Extreme Frugality: 8 Lessons in I learned in Mexico
You don’t need need a bathroom mirror.
We are building our house little by little, which means we're starting from scratch in every single room, and we have to practice extreme frugality to get anywhere. It’s been 5 years since we moved in, and we still haven’t installed a bathroom mirror. We’ve gotten by just using a little 5-inch mirror that stands up on its own for all these years. Most women probably couldn’t pull this off. The only reason I can is because I don’t wear makeup or do much of anything to my hair. Not necessarily a goal to shoot for, but the truth is I don’t need a mirror. My husband on the other hand needs to be able to shave. He’s got a goatee and a mustache, so he needs to be able to see what he’s doing (nothing worse than a crooked beard!) So when our little mirror fell and broke one day, I thought for sure he’d buy a new one. Much to my delight, I noticed he kept the biggest shard and propped it up when shaving. When that shard broke, he re-purposed a piece of broken mirror from the side view mirror on his car. Talk about resourceful! Unfortunately, I’m also sensing quite a few years of bad luck in store for us.
2. You don’t need more storage space
I live in a tiny town in Mexico. There’s not much available in terms of household goods to purchase. There’s no Target (rough, I know). And things tend to be more expensive here. Since I’m used to American sale prices, I just can’t stand to fork over more than I think an item should cost. So I just don’t buy much of anything. This means that I’ve done very well keeping what I do own organized, despite not having any storage closets or cabinets, and certainly not a basement! Living in a tiny house without much in the way of furniture or closets has taught me to ruthlessly minimize. I don’t keep anything that doesn’t get used every week. When things start to get cluttered, and I feel like I need to buy cute baskets for storage or an armoire or upper kitchen cabinets, I just get rid of stuff instead. This goes for “practical” things, too. If I have too many sweaters to comfortably store, then I need to think about how many sweaters I really need and get rid of any that are not my absolute favorites. Those fun polka-dot pants that are taking up space waiting for the right event? OUT! That kitchen gadget that seems fun to use, maybe someday, is taking up more space than it’s worth. Mismatched tupperware? Nope.
3. You don’t need a couch.
When I first came to Baja and started spending time with my husband (then-friend), we hung out a lot around the animal corrals, just watching them. I noticed how incredibly comfortable he was just sitting on a bucket, or a cement block, or a log. It sounds silly, but it takes practice being able to get comfortable on these things if you’re not used to it. The side benefit of swapping out your couch for a cement block is that you’ll be exercising your body. It’s closer to the ground, so you’ll practice squatting, and you’ll need to use your own core muscles to hold yourself up. In our already sedentary culture, why wouldn’t you trade your couch for a bucket? Bonus: when you’re not sitting on it, you can use your bucket for other things, like hauling water or mopping!
4. You don’t need fancy equipment.
Many people use a piola to go fishing off the beach in Baja. A piola is simply a fishing line wrapped around a small board, about four by seven inches. My husband can make his own lead weights out of old car batteries. He can use bird feathers to make lures. For bait, he can dig crabs out of the sand. Growing up middle-class in the US, it is incredibly empowering to see how much you can do with just some ingenuity and whatever you find lying around. Extreme frugality is empowering! To use the piola, fishermen unwrap the line on the beach, swing the hook over their head (like you would a lasso), and toss it out into the waves. Once again, they rely on their own strength and skill instead of the technology produced through outsourced labor (like a fishing rod made in a factory somewhere), which has body-building, age-defying side-benefits beyond just fattening your wallet.
5. You don’t need as much house as you think you do.
Houses are way smaller in Mexico and stuffed full of far more people than they are in the US. I think this breeds a lot of familiar intimacy. And if you do get fed-up with being cooped up with too many people, you can always go outside for solitude or at least some breathing room. People here are more likely to share bedrooms and even beds with other family members. And they’re more likely to share space with multiple generations. It seems that in the US, our houses are where we hang out, alone or together, and here in Baja, you’re much more likely to be outside, unless you’re eating or sleeping. Bonus: more outdoor time is really good for you (yes, even in the winter!)
6. Beans and rice are Delicious everyday.
Whenever I eat at my suegra’s (mother-in-law’s), she almost always has some variation on rice and beans. My husband taught me how to make beans. The trick is to add way more water (and salt) than you think you’d need, and add more water during the cooking if the water boils off. I use 1 kilo of beans, 10 cups of water, and 2 heaping TB of salt. You want the beans to come out soupy. You only get refried beans after a couple days of eating bean soup, because all the extra water has been cooked off from so many re-heatings. And of course you can thicken them up a little more and mash them in a frying pan for bean burritos. Eat beans and rice everyday, and you’ll massively cut your grocery bill. And they’ll really grow on you. When I visit the US, I start to miss my humble beans and rice. Not only that, but cooking a kilo at a time means you'll always have some on hand and you won't be tempted to eat out, further strengthening your extreme frugality muscles.
7. You don’t need running water, not even to wash the dishes.
My suegra has an outdoor kitchen which consists of a barrel of water next to a cement sink. She uses a small bowl to scoop water from the barrel to rinse and wash her dishes. The first time I saw my sister-in-law use this sink to wash her hands, I was in absolute awe of her grace and agility as she held the small bowl and poured water over both hands at the same time. I don’t mean she held it in one hand, rinsed the other, and then switched. She rubbed both hands under the water while holding the bowl in one hand. This is a skill I have yet to develop. Even now, my suegra has running water, but still prefers her outdoor sink. We can get used to anything, and more convenience is not always better.
8. You don’t need electricity.
Ok, this one is a little extreme. We do need electricity to run the internet after all! But I want to share how much my suegra still does the old-fashioned way to help put some perspective on our needs vs. our wants. She lives the extreme frugality lifestyle. She grinds her coffee in a crank mill. She boils water and makes pour-over coffee (which, hilariously, is all the rage in the trendiest cafes these days). She still has and uses a wood-fire cook stove. When it’s dark, she goes to bed. When it’s light, she gets up. She still often washes her clothes by hand and always dries them on a clothesline. If the electricity happens to go out, like it did for two weeks after a major hurricane in 2015, guess who handles life as if nothing had happened while the rest of us are falling apart!?
extreme frugality works if we Redefine our Needs
This is not to say we should all quit our jobs, live off-grid, and become subsistence farmers. It’s simply a thought-exercise to help us redefine what we really need. If something is not in the budget, we can absolutely do without it until we’ve saved enough. I can hear the excuses already: “But I need a new computer! It’s for work!” Well, you probably have access to a library, and you can buy a USB drive or use the cloud to move files around. “But we need a new fridge! How will we eat?” You can use the fridge at the grocery store by only buying enough food for one day at a time, and only cooking what you’ll eat at each meal. “But my coffee maker broke. If I buy a new one, I’ll be saving money because I won’t have to buy coffee at a cafe”. No, spending money is not always saving money. You can boil water on the stove and pour it over the grounds in your broken coffee maker. “But we just moved to a bigger house and there’s no furniture in the living room! Where will we sit?!” When you can afford it, you can get a couch. But you don’t need a couch, ever. Living in Mexico has given me an incredible insight into making-do. Instead of keeping up with the Jones’s, I’m keeping up with the Martinez’s, and I’m learning to not be such a wuss. The good things are worth waiting for, and in the meantime, I can absolutely make do or do without.