the zen capitalist: a model for living

an essay in ten parts: part one - BE FRUGAL


My grandfather shopped at a grocery store called Lucky because he was.  At ninety he was up on a ladder propped against the roof eaves cleaning out the chimney, ignoring the entreaties of his adult daughter who filmed him.  At seventy-five I saw him do a perfect jack knife from the high-dive.  He had numerous accidents in his life, but not many illnesses.  He managed to come away unscathed, mostly.  Like how past retirement age he fell from a tree with the electric saw running and didn’t even break a bone. He kept fit by not outsourcing mundane, physical tasks like cleaning out the fireplace, trimming weeds, plumbing, car repair—he bought books and figured out the tasks himself. He did admit to me that for this reason (doing things himself) he was never able to progress in his business and grow his company because he was not able to entrust tasks to others. I remember in college an economics professor explained why it didn’t make economic sense for Michael Jordan to mow his own lawn, because in that hour his time was worth more than hiring and paying someone else to do the task. And yet, does this economic calculation take into account keeping a body fit, limber, and strong for a long and healthy life?

He bought frozen orange juice concentrate and never paid extra for organic.  He bought the cheapest and most local fresh fish at the counter: dover sole.  He woke up early and went to bed late.  He ate oat bran with a soft boiled egg in the morning and fresh fruit.  He hardly drank and never smoked.  He did not even drink coffee.  I asked him what was the secret to a long life and he said “Eat Right and Stay Single.”  He ate a lot of chocolate: chocolate chip cookies, aluminum wrapped chocolate kisses, and chocolate ice cream (premium—without the air).  He lived without central heating in an uninsulated house that he built himself.

He warmed himself with fires blazed with wood he chopped or split.  He slept with electric blankets to stay warm at night so as not to burn his wooden house down.  He wore a sweater and a knit hat in the winter, flat-fronted khakis and sheepskin boots designed to warm the feet of dancers (saved time, no laces).  He bought used cars, one at a time.  He repaired them himself.  If he needed a handrail at his house, he went down to his workshop and grabbed an old, curved pipe and installed it himself.  He reduced his spending on electricity by heating his water with solar panels.  The sinks in his house came from a dismantled chemistry lab. The roof and floors are made of abandoned form wood pieces from a cement company that went out of business. Too narrow for traditional floors, he nailed them together lengthwise, laminated, to create a seamless and thick hardwood style. He was frugal with money and things for himself, as were many from his generation.

But not always.  Every year he spent the equivalent of what he lived on for six months and rented a house for a week on the beach for our annual family vacation.  Oceanfront.  His children, spouses, grandchildren and partners or boyfriends, and one great-grandson piled into a magnificent house.  He paid for the expensive dinners out.  

He made other investments in his progeny, helping with house down payments, college tuition, educational summer camps—but he lived a humble and frugal life spending not more than necessary, reusing old things, repairing what he had, and purchasing and eating not more than was necessary.

I am thankful he was in my life for such a long time, because I had more time to learn from him. My father is also still with me. While my father doesn’t see himself as a successful man having worked as a taxi driver most of his life, he’s here. I still get kisses on the top of my head when he visits. And I still get to hear him call me sweetbeing. Many of my friends’ fathers had greater career and financial success in their lives, but many of them paid for it in the stress of their bodies, and thus passed away before their time—they aren’t here now to converse with their grandchildren, to share their wisdom, and leave a legacy for the next generation.

Be frugal with your money, and generous with your time. Be wary of exchanging your physical well-being for profit, as you may pay for it later in lost time.

Remember: LEISURE TIME IS YOUR MOST VALUABLE POSSESSION. You can always get money back but you can’t get back time.

Consider carefully, if you are financially able, how you trade your time and what you trade it for as time is your greatest, irreplaceable luxury good.