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A month of getting by on nothing

W. Hodding Carter

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

TESS VIGELAND: Can you imagine trying to go a whole month without spending any money? Not one lousy penny? W. Hodding Carter's family did it. Or at least came pretty close. Carter's been writing a column for Gourmet magazine -- I should say the late, great Gourmet magazine -- about his family's year-long experiment with extreme frugality at their home in Maine.

You've heard a couple of his commentaries about the experience on this show, but we wanted to talk to him about this. What would you call it... crazy? idea to abstain from all spending.

Carter: Hi Tess. Thanks.

Vigeland: So before we hear about a month without spending, I do want to ask for your thoughts about the demise of Gourmet, which was posting your blog entries. What do you do now?

Carter: We found out on Monday, I think a few hours after the staff did. But by midnight, Monday night, my wife had created a Web site for me and I had written a blog by, I think, 1 a.m. So I just got worried that we were going to lose this chance to keep talking about and sharing all our mishaps without trying to change the way we've been living. So it's been a crazy couple of days.

Vigeland: Well and so how does that affect your frugality, when you now have to have your own Web site?

Carter: It's ridiculous. It's not really costing that much, I found the cheapest host company out there, which maybe wasn't a good idea. If anyone goes to my Web site now, they're going to go, "OK, sometimes it's not good to be frugal."

But I'm hoping someone has mercy on me and helps me figure this out.

Vigeland: All right, well for the past year, you've been living on a shoestring budget. But recently the family went way beyond frugal chic that we've been hearing about or even extreme frugality, to spending nothing. So tell us how and why did this idea pop into your head?

Carter: Well, I felt like we were sometimes doing well, sometimes not. The summer, really, things got out of hand, because my family was always coming in and wanting to us to do things. So we definitely didn't do it in July and August. This is the first time I'm admitting this, so... I don't feel too comfortable.

Vigeland: That's OK, nobody's listening.

Carter: OK, good. I just said, "OK, how can we really make this happen. Oh, well just don't spend any money." I convinced Lisa...

Vigeland: And Lisa's your wife, right?

Carter: Right, everyone should just read all the blogs and find out all about us. Then we decided that it would be cheating if we went out and bought all we needed for the whole month, even though we bought an extra couple gallons of milk and we loaded up both cars with gas. And we just set out to try to make it really work for once. And it was a big mistake.

Vigeland: Uh oh.

Carter: Well, just the milk ran out by day five.

Vigeland: I was wondering about that. I mean, wouldn't it be outdated as well, at least by the end of the month?

Carter: Yeah, but the kids wouldn't know. I could just... I mean, I couldn't believe it -- three gallons of milk in five days and none of my kids drink milk.

Vigeland: What happened there?

Carter: They saw there wasn't a whole lot in the house and they weren't going to get anything, so they were loading up on their calories in chocolate milk. Well, one of my sons does drink it.

But what was really cool was that somehow we put out there what we were doing to our friends and all of a sudden, everyone wanted to barter.

Vigeland: Yeah. You know, I read about that on your Web site. And I mean, this goes back eons, that this is how people got things for themselves was bartering. And you seem to have brought that back.

Carter: Well, sort of didn't go out of style here as much as it did everywhere else. But, it was amazing. Just sort of all of a sudden we open this door and everyone wanted to barter. And everyone had stuff that they wanted to give us that we really needed or were willing to go out and buy it for us even, just to then trade with us. One person went out and got about $200 worth of groceries and I think all I gave her was a five-gallon bucket of chicken poop.

Vigeland: Well, that sounds like a fair trade to me. But, you know I wonder, if this is a bit of a novelty, at least in this situation. I mean, I'm sure folks know about your experiment and they're enamored with it. I wonder if you continued that for any length of time if your neighbors would still be buying $200 worth of groceries.

Carter: No, I think it would sort of get a little more even after a while. But it made Lisa and me both realize that we didn't have to keep doing everything the way we've done it our whole lives and the way everyone else was. And that there was a way to make this work. I think we're going to actually keep doing this at least for the next couple of years, just to see if it does help us get rid of the rest of the debt.

Vigeland: So the spending-free experiment ended at the end of September and I think I read you found out that you had some pent up spending, just waiting to get out. What do you think that was all about?

Carter: Well, it ended one day, when we had to buy gas to go to Helen, one of my daughter's soccer games. And once that happened, I thought, "Well, we've got to go ahead and get everything we need now." So I went to the grocery store. I almost my held myself my check and then I saw the Dunkin' Donuts

Vigeland: Uh oh.

Carter: And we've given up any kind of buying coffee all year, anything from the store that was sort of grab-and-go food. I hid it, the coffee and the bag, under the car seat, but Lisa found it.

But there was that desire to spend and just not be controlled and not be stopped from getting something. But right after I did it though, the remorse was so overwhelming, I couldn't even get out of bed the next morning.

Vigeland: Well, what do you think that is? You know, I think you're a fascinating guinea pig. You've had a long period of deprivation and apparently, something was just building in you that you just wanted to go out and spend money. I'm sure a lot of folks can relate to that.

Carter: Yeah. That's the thing that I keep looking at and keep trying to examine and keep trying to understand. I haven't figured it out. We are so trained and so programmed, I think, to buy and to spend, I would love to try to escape or side-step or at least come up with some new way to feel OK and acquire things, without getting into debt.

Vigeland: Well, we look forward to your future stories and to chatting with you again. Hodding Carter, so nice to speak with you and good luck with the continuing experiment.

Carter: Thanks Tess. But can you pay for the parking meter

Vigeland: I'd be happy to.

Carter: Thanks.

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So they didn't spend any money for a month. Sounds like their friends & neighbors spent it for them... Taking stuff of high value in exchange for stuff of low value isn't making progress in reducing their spending. They are still consuming the stuff and someone else is paying for it.

After a month of no spending, Tess half-jokingly referred to the "pent up need to buy something". I submit we may not be hardwired to "buy", but we ARE, evolutionarily speaking, hunter/gatherers, and are hardwired to "acquire", you might say. Our ancestors may not have had money, but they had the desire to go get "stuff" - and not just food. Think about picking up pretty stones, shells, bits of interesting wood, not all of which found it's way into some artistic creation. Some things were collected just because.

Hi,
Frugality is a long and honored tradition in New England and is practiced in Maine by many people. While I wish you and your family well I am writing to explain why I felt offended after listening to this interview.
There are many rural poor people in Maine who are frugal because they need to be. From the interview it sounds very much like you are just playing at frugality, "slumming it" basically.
There is also a strong movement toward sustainable living that has existed in Maine for many years which was exemplified most clearly by Scott and Helen Nearing.
In the interview it seemed as if you equate your simple living experiment with being an opportunistic sponge off of other people. Most people I know in Maine who are trying to live simply and/or who don't have a lot of money do have a great deal of pride and would never dream of ending an conversation with "Hey - would you pay this small bill for me." That characterization of a "frugal" person is what I found offensive.
And, yes, urbanites everywhere -bartering has been going on for a very long time. It has never stopped happening in rural areas. I think a far more intersting story of this kind could have been done with some of my neighbors who have lived a simple, rural life for many years. And if they traded someone $200 worth of groceries for a bucket of chicken manure it would be their way of providing charity in a manner that allowed the other person to save face. I hope you find a good balance for your family.
Elizabeth

Folks -- there is a link to Hodding's new blog on this page... look to the right below his photo.

Dear Hodding,

I caught your interview on Marketplace Money. I made the move to frugality in 1969 in Alaska of course. Your goal is to pay off debts. I think you’ve set the goal a bit low and are hanging on to needless nescessities.

I went to no car, no TV, no phone, and of course there were no computers to rid myself of in 1969. It took six months- just like any addict needs to come out of their addiction. I understood that the possessions owned me. I was their slave. The sense of freedom was exquisite.

You can see I do have a computer now. But it serves me and that makes all the difference.

My website is “Free For All” I don’t need to be reimbursed for my stories and novel. Enjoy at: http://www.tofreeforall.info

Please post the new blog address. I've used Google but still can't find it.

So where's the new blog address? I've googled around and just don't seem to be able to find it!

PS I store evaporated milk so I don't run out in a pinch :) but ya gotta get used to the taste. My kids have grown up on it. Having our own goat is also an option :)

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