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The Alternative Householder

By Valerie Yule - posted Wednesday, 13 May 2015

For the past few decades, I tried to interest publishers in the idea of a Manual for housekeeping that was socially responsible, and useful for those short of money, or getting married and needing a present - The Alternative Householder . Now, once again, Australian initiative has been pre-empted by overseas enterprise reaching the market first.

The Frugal Zealot, Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced Decision) began to accumulate a small fortune by publishing a monthly named The Tightwad Gazette. This has already picked up 53,000 subscribers at U.S.$12 per annum, and a rating by Martin Walker in the Guardian Weekly, from which my information about this American scene has come. Amy emphasises personal satisfactions rather than social responsibility to attract her customers - and that may have been the critical element in her success.

Now any American trends in crime, sex, financial rackets, music, entertainment, New Age religions and forms of vandalism are usually confidently expected to root here too. If those do, why not this?


The Alternative Householder manuscript was disregarded because it appeared as a shocker. It advocated glamorous ways to pass children's clothing and gear around family and friends in the role of heirlooms, how to wash dishes faster than with an automatic dishwasher, and using gym exercise machines to power generators or even the TV. Amy advanced this sort of frugality to 'a higher plane of enlightment... the Zen of Advanced Tightwaddery.' 'You progress to a state of mind where you develop an aversion to stupid expenditures.'

Thrift became a bad word post-war because it became associated with hassle and not letting it all hang out. During ten years residence in Aberdeen, Scotland, from 1978-1988, I observed the most dramatic change in a culture I ever expected to see. First the Aberdeen Joke Factory turned to selling only American jokes, then it closed down. Avoidance of hassle becamse such a moral imperative that when people moved house, they chucked the heavy furniture and a good deal of the chattels out of the first and second floor windows into a skip on the cobbles below. Puir auld bodies struggling to survive on the wee pension threw out two thirds of every loaf of bread they bought syne it wis tae muckle hassle to mak frens wi ony ither auld wee bodies on the same fluir of their tower-block to share their loaf turn aboot.

Thrift is a middle-class or peasant virtue, because it calls for energy - and so when middle-class or peasant values are called in question and derided, thrift is exposed as meanness. Instead the Kwakiutl attitude to generosity that we have espoused is seen in the common belief that if you are spending $10 on a present, you ought to spend $1 on the wrapping and $9 on the present, because it is mean to package it in finger-painting or re-use gift-wrap steam-ironed, and so spend the whole $10 on the gift itself.

A consumer society that relies on constant purchasing to make the wheels go round calls for all possessions always to be new and to look new, and so a great deal of chucking out is constantly necessary. Old-looking heirlooms have to be extremely expensive to be OK in your own home and not in a museum.

The return of tight-waddery in a recession and in this modern age because people do not have the money or are starting to become conservation-conscious has some excellent arguments for it - but in a consumer society there are two quite serious drawbacks.

Poor people and the unemployed are those who benefit most from tightwaddery, and it is often essential in order to be upwardly mobile. However, unless comfortably-off middle-class people with jobs also start enjoying the pleasure of not wasting, poor people and the unemployed feel put upon and demeaned if they alone are asked to be a bit more careful about their budgets, about what they buy for Christmas, the clothes they put on their children, and to wash nappies rather than starve to buy disposable ones. That is how individuals are affected by the prevailing culture. (And there is also the point that malnutrition or junk diet reduces the energy a person has available to husband their own resources.


However, unless the prevailing culture starts some tightwaddery, our problems of pollution and waste-disposal and dissipation of irreplaceable natural resources will spoil the quality of life for man, woman, beast and plant, regardless of how many paper towels we continue to buy. This is morality for society.

It is also a religious issue. In this pagan society, 'Judaeo-Christian morality' is a pejorative term. The Genesis statement that the Lord gave man dominion over the earth and living things is interpreted as if it meant orders to enslave and destroy. Certainly, much of recent Western history would sustain that interpretation, but until the 16th century Age of Expansion, the statement was simply a matter of fact. Human beings have in fact had this power to care for, to order, and to benefit from nature. This power has constantly increased, so that today we either conserve or annihilate, and must answer to God for the results of our stewardship. Tightwaddery may be in order for this stewardship.

Tightwaddery also involves 'work'. The 'work ethic' today is usually clichèd as 'the Protestant work ethic' - in the same way that 'reality' has to be 'harsh reality'.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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