Considering What’s In Your Hand?

Sometimes a specific, precise and detailed bit of frugal advice is what you need most immediately and short term (chicken is on sale here, corn starch is better than and cheaper than baby powder, you can make adequate biscuits with water instead of milk).  But for long term savings what does the most good is a philosophical change, an alteration in your views of necessities vs needs, a wider view of how you think about frugality.

What’s in your hand was a life changing question for me.  Instead of ‘what’s the least I need to buy to accomplish this,” it changes my focus to “What do I already have that will do?”

Often, the answer to the whats in my hand question will vary greatly depending on very specific circumstances. In one place we lived, for example, what I had in my hand was just about all the free fresh-caught salmon our family could eat, a liberal supply of other free seafood (including crab legs) and blackberries and apples for the picking. Thats an unusually bountiful (and delicious) example of free, but not very applicable to most of the country. It would not be very helpful to a wide range of readers if I wrote about whats in my hand by sharing recipes for salmon and crab soup.

There are a few things we can all have in hand, no matter who we are or where we live, no matter what our circumstances. Lets allow Aunt Sophronia to explain what one of those universal gifts might be.

Aunt Sophronia, as some of my regular and more long term blog readers know, is a character from an old book formerly belonging to my great-grandmother. The Complete Home, An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Life and Affairs Embracing All the Interests of The Household, by Julia McNair Wright is one of my favorite Domestic Treasures. Mrs. Wright wrote to help impoverished families economize during the depression of the 1870s. She writes in the first person in the character of a delightful old gentlewoman named Aunt Sophronia. Aunt Sophronia has three nieces of her own whom she is guiding, and she is aunt by courtesy title to most of the young people in town.

In this excerpt Aunt Sophronia has been invited to a tea her niece is hosting for a newly married lady in town and the question of building up wealth arises, and Aunt Sophronia answers the call to share her advice:

All that has been said can be boiled to a very short and simple answer, I replied; and all the difficulty in the work lies in the needful self-sacrifice. The question first is: Will you be content to call honest independence, enough to live upon tastefully without fear or favor, enough to keep away the wolves of debt and want, and to send out from your door, on your errands, the full-handed angels of benevolence, will you call that being rich?

Self-sacrifice, which is another word for self-denial, and contentment are two things available to all of us striving to live within our means. Self-denial has, perhaps, to our modern ears a grim, grudging sort of sound. But it is our ears at fault, not the word. Self-denial is following in the footsteps of Jesus, it is a pathway of joy, and it is necessary for growth. It is part of what separates the childish from the child-like. Aunt Sophronia continues:

I will give you the rules, which are few and simple, and easily performed by self-sacrifice. Work hard; see and improve all small opportunities; keep out of debt and carefully economize. That is the best that all the wisdom of the world has been able to digest and formulate as rules for getting rich. The matter is simple and lies in a nutshell: have the end definitely before you; do your own work toward it and do it honestly, and dont give up until you have reached your goal; the same plain, straight, unadorned and yet passable road is open to all.

This should not be your Frugal Face.

Of Aunt Sophronias’ three nieces, one of them is more well to do than the others, but more than a little silly, and lacking in those qualities of contentment and self-denial that make for pleasant companionship and grown up life. Another is quite poor in financial matters, but has a can-do spirit, is hard working and possesses a servants heart, as well as a contented spirit. These two nieces are about to be married and they ask their aunts advice on what sort of capital they need to begin married life. Aunt Sophronia makes it clear that the first niece had better lay be quite a bit of financial capital before she gets married, but the niece practiced in the arts of making do with joy and contentment has a capital that more than matches teh value of an earthly bank account:

Economy will be especially demanded of young people who have no fortunes but in themselves. Are you capable of self-denial and self-sacrifice? Can you be cheerful while others, your friends, make a greater display and have more showy pleasures? Can you be resolute to save a little every year, even if it is a very little indeed? This strength of character which can attain to self-denial, to perseverance, self-sacrifice, is fine capital
Practise Economy as a Fine Art: make a duty and a pleasure of it; it is the mortar wherein you lay up the walls of home; if it is lacking, or is poor in quality, the home building will crumble. Dont be ashamed of economy: study it, consult about it; dont confound it with meanness: economy is the nurse of liberality.

Before you can properly consider and apply what you have in your hand, you just may need to examine what you have in your heart. Without a spirit of contentment, we can never truly achieve a gracious and cheerful frugality. Without that pleasure in economy as a fine art, we cannot expect to be able to see all the possibilities in those things we do have in our hands.
And without that strength of character that makes possible cheerful self-denial, all our attempts at frugality are merely ash and dust in the eye. As we read in Proverbs 17:

Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.

You’re saving money, working toward a goal. Do it with joy, not sourness.  Have fun.  Cheerful, affectionate, contentment will help you go a long, long way on what’s in your hand.


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