Building An Earthship In Darfield, B.C.

We are a family of five living in Darfield, BC.
Our house is six hundred square feet in total and we are feeling cramped.

We have decided to build an earthship!

So starts the adventure ...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Frugal and Cheap: Friends, Acquaintances or Arch Enemies?

When we decided to close our business for a year or more, we committed to living frugally. No "work for pay" income meant we had to be pretty creative...

But, part of the deal in moving into 600 square feet temporarily, was the promise of a new (bigger) house, which on one hand, isn't always compatible with a no "work for pay" lifestyle. On the other hand, it's not too hard to beat 600 square feet...

The year before we stopped working, we had ditched plans for a $300,000 log show home...we just couldn't contemplate working harder to support the mortgage it would require, especially after being mortgage free for some time.

Even though an Earthship lends itself very well to Frugal Folk like us, I discovered I had two issues with it: One, how little could we spend on this project and still have a beautiful home; and two, how were we going to feel about sharing our vision of frugality when we built it?

Well the first one will remain to be seen. The second, well...

Chris and I have always been quite private about specifics of our financial position and even more so about our spending decisions. The thought of ADMITTING that we have embraced frugality is very new; sharing our frugal habits and how those habits would allow us to build an inexpensive home...would people just think we were really CHEAP?

Hmmm. How do I feel about that?....Yup, turns out I do care (a little) what people think of me!

So, are we frugal, or are we cheap? I've probably been thinking about these two concepts for almost two decades, more so now than ever before.

It all started with a night out at Big City Improv in Toronto in the early 90s with Chris, before we were married.

It was a small audience of perhaps 75 and the improv cast was made up of mostly young people...about the same age as we were at the time!

Before starting the first skit one of the performers pointed at Chris and asked him to name somebody he knew who was frugal. Chris mentioned a university classmate who was not a close friend. To everyone's delight, there followed a 15 minute sketch about Chris' classmate's supposed frugal habits: re-using tea bags three times, buying day old bread, going to bars and not ordering a drink but eating the free nuts and get the picture.

It WAS funny. The performers were amazing. But while we were laughing we were both somewhat embarrassed. This classmate had limited funds and was paying his own way through university without student loans. We were both beginning to wonder about the line between frugality as a socially sanctioned practice and frugality that is socially ridiculed...was it simply the difference between true frugality and cheapness?

Were frugality and cheapness interchangeable or were they entirely different?

During the last 18 months I have been chewing over the concept of frugality and cheapness, what they both mean, why society ridicules them and what place each has in my family's life.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines "frugal" as "sparing or economical; thrifty" or "plain, simple, or provided in small quantity with avoidance of excess".

In Your Money or Your Life (more about this book in a later posting) the authors pin down the meaning even more. Frugal, they say, has roots in the latin word, frug (virtue) and frux (fruit or value). They conclude that "frugality is enjoying the virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have use of." (One of the premises of Your Money or Your Life, is that your physical energy is one of the currencies with which you use to acquire the things in life you need/want/desire.) So, frugality is tied to enjoyment! Wow!

"Cheap" has several meanings and it is one definition in particular that taints the true meaning of frugality. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary says cheap means "low in price, inexpensive." We hear this definition used often. "Milk this week was really cheap." In itself, this definition is o.k. But often Cheap sneaks into our descriptions of people who look for the most inexpensive (cheap) price. Suddenly, Frugal Folk aren't surveyors of the least expensive option, they are "Cheap" people.

And,the social interpretation of a person considered Cheap is not pretty. People who are Cheap are often ridiculed as obnoxious bargain hunters, unpleasant to be around, people who will do without something to save a penny, or gain a financial advantage over somebody. No wonder some Frugal Folk are shy about sharing their frugal habits!

So Cheap in this context is no friend of frugality, I think.

I've always rebelled against Cheap's definition in quantitative terms. I think the word "inexpensive" is perfect to denote a low price and prevents the qualitative definition from sneaking in and attaching itself to Frugal Folks.

Cheap's qualitative definition of "low quality, inferior" is one that should prevail when describing a product or experience. To me if something is "cheap" it is of lower quality. It can be expensive or inexpensive but if it is cheap, it is of poor quality. Then, Cheap is Frugality's acquaintance...they'll run into each other occasionally but don't seek each other out.

But even with my interpretation of Cheap in terms of products and experiences, I cannot deny the existence of Cheap People, people whose actions are of lower quality. For instance, who hasn't gone to dinner in a group and decided to split the bill but someone invariably does not put their portion of the tip into the pot? Or, everyone gives the "cheap" person their portion of the bill and tips, and the "cheap" person adds it all up and realizes everyone overpaid enough that he or she didn't have to pay at all (instead of giving the extra money back or leaving it for the wait staff). Cheap is when frugality becomes an imposition to yourself or others, as was aptly put by a fellow Simple Living Network member (more on SLN in another posting).

Cheap as an imposition upon yourself is when you buy an inferior quality car because it is 30% less costly than one with better gas mileage. It lasts 5 years before it requires costly repairs while the more expensive car would chug along for 15 years and would have paid for itself in lower gas costs in the first few years.

I now look at people differently in terms of frugality and enjoyment of life. When I see people making choices about where they are spending their money--what they choose from menus, when they pack a lunch rather than buying one, if they shop at consignment stores or thrift shops--I see life fulfillment stories behind all of it. One person is saving for a trip to Europe next year, another is saving for a hefty down payment on a house so he starts life on a sound footing. Someone else is paying off their debt and getting off the debt treadmill. Still others want to retire at 40 and spend time with their kids...

So after looking outward I began to examine myself and what my family goals are. Even before we decided to build an Earthship, Chris and I had made some decisions that had their roots in frugality. It also helped that we have a healthy aversion to debt and are not bad savers. Our abiding rule was that if any of our changes caused Deprivation to visit, we would revisit the change.

We discovered that by selling our primary home, and paying off our final, small debts we could live debt free on a small amount of money without paid employment, if it came to that. We watched the market very closely and by December 2007 it became clear that the forest industry in our province was in for a rough time. By spring of 2008 we made the decision to close our business for a year or more and take the time to plan the home we wanted and to spend more meaningful time with our children and each other.

Without doubt it meant we were "frugal" in the best sense of the word. We looked at all our expenses and asked ourselves how many hours of paid employment would we have to work to pay for them. When you look at money and life in this way decisions become very easy.

We didn't need three business lines and two phone lines, and two cell phones. We are now down to two landlines total and one cell phone, stripped of all the fancy stuff.

We looked at our grocery bill and realized that because we were so busy working, we were buying more convenience food (expensive and unhealthy). With more time on our hands, Chris and I cook meals from scratch more and our grocery bills are down by 50 percent, with no sense of deprivation either nutritionally or gastronomically.

We planted a garden last summer with the spare time we finally had and practiced frugality by canning and freezing for use later. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work; I don't know how our grandmothers did it!

We wear things out before replacing them. I'm currently typing this on a 6 year old laptop where the keyboard no longer works. I've plugged in a USB keyboard. I'm determined not to replace this laptop until it breaks completely or I simply can't stand the experience of typing three feet away from the screen. (I'm getting there!)

I am a freecycler, giving and receiving unwanted items to prevent them ending up in landfills. I have given away a queen size mattress, a bread making machine I no longer used, some pet accessories. I've received over the last year, at no charge: a compost tumbler, a manual meat slicer, new hair accessories for the girls, unwanted fabric ends for my sewing and quilting projects. (

The moderator of the Kamloops site has given me the go ahead to promote our earthship goals when I post wanted items. I hope to prove that a home can be at least partially built and beautifully furnished from the unwanted items of a community...

We have always been a TV free household (we don't enjoy television). The savings of no cable or satellite fees over 20 years are tremendous.

In the summer we hang our clothes to dry. We pay less electricity and it's better for the environment.

I bake my own bread and make home-made soup. It's better for us and it costs a lot less (and I really enjoy it, now I am not always pressed for time!)

We eat out on special occasions at great restaurants instead of eating out at burger joints when we are too tired from working to cook. We pack a lunch when we ski the trails (on our family season's pass) at our local ski hill, and take it to the warming hut to eat.

Now that we do not work as much, we have parked one vehicle and are trying to become a one vehicle family. This requires us to puzzle out a trailer that can transport sheep and kayaks! This is still an experiment as there have been a few times this winter that half of us needed to be one place and half at another. But for the infrequent inconvenience we are enjoying the reduced vehicle expenditures, maintenance costs and headaches.

In the last year Chris and I bought two used kayaks and one new one so that our family could get back out on the lakes and camp again (we were just too many for one canoe). It was worth every penny, financed by our frugality over the previous year. We paddled on Mahood Lake, Murtle Lake and Clearwater Lake last summer and plan to go to Rainbow Falls on Azure Lake this summer. (

We drove across Canada last Christmas (hotels, food and gas were a fraction of the cost of flying). The kids held a map of Canada all the way there and got to know their country's geography. We had a vehicle when we arrived so we could travel between Ontario cities to see our relatives. We took the kids to the CN Tower Restaurant for dinner and jumped up and down on the glass floor. Again, all of this made possible by our frugal habits over the previous year. We have wonderful friends and family who housed and fed us and who we hope to have visit us when our Earthship is done so we can return the hospitality!

We have committed to our children's 4-H club and Chris and I not only volunteer but will help the kids build up a little flock of sheep for their projects. We are thinking of financing some layer chickens as a way for the kids to earn more pocket money and learn self-sufficiency.

Where possible, we buy used skiing equipment but when the kids' enjoyment and fitness is increased by having new equipment we never begrudge the money to upgrade.

We did make one change that we are probably going to reverse: we canceled our subscription to our local paper (, feeling we could get our news on our fave radio station: CBC. However, we discovered we were missing the local chatter and occasionally we missed a picture of one of our children in the local news!

We feel we have given up nothing and in return gained the ability to slow down and relax.

It means we spend more time with people. We are more readily able to accept and extend a casual invitation for tea and a visit. We walk through others' gardens and have time to ask about their growing techniques. We listen more attentively now that our minds are not strung out in too many directions. We can offer more of ourselves to people. We are healthier.

It certainly has not been a problem-free process. Letting go of "things" and our attachment to them is sometimes really hard. Even more difficult is shedding society's perception of one's actions. Going against the grain is difficult even for the most independent thinkers. Never has it been more important for us to really NOT care what everyone else thinks and to believe that our closest friends and family think well of us (and only make kind--but clever, of course--jokes behind our backs!!!)

So how does frugality fit into our Earthship plans? Well, by its very nature an earthship uses fewer resources. Solar power means no demand on hydro electric dams or plants. Rainwater collection means less demand on the water table. Passive solar gain and thermal mass means our heating costs will be less, or non-existent. Growing our own food means we can work less at paid employment to meet our nutritional needs. We are committed to sourcing used materials or finding innovative methods of building that uses recycled materials. (Have we become environmentalists, or as people in our valley call them, "tree huggers?" Well, I dislike labels intensely...more on that in another posting, but suffice it to say that wood will figure prominently in our home!)

Our goal is to build frugally and live joyously. To spend as little money as possible and enjoy doing so. To never feel deprived in the process. To have a beautiful home that could never be considered "cheap". Our goal is to prove to ourselves that living differently, spending differently, thinking differently, building differently, can be enormously rewarding.

Please feel free to post comments about your views on frugality!


strawgeek said...

Hey Sandra,

Awesome post. You two are an inspiration!!

Below is a favourite quote of mine that I think is appropriate.

cheers, John

"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about." Albert Einstein

Sandra said...

Great quote, John. It is very true that when we are excited about something, everything about us seems happy...

Chris has 1/2 his email to you completed (too technical for me to summarize) but has been nose to the grindstone with the plans lately...

ErinOrtlund said...

Interesting! Sounds like you're doing a very exciting thing building a sustainable house. I think that there will always be people who think frugal people are "cheap." Hopefully more and more people are seeing the benefits of simple living in these trying times, but for those who don't, oh well. I know that with our family backgrounds and our average incomes, we would not have the assets we have if we hadn't been as frugal as we have. If that makes me cheap in the eyes of some people, so be it. Also, having lived in the developing world, I tend to feel fairly wealthy and in fact, wasteful.