My wonderful friend Tita is one of the strongest forces of goodness in my life. Those of you who read ENOUGH will know her through the stories I told of her friendship, how she believed in me, and how she slowly helped me to emerge from the suffocating place I lived in for the first 26 years of my life. We have been continuous close friends since 1992. Knowing her has been one of the best gifts of my life.
Tita has always lived frugally. When I first met her, I was in my late 20s, determined to live the life from which I had been hidden by the strange ways of my family. Having every part of my life—furniture; shiny appliances; clothes; records—felt part of my freedom. And so I spent, without too much thought. I lived alone, on a teacher’s salary, and it felt like everything had been kept from me. I deserved the reward! Still, I didn’t end up with much savings. That took me years, well into my marriage with Danny. A few years ago, after watching how well she lived on so little money, I asked for her help. (I wrote about this in this last piece I published.) This has been our path to enough.
When Tita came over for a physically distanced cup of coffee and our weekly chat, I asked if I could interview her for this site. Being Tita, she laughed and said, “Why would anyone want to hear from me?”
Oh Tita. I’m determined that someday you will understand how incredible you are.
What is your definition of enough, Tita?
For me, simply, feeling like you have enough is knowing you don’t have to worry about money.
When John and I were married, we moved to Vashon and ended up working minimum-wage jobs. Before that, we had been in Capitol Hill in Seattle, with three other roommates. (This was back in the early 70s.) Patty and Peter—who have now been married as long as John and I have—moved to Berkeley so Peter could take an academic job. Martha was a dancer, so she moved to New York to try dancing there. And she followed her boyfriend.
In Seattle, we all had been working union jobs, so we made good wages and had insurance. (Oh, that we could all have union jobs.) In Seattle, we indulged. We had so much more than enough.
But John and I wanted to move to Vashon, since we always wanted to live somewhere green. The only work we could find were minimum-wage jobs. John worked in landscaping, then worked at the sprouts factory. I worked at the Country Store, folding overalls. And for the first time, we were paying for an entire house by ourselves, no roommates.
We had to save every penny we could. We were poor, down to our last dollar poor, for at least six years.
Were you scared when you didn’t have enough money?
Yes. I mean, I was worried about not being able to pay the bills. I was in my 20s, so I didn’t understand life the way I do now. And we didn’t have children, so I didn’t have that dread in my gut. But yes, I was worried about not being able to afford the necessities. I was never a materialist. That was not the issue. We sometimes just didn’t have the money for food.
The most worried I ever felt was when I was on my way to work and one of the tires blew out. It was the extra tire, the one stored in the trunk, which we had been using for awhile. I knew exactly how little we had in our bank account, so I instantly knew that I was going to have to choose between buying a new tire, which could get us both to work, and eating. That was the hardest day.
(I remember that Tita once told me about the month they were so poor they didn’t have money for groceries. They had flour and butter and sugar. They sneaked into a neighbor’s yard and picked cherries from their trees. Tita made a cherry pie every day. That’s all they ate for a month. They have not been able to eat cherry pie since.)
Now that you are in a much better shape, do you ever look back on that time and feel grateful for it?
Yes. Living in utter poverty changed me.
I didn’t live in a wealthy family, but I never considered us poor. I grew up in a neighborhood—in Madison, Wisconsin—where having eight children was the norm. It was only my twin brother and I in our family. My parents were academics, so we didn’t have that many new things. But we had books and food and everything we needed. When I got to college and found out we weren’t wealthy, it was quite a shock. Relative to the neighborhood where I grew up, we seemed quite wealthy. We never lacked for anything.
Before John and I lived in poverty, I did not understand what it meant to work full-time and not have any more than the basics, if that. I’m grateful that I lived through it, so I could understand. The middle class is so arrogant when it comes to the poor. Why aren’t you saving? Buy in bulk and save. You don’t have the luxury to save when you live in utter poverty. You don’t have the luxury to shop the way I was taught. When you only have money for one 10-ounce can, you cannot plan ahead. Any deviation of the normal existence is a major crisis. That time period made me understand what true poverty is, not what middle class people think poverty is.
Is that why you feel like enough is not having to worry about money now?
Yep. At the time, my vision of enough? If I had more than one bra. If I owned all the garbage cans I needed. That I could have a pair of shoes that didn’t have holes in them. And that I could buy something extra on payday, besides pay off the bills. Like buying primroses. A car that doesn’t break down all the time.
These were not status symbols. I just wanted enough to know I could pay all the bills, buy ourselves food, and be able to treat myself a little sometimes.
If you have that, you have enough. If you have that, you are blessed.
And can you see other ways that being that poor shaped you?
It certainly put me in the stead of improving my cooking. At the time, I had a very small amount of money for food for the two of us. I invented meals with what I had. I would roast one chicken and make it last all week. I could make something out of carrots in any form that was humanly possible to eat carrots. I made a ton of soufflés and crepes suzette, and squid, because it was one of the cheapest meats available.
Avocados were not seen in our household. Sour cream? Extremely rare. I never bought whole milk that was not powdered. It turns out you can do a lot of French cooking with powdered milk. I cooked everything I could, using the cheapest ingredients possible. I picked lemon balm and spearmint from the yard to brew the cheapest black tea into something decent for iced tea. We could barely afford coffee, but we were addicted to it, so we saved for it.
I was so annoyed that John didn’t like organ meats. This was before they got fashionable, so they were cheap. The first week that we were married, I bought a tongue. It was poor-people food. It was the food I grew up on. I was in the kitchen, skinning the tongue for dinner. John walked in and said, “What the hell is that?” That’s when I discovered that organ meats were off the menu. That was a loss.
A few years later, a lot of these ingredients became trendy and chichi, which drove up the price. I was so annoyed.
What is your life like now, financially?
I don’t cook that way anymore because I can afford more. But I’m frugal still because there’s no reason not to be. I still shop for the food that is a grocery-store special and what’s in season.
We couldn’t afford restaurants. Once we started being able to go out, I resented the fact that I was paying for food I could make myself. I love going to restaurants where I cannot cook the food. I have not mastered Thai food, so we love to go to a good Thai restaurant or an Asian restaurant. They can cook things I cannot and I love supporting them.
Today, we live on what people call a lower middle-class income. We’re retired. But I feel incredibly wealthy. We are incredibly wealthy, compared to the rest of America. We hadn’t bought anything new for 35 years, so last year we saved to buy a modest new car. We did not remodel or refinance our home. We put money into savings so that we could live in retirement on the same income that I had as a teacher.
We go on a huge vacation every year. We save all year to go to Spain or Mexico for a month. We spend all the money and we don’t stint. We treat ourselves as lavishly as we can afford. We only spend money on what we believe is important.
We are completely debt-free. There is no worry in our lives anymore.
What advice would you give to other people about how to live frugally, especially in the midst of this pandemic?
If you aren’t trapped in debt, take advantage of any program that is being offered. Do not feel weird at all about using the food banks. Use the services available to you. Don’t worry about status symbols.
Don’t worry about what America wants you to do. American capitalism wants you to consume.
Take electronics. (Tita recently acquired a cell phone, a hand-me-down from a dear friend’s daughter.) That is such a nickel and dime way to make sure you do not have enough money. For only $3.99 you can add this app. Why? Will it improve your life. No. Do they want you to do this? Yes. Don’t get sucked into that trap.
I am shocked at the things that people buy in dribs and drabs that don’t make a difference in the long run. It’s true. You really don’t need that $4.99 latte.
Do you have kids? Put your money into education. Make sure you have medical insurance. Pets? Make sure you have money set aside to take care of them if they have an accident. Make enough money to meet your fundamental needs. And free yourself from the fear that you need more.
I can’t think of anything else that matters.
Thank you, Tita.