Saturday, October 11, 2008

Use it all; wear it out; make it do; do without:

Who hasn't heard this famous saying about thrift? We learned it from our grandparents, who probably learned it from their grandparents.

In the time of the Great Depression and World War II, this made perfect sense. After all, goods and money were scarce. Even those who were very comfortable during this period -- as my father's family were -- were still of a thrifty mindset. People purchased carefully, and they did not throw items away simply because they passed out of style.

In those days, items from clothing to tools to household goods were made to last. Appliances and such were more more mechanical in nature and less dependent on complicated, computerized electronics. Thus, their lifespan could be extended by careful maintenance. Families passed on the mindset and the skills needed to keep household objects in good order and even perform some repairs. If something couldn't be mended or repaired at home, it could be taken to a nearby shop for affordable service.

Also, because people did not accumulate as much junk as we do nowadays, there was room in the house to save items that might come in handy later. If you did buy a new radio, perhaps the older one might be cleaned and repaired and passed on to a newlywed child.

Those of us who are cleaning out the homes of elderly relatives realize that many kept this mindset even after becoming more affluent. They kept on saving everything -- from true heirlooms to things that have no current value. Who hasn't read stories about Depression-era people who have kept every scrap of twine or tons of scrap paper?

The mindset of buying the best quality items you can afford and using them until they wore out served Depression-era people well, because it is based on some timeless principles of thrift. People from generations previous to the Baby Boomers who are still alive are typically better prepared financially than the Boomers and beyond. Of course, these are generalizations and there are many exceptions. However, the reason the generalizations came about is that there is a good deal of truth to them.

The Depression and World War II generation has a lot to teach us about thrift. However, in recent decades, it has not always been beneficial to hold onto every little thing just in case it might come in handy.

Starting in the 60's and ramping up in the 80's 'til today, goods have become more and more disposable. Manufacturers talk about planned obsolescence, or purposely designing something so that it will not last and the customer will have to buy a new one. This concept actually came into existence in the 20's and 30's, as mass production became more important to our economy. However, even in the early days of planned obsolence, items lasted longer than they do now.

Along with planned obsolescence comes designing, advertising, and marketing all aimed at making us buy the newest style garment, car, refrigerator, etc. In recent years, it seems, style cycles have become shorter and shorter.

On top of that, many of our things are built around complicated electronics now. These things are usually as costly to repair as they are to replace.

Not only that, but our technology is developing rapidly. The gadgets that help us manage life today may be eclipsed by tomorrow's newer invention. My mother-in-law has not been able to understand why she couldn't find anyone who would take the ancient computer she wanted to give away. It simply is not compatible with today's software.

No wonder that many of us today have developed a "stuff is disposable" mindset. We think, "If it breaks, I can get a new one. These are last year's shoes; I 'need' new ones." Many people today do not take care of clothing, cars, and other possessions as our grandparents did.

Since we can afford to have more stuff these days, more of what we buy can easily turn into clutter if we hang on to it long enough. Some of us have learned the hard way that this clutter is expensive to cart around, time-consuming to clean, and, on top of that, an element that disturbs the peace of a home.

Emile Barnes says in her book, "15 Minute Organizer", "We live in a world of mass production and marketing. We must learn to sort and let go of certain things, or else we will need to build a huge warehouse to contain everything...Years ago, when we got something we kept it until it wore out, but, today, it may never wear out before we tire of it...On the average, people keep things several years after their usefulness has passed. Perhaps, we overbuy and have supplies, materials, and tools left over. The things we liked years ago are not what we like and enjoy today, but we keep them anyway."

Today, we even have TV shows devoted mostly to getting us to get rid of clutter. We have shows in which people arrive in the studio with bags of their clothing, none of which works well for them, and they are coached how to buy a new streamlined wardrobe. We also have shows in which people come into overcrowded houses and help people weed out the junk.

Of course, as you blogging sisters have shown us, we need not follow our culture into excess consumption. Should our economic woes continue, those of you who have already been making attempts to be frugal and creative will be ahead of the game.

So, where will our culture's situation go from here? No one's quite sure how the overall economy is going to pan out right now. I don't believe we're in for another Great Depression -- at least not yet. However, I do think more and more people will see the need to learn financial disicpline. My guess is that advances in technology will continue to make computers, I-pods, and the like become quickly obsolete, but in other areas people will give up their "it's all disposable" mindset.

I imagine that we'll see a return to the principles of "Use it all. Wear it out. Make it do, or live without." I think it will be good for all of us.

This is just speculation, but I wonder if the following will come true:

Repair services may become affordable again.
Canning will become more popular than ever.
Sewing will cease to be an expensive hobby and become part of everyday life again. The prices of sewing machines and sewing machines might come down. Fabrics might be better made and more reasonably priced.
People will buy well-made things, rather than stylish throw-away items.
People will maintain cars, refrigerators, and the like for longer periods of time.
People will grow more of their own food, and gardening supplies might become more affordable again.
It might become fashionable in new neighborhoods to have clotheslines and gardens once again, even if those neighborhoods currently have covenants that frown on those things.
More women might see home economy as a worthwhile occupation. The value of a prudent wife might once again be recognized.

Well, those are just my guesses. What about you? Where do you think things are heading? What will the future wave of thrift look like?

And, how are you currently putting into practice, "Use it up. Wear it out. Make it Do. Or, do without?"



LisaM said...

wonderful article!

faerieeva said...


I hope you do not mind but I quoted your blog in my post explaining the economic crisis. You can find the post here:

If you have any problem with my post I will of course remove the link!

Be loved and blessed,

Elizabeth said...

Hi Faerieeva --

Feel free to quote me. I had a chance to skim your very interesting article and want to go back and read it more thoroughly when I have a little more free time. It's interesting to hear from the perspective of the wife of an economist!

Elizabeth said...

Hi Lisam

I'm glad you enjoyed it.