Showcase: Dewey’s Treehouse
Mama Squirrel blogs at Dewey's Treehouse. They are a Canadian homesquirreling family. Dad, also known as Mr. Fixit, has lined the nest with old copies of Popular Mechanics. Mama Squirrel spends much of her time training the squirrelings: The Apprentice, Ponytails, and Crayons.
Who is Dewey, and do you really live in a treehouse?
Dewey (Uncle Dewey to the girls) is a squirrel handpuppet who’s been around since Mr. Fixit and I were dating. He attended our wedding reception (wearing a miniature usher’s tie), has helped perform skits at church, and has written me badly-typed love poems. He’s been like another member of our family, with his own history and personality. So when we needed a framework for our blog, it was easy to move ourselves into Dewey’s treehouse.
What do you know about your readers? What do you think draws them to your blog?
Our blog is a potpourri of anything that interests us enough to write about, although I think it’s settled into a pattern of “usual topics.” I figure a lot of the regular readers come from the homeschool/frugality categories, from the same blogs I like to read.
I sometimes feel like I need to apologize for some things I can’t provide to the frugal blog world, such as brilliant craft ideas, wardrobe plans, or amazing décor tips. (I read other peoples’ blogs for those.) My particular frugal talents seem to be finding uses for bits and pieces, especially in the homeschooling area. Some of our most-visited posts have been about using scrounged materials for homeschooling.
What does "frugal" mean to you? What do you think it means to other people?
Well, that’s a very good question, because I noticed that someone found our blog today by googling the words “being poor for the sake of homeschooling.” (Not the phrase, just the words.) I think there’s kind of an odd stereotype around homeschooling families, that we must be either extremely wealthy or extremely poor to allow one parent to stay home with the kids. (There are a lot of homeschoolers who don’t even fit that one-income idea—there are single parents, parents who work part time as well as teach, and so on. But generally you think of homeschoolers as living on one income.) I don’t feel like we sacrifice much by not having a second income—most of what I’d bring in would be taxed away anyway or spent on the extras—you know, extra shoes and meals out and so on.
But there’s a lot of confusion between “frugal” and “one income” and “poor.” I had one anonymous person comment on my blog that I should “stop making my kids live in poverty.” When I think of poverty I think of third-world living conditions, or at least the level of real poverty that some North Americans experience; I’m talking eating peanut butter off the spoon because there isn’t any bread. Mr. Fixit repaired phones for years and he saw some of the worst apartments in town; believe me, we’ve never lived in poverty. Maybe my anonymous critic meant I should stop “making” my kids live frugally, but I don’t see that as a problem either. Being frugal to me just means being very careful about where the money goes, and finding ways to live even better-than-average without having to spend a lot of money to do it. And doing it honestly; being frugal does not mean being what people used to call “mean.”
Does frugal living come easily for you or is it a struggle?
No, being frugal isn’t a struggle—it would be more of a struggle to be overextended and be worrying about all the stupid things we had spent money on. We need to preach the gospel that Frugality is Fun, and also empowering, habit-forming, and ecological. For example, this week I wanted yogurt, so I made two pint jars out of a few frozen cubes I had left in the freezer. Just like that, and I didn’t have to go to the store. I wanted rhubarb to put in a dessert, so I went out and cut some in the yard. I wanted corn to add to some black bean chili, so I cut the kernels off two leftover cobs. So what’s more of a struggle, doing those things or getting to the store and buying more cans and containers?
Do you have a favorite frugal site?
Like Merchant Ships and The Space Between My Peers are both good examples of doing something beautifully and better than most people would expect, in spite of or maybe because of the fact that they’re working in a tight framework. When you’re forced to use more creativity, you discover all kinds of new things, and I’m grateful to the bloggers who are very generous at sharing what they’ve learned. (Their photographs help a lot too!)
Do you think there is a downside to being frugal?
Well…just the same as there are downsides to everything. Like when you see something at the craft store you don’t need and you know is a waste of money but still think is kind of cool…you wish that inner “no” wasn’t quite so strong.
The only real negative experiences we’ve had have been from other people, those who don’t “get it”—the same as homeschooling; even if they meant well at the time. We had an experience a few years ago when we were attending a church where most of the people were older and, I guess, better off than we were. Somebody must have overheard us talking about shopping at Value Village, or maybe they saw our older car and equated that with poverty, because the next thing I knew I had a lady bringing over Christmas presents for the kids, from the church, obviously part of some presents-for-the-poor thing they were doing. There were a couple of dolls that I passed on to a toy drive (our kids already had more dolls than they could reasonably love), and wrapped gifts for each of them that turned out to be colouring books and cheap (as in, unusably cheap, wouldn’t even cut paper) scissors. I’m not criticizing people who honestly want to minister to others, but I think they should get their facts straight and find out who really does need and want help.
Is it ever possible to be too frugal? How about frugal enough?
Too frugal would be when it turns on itself, when your quality of life is less rather than more, because you’re not even providing the necessities. Or if you’re taking from someone else, borrowing and not returning, and so on. Frugal enough? I think you might feel you’re being frugal enough if you are living within your means, but your means can change, so there’s always the chance that you might have to become even more frugal than you have been.
How does the rest of your family feel about your frugal ideas?
Well, they aren’t so much just my ideas. My husband (who’s called Mr. Fixit on the blog) and I both grew up with some frugal heroes in our own families, so we have a lot to fall back on. Mr. Fixit is very big on maintenance: keeping the oil changed, the furnace filters clean, the cheque book balanced, the tires pumped, the taps wiped, and the dishes done. Occasionally we bump heads on that since I tend to be more relaxed, or lazy, or however you want to look at it. However, I think he’s right overall, because in all our years together we’ve hardly ever had a real emergency that could have been prevented by better maintenance. About the only time the car ever flatly refused to start was when we were leaving for my grandmother’s funeral—which just goes to show that even with perfect care life will occasionally throw you a curve. But in general, I think we’ve saved a lot on garage and other repair bills just by trying to be careful with what we have. The other best idea we ever had was keeping our “money book,” a binder of our yearly budget and all the expenses during each year. We’ve done that ever since we were married and it’s saved a lot of arguments over money—the budget’s right there in the book, and we can either afford something or we can’t.
The kids understand a lot about how we spend money carefully, although it doesn’t always mean they eat their vegetables without complaining. Even our teenager prefers putting together her own look from consignment shops and discount stores. We pass a lot of things down, and if they’re still useable after our kids, we pass them on again to someone else.
We try to make enough room in the budget for some treats and special things, but they understand that not everything fun has to cost money either. Right now they’re getting ready to shoot a video with their dad, about bubble-blowing aliens. (That’s frugal because we already have the camera and the bottle of bubble stuff.)
Any parting thoughts?
A big part of frugality is cultivating contentment, trying to get a bigger sense of reality, realizing that most people in the world get along with a lot less than what the media seems to promote as “normal.” You know, like making a big deal out of back-to-school shopping. And at the same time there’s the challenge of approaching a frugal lifestyle creatively—understanding something Amy Dacyczyn wrote in The Tightwad Gazette, that if you live frugally you can often do better, actually have nicer things than you would otherwise.
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