With a knack for making do, we can make ends meet and reduce our environmental footprint.
I REMEMBER HOW IT FELT, staring at the groceries on the Safeway shelves 26 years ago, and wondering how I was going to feed my family. It was mid-winter, we had just moved here from Nova Scotia with three young children, and it was quickly becoming clear that the ratio of salary to cost-of-living was notably less favourable at this end of the country. I knew housing was going to cost us much more, but food, clothing, gas and everything else too? Was I still in Canada? I took a deep breath and turned thoughts to my parents.
In monetary terms, they were categorically poor when they arrived in Canada and settled on a near-defunct farm in New Brunswick in 1952. But, having survived the destitution and ravages of German- occupied Holland during WWII, they knew a thing or two about survival, resilience, and making ends meet. As a result, we Canadian-born kids in our mended clothes and with bellies full of farm-grown food were mostly unaware that we grew up in a working-poor family. I’m sure I voiced plenty of complaints growing up, but I never once worried about food or security. By the time I left home our farm was thriving and our family enjoyed a comfortable life.
Now standing at Safeway with my mouth slightly agog, I resolved that if my parents (and their parents) could wrestle down such daunting austerity, then surely I could triumph over my own lesser challenge. I’d had good teachers: I knew how to mend, was a half-decent cook, could plant and tend a garden and had a knack for making do.
In the years that followed, we employed many small and homely ways to stretch our after-tax dollars. Much of our retooling centred around food, with strategic practices such as judicious shopping, home-style cooking and zero food waste adding up to big savings as well as healthier eating. We shunned products like plastic wrap and paper towels in favour of free stuff readily available at home: Repurposed cereal bags are much more versatile and rags do a better clean-up job.
We ate out only on special occasions, which made those occasions all the more special.
We vacationed at island campgrounds, hosted birthday parties at home or on the beach, grew our own food, froze the surplus, baked bread, and made soups and spaghetti sauce out of leftovers. We purchased or gratefully accepted used clothing and other hand-me-downs and mended as necessary. We took care of our stuff and passed on what was no longer needed. We consolidated our errands and car trips. When my mother came to visit, she made bedroom curtains and cushions for the kitchen chairs.
The kids soaked all this up by osmosis—if not always willingly—and today they’re incorporating many such strategies into their own lifestyle. Cost-cutting is definitely a motivator, but so is the desire for a less cluttered life and reduced environmental impact. And thanks to a relatively recent cultural shift, buying used, repairing, sharing and bartering are now considered cool instead of cheap, and corresponding social media platforms are abuzz with activity.
That’s a good thing, given that an increasing number of people are struggling to make ends meet. For many, the salary to cost-of-living ratio is now distressingly dismal, and staggering social issues such as housing, childhood poverty and environmental degradation have steadily become coiled into a massive and tangled Gordian knot that our leaders can neither cut nor undo.
I’m not suggesting that the modest ways from the olden days can fix these conglomerated woes, but they can provide some cushioning against outside chaos. They’re also greener, which is crucial in any blueprint for lasting change. And they could be a brave first step towards calming the economy, a notion that the corporate world wants us to continue believing isn’t possible. Yes, we need good jobs or a good guaranteed income, but we also need a genuine work/life balance instead of its cunning long-time imposter, the work/buy imbalance that has served commerce so very well. Beyond a certain point, it’s not more money for stuff that we need as much as more time to live a little better.
There’s wisdom in embracing the tried and tested. Our elders and ancestors would smile their approval.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic would like to wish everyone a happy new year.