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A Frugal Man’s Guide to Happiness and Health

For me, the inexpensive ways to do things are also the healthiest and most fun.


Originally posted by Peter Gray on his Psychology Today Blog.

There’s something about approaching age 73 that leads me to think it’s OK, just this once, to get a bit autobiographical and act as if an account of some of my life experiences might be useful to others. Please forgive me. And yes, I know, 73 isn’t really that old. But humor me; let me pretend I’m one of the wise elders of the tribe.

I’m pretty healthy and fit for someone my age (or maybe even for someone of any age, as my very kind general practitioner tells me). Yes, I have some rather serious arthritis, and I had a knee replacement a couple years ago, and I have a bit of osteoporosis, but none of that keeps me down.

The secret to health, fitness, and I might add happiness, for me, lies largely in my never-ending drive to save money. I’ve always been frugal, to a degree such that some might use a less benign term for it. I suppose my frugality comes partly from experience (I grew up in a family that had no money to waste) and partly from genetic disposition (I’m much more frugal than most who grew up in my circumstances). When my brothers and I each got 25 cents a week allowance, I was the only one who actually saved it. When, at age 11, I got a paper route, and two years later got an after-school job as janitor and errand boy for a book binding company, I began saving so much (tens of dollars!) that I opened a bank account.

When I decided, at age 15, that I might want to go to college and my parents assured me that they had no money for that, I started doing the things I figured I needed to do to get a scholarship. I got one, to Columbia College in New York City, and earned the rest of my way by working as a waterfront director at a camp in the summers and, part-time, as a nursery school assistant and as a recreation director at youth organizations during the rest of the year — jobs that helped to engender some of my later-blooming ideas about child development, play, and self-directed education.

Why I wasn’t tempted to smoke, drink, or use drugs in college, and why I walked everywhere

In college, in the 1960s, I avoided the bad habits I saw among my classmates primarily because they cost money. I would not have dreamed of spending good money for cigarettes. I did not join my classmates in drinking or in experimenting with LSD or even pot, partly because they seemed unhealthy, but mostly because they cost money. In what free time I had I did free things, which were also fun and health promoting. I played tennis in Riverside Park with friends, or joined pick-up games of basketball or roller hockey with high-school kids in the playground behind one of the local schools.

The 15-cent charge for subway or bus trips in the City at that time seemed excessive to me, so I usually walked to the places I needed or wanted to go. Just walking between the College and my jobs and the rent-controlled apartment I shared with friends (cheaper than the dorm) averaged, I estimate, about 6 to 8 miles a day. I found that I loved to walk, and it took less time than the bus and was way more pleasant than the subway. I did (and still do) some of my best thinking while walking. Even today, whenever I travel to a new city, I walk whenever possible rather than take a cab or public transportation, partly, still, to save money and partly because I find that walking is the best way for me to experience any city.

After College I started graduate school, still in NYC, at the Rockefeller University. After one year there I got married, and after two years we had a baby. For a variety of reasons, my wife was unable to work, so the three of us lived entirely on my graduate fellowship — something that other students found hard to believe. We managed to get a rent-controlled studio apartment ($89/month) across town from the University. I splurged and bought a second-hand bicycle and began cycling everywhere I needed to go in the city. Walking was great, but cycling was a lot faster and I found the joy to be at least as much.


Why I’m thankful for the oil embargo of 1973

When I finally got my Ph.D. and began my career as a professor at Boston College, we moved into a small house about 17 miles west of the College. During the first year I drove to work, with the first car I ever owned, but then came the OAPEC oil embargo of 1973. Prices of gasoline skyrocketed and people began having to wait in long lines at gas stations. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it led me to stop driving to work.

I splurged again on a bicycle, this time a nice, new, lightweight 10-speed. I spent a few days building up to it and then began bike commuting the 34-mile round trip between home and work. As I had with walking in NYC, I began to keep track of the time it took me to go each way, to see if I could set new personal records. Sometimes I’d find myself racing with another cyclist who was trying to pass me, or whom I wanted to pass. We’d laugh about it when we got to a red light. I got really warm clothes and found I could continue riding through the winter. I had a rule that I would drive only if it was raining hard or snowing at all, or if there was ice on the road, or if the temperature was below 15 degrees F at my start time in the morning. Otherwise I would take my bike.

The joy of bicycling, especially with a recumbent

The oil embargo ended in less than a year, but I kept biking to and from work for the next 30 years, until I retired (early) from teaching and began using my home office as the main base for my research and writing. Biking was much more fun than driving. It was a great, fun way to exercise that not only took very little time beyond what commuting by any means would take, but also saved many thousands of dollars in gasoline and other automobile costs. I made my own bike repairs, so there was almost no cost to cycling.

I could never understand why anyone would pay to go to a gym (and drive there!) rather than take advantage of all the wonderful free, fun ways to exercise outdoors. It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could enjoy lifting weights or running around a track or swimming back and forth in a chlorine-filled pool. No wonder they call it a workout. My exercise has always been play.

After my first wife died, in 1997, I began doing a bike charity ride in her honor every summer — a ride that covered 550 to 600 miles in 6 days. After about ten years of doing that with a large group, I switched, for a few years, to doing a solo ride of about that length every summer, camping along the way. I did that so I could choose my own route, enjoy the solitude, and donate to a foundation that wasn’t spending some of the donation supporting bike rides. I stopped doing that for a few years because of knee pain, but now that I have a new knee I’m hoping to take it up again.

Throughout most of my life, bicycling has been my default way of getting around locally. That was true when I was a kid, beginning at age 5, and it’s still true today. When I’m going somewhere not more than about fifteen miles away and don’t need to take anyone else or a heavy load, I usually hop onto my bike, not into my car.

The bicycle I ride now is a recumbent. I bought it almost 16 years ago, because it’s easier on my arthritis than an upright bike (what recumbent riders call a “wedgie bike”), but once I had it I regretted not always riding this kind of bike. I don’t know why recumbents aren’t more popular. They’re much more comfortable than uprights. You’re leaning back in a comfortable seat, something like a lawn chair, and looking up and out and seeing all the scenery, rather than leaning forward and straining your neck to see much but the road. It’s also safer, because if you fall you’ll land on your side, not your head; you can’t go over the handlebars. One of the things I like best about the recumbent is hearing kids holler out, “Cool bike!” as I go by. It’s pretty much the only thing I do these days that kids think is cool. Before I bought it, a long-time recumbent rider told me that it’s impossible not to smile while riding one. He was right. While an upright tends to put you into an aggressive, competitive position, a recumbent puts you into a laid back, loose, I-love-the-world-and-everyone-in-it position. I can ride the recumbent as fast as I can an upright, but on it I have no temptation to race.

A few months ago, to make grocery shopping easier, I bought a little trailer for the bike. The grocery store would be an easy 10-mile round trip, but the return part is a great workout when I have two weeks’ worth of groceries in the trailer and some relatively steep hills to climb.

Source: Peter Gray

I also use the trailer to take just-for-fun trips with my little (25-lb) dog, Cookie (see the picture). With him in the trailer, I peddle to nice hiking places and then we get off and walk for a few miles before returning. (Parenthetically, I note that “Cookie” was not my choice for his name, nor was it his. He wanted to be called “Bruiser.” Poor dog, he’s continuously having to prove his masculinity because he’s so little and cute and has the name Cookie.)

The woods and lake are beautiful, free, and fun

One of the luxuries of working at home is I can get outdoors almost every day for at least an hour of fun while it’s still light. I’m lucky enough to live on a lake, and during three seasons of the year I especially like to kayak on it. Cookie goes with me in the kayak, as he enjoys looking at the water birds as much as I do, though his motives for that are different from mine. We usually beach the kayak on the other side of the lake and take a walk in the public woods there. The first summer after we moved to this area, Cookie and I spent a few days cutting away brush to create a hiking trail through that woods. Cookie’s job was to keep the bears and bobcats at bay, who kept sneaking up on us disguised as squirrels and chipmunks. Now I’m glad to see that some other people are occasionally using the trail, too, but Cookie, who thinks we own the trail and isn’t very tolerant of intruders, isn’t so happy about that.

In winter, my favorite activity is cross-country skiing on nearby wooded trails, including the trail that Cookie and I created. If it’s cold enough and there’s not too much snow, I also enjoy ice-skating on the lake. These are activities I grew up enjoying in northern Minnesota, and I’ve never lost my love of them.

Cutting my own wood, growing my own food, and quiet ways of lawn care as money-saving sports

Partly to reduce use of fossil fuels, but mostly, I confess, to save money, I installed a wood-burning stove in our house. At first I bought firewood, but then they raised the price and I decided to buy a chain saw and good splitting axe instead. It’s an electric chain saw with rechargeable battery, because I hate the sound and smell of gasoline engines, but it’s almost as powerful as a gas one. There are plenty of fallen trees around us, so cutting them up and splitting the wood is a new, great money-saving sport. I love bringing the axe down hard and seeing the two halves of a log segment fly apart. And what they say about firewood is true; it warms you three times — once when you cut it, once when you haul and stack it, and finally when you burn it.

A small, slow-moving river runs into the lake we live on, but it wasn’t navigable when we moved here because of trees fallen over it. I’ve prepared more than a year’s worth of firewood just by cutting up those trees, splitting the wood, and hauling it back home in my canoe; and in the process I’ve done a public service by making part of the river navigable by kayak or canoe. When we go out lumber jacking, I pretend I’m Paul Bunyan and Cookie pretends he’s Babe the Blue Ox, except when a small mammal appears and he reverts to wolf.

Shoveling snow is another of my favorite sports. On one or two occasions I’ve been offered someone’s used snow blower and have turned it down. Why would I want to walk behind a noisy machine when it’s so much fun and great exercise to use my own muscles to move the snow? One of the most beautiful things about being out after a snowstorm is the silence. A snow blower ruins that. I love snow, the more the better. Among other things, it’s such a great excuse to get outdoors — first to shovel and then to ski.

I also do essentially all other lawn and garden maintenance by hand. I’ve always, since leaving NYC, grown a vegetable and fruit garden, saving thousands on grocery bills while enjoying the freshest produce possible. Even when creating a new garden, no matter how large or how hard the sod, I do all the soil turning by hand. I dig it double deep, so as to bury the sod.

One of my favorite stories about gardening was told by my mother, about Scott Nearing, the famous political radical, social philosopher, and back-to-nature writer who lived from 1883 to 1983. My mother and he happened to be visiting the same mutual friend at the same time. The friend, who was going to start a new garden, went out to rent a tiller. During the time that the friend was out, Nearing, who was 90 years old at the time, picked up a spade and turned over the entire garden. It took him less time to turn the garden by hand than it took for the much younger friend to go out to the rental place and bring back the tiller.

That’s the kind of story that really resonates with my frugal nature. When I first heard it I thought it was a somewhat mean, show-off thing for Nearing to do, but the older I get the more I appreciate it. At a certain age you get to do these slightly mean things, to make a point. Sometimes I’m tempted to go over to where a neighbor is blowing leaves around with a godawful noisy machine and rake his yard for him. But I’m not old enough for that yet. I’ve marked it on my calendar for 2034.


A good physical therapy book is a wise investment

One does get aches and pains with age, but there are ways to combat them. I stopped playing basketball and tennis many years ago, because I realized that the constant jarring was hard on my knees and other joints. I switched to smooth, rhythmic sports, like biking, kayaking, and cross-country skiing.

As a kid and young man I was prone to backaches. When I was about 30 I wrenched my back while ice-skating, so badly that I was laid up for a week. I vowed then to never get another backache, and that’s when I started daily morning exercises. I found a book called Maggie’s Back Book, which described a few simple exercises designed to prevent backaches. I’ve been doing those now for 42 years and haven’t had another backache in all that time. Exercise fads come and go, but Maggie’s Back Book is forever. Over time I’ve added a few other exercises to keep arthritic joints loose and strengthen the muscles around them.

In all, my exercises take about 15 to 20 minutes each morning. That’s my concession to the idea that disciplined exercise, beyond what I would experience as play, can be useful. I believe in physical therapy, but you don’t need to pay a physical therapist for it unless it’s something very unusual. You can look up the exercises in the same books that the physical therapists use.

So, if I decide to make a million dollars by publishing Gray’s Guide to Health, Happiness, and Financial Security, the key points will be:

• Save money by not consuming harmful substances.

• Save money on transportation by walking or biking.

• Save money by doing your own yard work, shoveling your own snow by hand, and cutting your own wood if you have a fireplace or wood stove. Make a sport of doing things yourself rather than hiring people or buying machines to do it.

• Save money by growing at least some your own vegetables and fruits if have any yard space and sunshine at all. Flowers are pretty, but you can’t eat them, and grass is just a waste.

• As you grow older, shift to non-jarring sports that are rhythmic, aerobic, and cost little or nothing.

• Invest in a good physical therapy book, or borrow one from the library.

• If you need a companion who is always ready and eager to join you in outdoor adventures, and will remind you when it’s time to go, and won’t interrupt your meditations with lots of chatter, get a dog.

• Wait until you’re at least 90 before you show up your neighbor (the one with the leaf blower) by raking his lawn for him. When you’re 90, he probably won’t punch you in the nose for it. He’ll attribute your action to senility, not perverseness.

If you have read to the end here, thank you for your indulgence. And, now, what advice might you have, from your life experiences, about how to save money while promoting your health and happiness?

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