October 7, 2011

Living in an Amish-ish Paradise, (part one in a series on frugality and consumerism)

That Weird Al nod started my Facebook post yesterday in which I couldn't help but exclaim the awesomeness of an age-old homemade laundry detergent recipe I found.  With 15 minutes of effort and $1.71-worth of deliciously cheap, natural, raw materials I whipped up 5 gallons of a sparkly-clean-scented liquid laundry detergent good for 320 regular loads.  The Look-What-I-Made high from this endeavor propelled me on a trek through the blogosphere to glean what other consumer household products could be replaced with these cost-effective, natural, homemade solutions.

Turns out there's an entire community based around the principles of make-your-own and do-it-yourself that goes far beyond home decorating and flea-market refurbishes.  Now the concept of taking homemade to a whole new level has been exiting to me since I first discovered that homemade bread was, in fact, perfectly do-able.  Yes, any new endeavor requires some experimentation and skill-building, and just as I'm a better cook & baker now than I was 5 years ago, so it goes with all new projects.  Overcoming a lack of inertia, rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty (sometimes literally) in the quest for the Next Cool Thing to Learn to Do, is a regular occurrence.  You just have to get started.  And you have to learn to take failures in stride.  Not every new recipe, jewelry-making or sewing technique, art project (or parenting trick!) will work--and failures will run the gamut from Not What I Was Hoping For to Colossal Fail.  Heavy sigh.  Clean it up.  Move On.

So with this in mind I'm perfectly willing to have a go at whipping up some homemade bath & body products like shampoos, body washes, soaps, lotions, and replacing commercial cleaners & detergents with homemade, natural (and cheaper!) concoctions.  But what I've found most interesting is the various motivations behind different individuals' choice to pursue a homemade lifestyle.

There are various reasons to eschew many consumer goods for DIY alternatives: financial, health & safety, concern for the environmental impact of these products, and rejection of consumerism & a disposable lifestyle in general.  Reading individuals' arguments for these various perspectives has prompted me to examine my own ideas on these hefty  issues and how they fit in (or help shape) my overall life philosophy.

My first encounter with going homemade was driven by wholly creative pursuits.  From an early age I've been compelled to create, to make, to tinker.  I love the process of transforming things from their raw materials, full of potential energy, to their kinetic apex.  The process is a cathartic form of self-expression and an exercise in self-confidence that comes from making something with my own hands.  This has lead me to pursue (albeit slowly) a creative entrepreneurship as well as expand my repertoire of Things I Can Do in life in general.

These days, under the pressures of this recession, money (more specifically, money problems) is on the forefront of many peoples' minds.  Many people are hurting.  People who aren't yet hurting are anxious they might.  Some people, of course, are confident that they will be perfectly fine and not have had to make many or any changes to their lifestyle.  We are not those people.  My friends are not those people.  In fact, I don't personally know too many of those people.

Because of this, financial reasons have driven me to examine ways to shave off non-essentials and replacing pricey (yet often inferior quality) consumer goods with natural homemade alternatives.   With our alternating job losses, this makes the second year of being pretty darn poor, worse, pretty darn poor with a kid (or because of the kid).  With the cavernous gap between the infinite list of Things I Wish We Could Buy or Do (is anybody's list finite?) and the instability of income from work, part time work, and the family business--the reality is more like some weeks (or months) finding an extra $20-$40 for a fresh hair cut is just as much on the Not Gonna Happen list as finding $20-$40,000 for a new car.

Just as economic analysts and media pundits have suggested, it's just another example of the "new reality" of an economic condition that's probably going to be around much longer than we'd like to think. For us, our New Reality means we can't get away with superfluous expenditures like eating out for dinner frequently, going to full-price movies, stopping every morning for (a shamefully unhealthy) breakfast & coffee, mindlessly plucking every whim off the grocery shelves, recreational shopping, and more.  How's your New Reality looking?

The first step in overcoming that jarring "this sucks" reaction is making peace with your New Reality. You can either wallow in the craptasticness of the situation, lamenting the new restrictions on your consumption, insisting that you'll never experience fun again--OR you can suck it up and adapt.  After a brief period of mourning of course, we've decided to push on towards the latter.  And we're not alone.  The people I hang out with the most are in similar situations, and there's no need to feel judged or insecure about being frugal and thrifty in order to adapt to New Reality.  If you're in this boat, know that a lot of people you encounter during your daily life are too.

Now our New Reality looks more like state and metro park trips, dusting off the board games (or brushing up on Rock Band) and dining with friends at the dinner table instead of noshing at a restaurant, hitting the library instead of Barnes & Noble, brewing coffee instead of buying, shopping planned trips to Aldis instead of getting whatever looks good at the moment at grocery stores, thrift-store perusing (call it Goodwill Hunting, it will make you smile) instead of the mall, seeing movies at the dollar theater and smuggling in snacks instead of forking out the cash for the new-releases, mending,  refreshening,  or refurbishing clothes and other goods instead of tossing them at the first minor defect or from boredom, cooking more at home, making pitchers of teas & lemonades instead of buying beverages, and more.  Baby steps, my friend, and we've come a long way towards happily existing within our means even when those means shrink.

The good news is that making the most of doing with less is ripe with creative potential, which has been a great coping mechanism for me.  I'm learning to look around at things in a new way--looking for ways to breathe life into old things so they feel just as exciting as if I had ditched them for the Next Cool Thing the store display, TV, or magazines told me I wanted.  The next exiting discovery--the potential of homemade household goods which can be whipped up to my specifications with my own two hands out of natural, good-smelling, toxin-free raw materials for less than commercial alternative and with far greater satisfaction.

Bring it on.

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