in my childhood, I thought my Nana worked at the large UK department store, C and A, because once a year we would get to sort through a bin bag of their end-of-line clothes. These few outfits would last us until the next time Nana arrived with her wondrous bin bag. Little did I know that this clothing was donated to the Army and that officers’ kids got the leftovers! It was the highlight of my year, every year.
I don’t resent my simple childhood at all. Until my teenage years, our family had always lived in parts of the UK that were low down on the socio-economic scale, so our lack of stuff and fashion wasn’t important or even apparent.
In fact, being an officers’ kid has made me who I am today in lots of ways: I am adaptable and make friends easily as a result of moving town every few years, for instance. (Another product of moving so frequently is that I also pick up accents shamefully quickly. I can move seamlessly now from Kiwi to Welsh depending on whom I am conversing with—just as when I was a kid, I moved from a broad Northern accent to Jamaican-Cockney in the space of a day. It’s a survival strategy!) And I’ve had an enormous amount of opportunities open up to me as a result of my parents’ officership.
I moved to New Zealand when I was 18, prompting much jealousy amongst my friends, as I followed my parents out here after my final exams. They’d been appointed to The Salvation Army Officer Training College in Upper Hutt. I was only meant to be here for a year, but fell in love with the country and couldn’t leave—even after my parents went back to London!
I studied at Victoria University, paying my way by doing various jobs such as painting scaffolding and dressing as a giant yoghurt pot in the weekends. Fortunately, Hutt City Corps (church) stepped in and gave me an only slightly more dignified job as their youth worker.
It was during a youth group event that I fell in love once again, this time with a chap called Tim from Auckland who was visiting one of our volunteers. It was Valentine’s Day a few weeks after we met and I came home from university to find a massive box on my doorstep that seemed to be squawking. I opened it up to find two fat hens sitting on two warm eggs, pretty cross and covered in poo, and I knew Tim was the one.
I romanced him, in turn, by making him lemon curd that didn’t set and crafting him homemade candles that set fire to his dining table. We were married six months later.
But perhaps the most significant way my upbringing as an officers’ kid (an ‘O.K.’ to those in the know) has impacted me is in my ability to, nay my enjoyment of, living thriftily.
My aptitude for frugal living was crucial during my years at Victoria University, and the early years of our marriage when we moved to London and I became a student once more, studying for an Msc in Social Policy. But it was once we had a child, a mortgage on a small terraced home in central London, and the desire to only work half-time so that one of us was always home with our daughter that our budget became as tight as it had ever been.
It was during this year that I began pondering on the concept of ‘thrift’ as a wonderful alternative way of living, rather than just a dull, unpleasant necessity. I began wondering if there was something almost godly about living a thrifty life.
Thrifty living is a snub to those corporations that would have us believe their over-the-top marketing hype. By not rushing out to buy the latest fashion item or kitchen utensil that the adverts tell us we need, we are standing firm and telling large companies that our sense of worth doesn’t require these things. Ignoring flash marketing campaigns is a statement about not needing more stuff to lure friends and be successful. It is a celebration of how good God has made us: alone, un-adorned and yet perfect!
Thrifty living is an invitation to live life more imaginatively. You want to make cookies in wonderful shapes with your kid, but don’t own a cookie cutter? Let’s look about the house for shapes that could work. This bowl would make a nice oval! And this doily could leave a beautiful imprint! And, if I can find the pliers, I could wrangle this strip of metal into a bird! (I didn’t let my two-year-old cut her cookies with that dodgy implement, but the birds I cut looked brilliant.) Some of my most creative projects have come about simply because I didn’t own something and refused to rush to the shops to buy it.
Thrifty living nurtures the maker in us all. I have a theory that one of the ways God inhabits our hearts is through creativity. Just as we manifest an all-loving God through our kindness, we manifest our Creator God through our creating. Not everyone thinks they are crafty, but I’d say everyone has a spark for creating something that just needs to be blown into being. There is a wholeness to be found when we stitch up a rip in our favourite skirt or knead a loaf of bread or knock up a chicken shed out of pallets.
Thrifty living is a declaration of concern for the environment. There is a kind of frugal that doesn’t care much for the planet. I call this ‘Dollar Shop Thrifty’. It is money saving, indeed; but it isn’t planet saving. It is still stuff-based—it is just that the stuff costs a mere buck.
Thriftiness, on the other hand, is about being resourceful and lessening waste. It is turning all the leftovers in the fridge into fantastic fritters, and it is using things in the kitchen as gorgeously scrummy skin-care products: reducing frivolous packaging and the need for whole factories to be churning out expensive facial scrubs made with ancient grains! (I do find the natural beauty industry marvellously ironic. Most of the ingredients are sitting on our pantry shelves!)
Thrifty living is a collective act. It is almost impossible to live in this way without calling on friends and family! Whether it is in a highly organised way such as a friend I interviewed recently who is part of a bulk-buy cooperative (each month they save enormous amounts of money by group-buying their food, getting wholesale prices and splitting shipping costs), or in a more informal way such as baby-sitting trade-ins. I have never once paid for child care, as my neighbour and I had an arrangement where I would take her child in for the evening so she could go on a date with her husband, and then she would have Ramona so we could do the same. Co-owning lawn mowers, doing skill swaps, sharing a vegetable garden—this thrifty living needs a vibrant community of loving relationships!
Thrifty living is biblical. It is a reflection of so many parts of Scripture, such as Jesus’s stories that inspire us to be good stewards and Proverb’s nuggets that encourage us to be diligent. Unlike those darkly clothed, slightly glum Puritans who took the Bible as a call to misery, this spendthrift life is big and joyful and imaginative. The thrifty life is not a sparse life necessarily, but it is a simple life.
I was born thrifty, but I’ve since turned it into a lifestyle. And, so have many others. Last year, to the sounds of knowing laughter from second-hand lovers across the world, Macklemore released a single called ‘Thrift Shop’ where he describes the sheer genius of op shops.
He eloquently raps the allure of second-hand bargains, however bizarre the objects themselves might be: ‘They had a broken keyboard, I bought a broken keyboard. I bought a sweet blanket, then I bought a kneeboard.’ The record made it to number one in countries across the globe, with this rapper celebrating freedom from corporate greed and the joy to be found in old jumble.
I’m sure op shops have been busier than ever since this song hit the charts, and I do think that increasing numbers of people in the developed world are opting for thrift as a way of life. We are taking it beyond simply op-shopping and applying it to our kitchens, our choice of bank, our interior design. There is a movement of people that are dusting off the mothballs and embracing the eco-conscious and stylish side of thrifty living.
In response to this, I launched a new website on New Year’s Day this year. It is called Wonderthrift.com and taps a frugal wand over every part of life.
Almost every day there is a new tip or inspiring story about how to live thriftily while loving the environment. This is an alternative to that Dollar Shop Thrift, and aims to light-heartedly encourage people to save money and live simple, yet generous lives.
We recently moved from London and came back to New Zealand, and Tim and I have doubled our ranks while we’ve been gone. We now have two daughters: Juno who is 10 months old and Ramona who is three. They are growing up happily on hand-me-downs and op-shopped toys, and they fit right in with the Kiwi spirit that turns every branch into a swing for a dash of cheap fun!
I think the thrifty family life we are nurturing will go from strength to strength here in this land where the ‘make do and mend mindset’ is always in vogue!
By Lucy AikenRead
A collection of thrifty tips from Wonderthrift.com