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Frugality Has a Cost

Jeffrey K. Actor

I LIKE TO THINK OF myself as frugal, not cheap. The difference between these two is admittedly subtle—and, indeed, my wife insists that I straddle the line between them.

That brings me to my lifelong do-it-yourself approach to all things home-related. I abhor paying for services that I can do myself. But sometimes, I wish I were a little less frugal.

When we first moved to Texas, I tried saving money by doing my own yard work. Foolish me. My first attempt was on a 98-degree day in August. I was nearly finished when my brand-new push mower hit an immovable obstacle, damaging the blade and main axle.

No problem. I would simply use a weed whacker to complete the job. I shrugged off my heat exhaustion, plugged in the cord and got back to work. Who knew that operating with a non-grounded extension cord would be a problem? Twenty-five minutes later, I heard a loud sizzle and pop, after which the weed whacker exploded in flames, completely melting the framework surrounding the motor driveshaft. My wife dialed a local grass-cutting service to finish the job. We’ve used them ever since, and our lawn has never looked better.

I’m also frugal about calling repairmen, especially since I’m confident I can repair just about anything. In truth, I run at a 50% success rate when it comes to repairs. I fixed the washing machine and dryer—twice—but have failed with other major appliances.

I remember being especially stubborn when it came to a broken dishwasher. My wife agreed that I could try my hand at repair, provided we still had clean dishes. Six months later, after suffering severe dishpan hands, I purchased a new Kenmore. In my defense, the problem was with the motherboard, and not a mechanical issue. I must say, the new machine looks marvelous in the kitchen.

There was the time I was convinced I could repair the food mixer. I ordered the parts, and gave it a whirl. Needless to say, my electrical rewiring was performed incorrectly. Now, to complement our Kenmore dishwasher, we have a beautiful KitchenAid twilight-blue stand mixer.

My wife and I are adamant about recycling. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve been known to wash out previously used Ziploc baggies. I justified my frugality on environmental grounds. But when my spouse saw the bags drying in the dish drainer, she declared me cheap. I compromised and purchased reusable silicone storage bags. I felt sure the higher expense, coupled with their reusable quality, would encourage her to consider me frugal, not cheap. But then she saw me washing out empty yogurt containers to use as starter pots for seedlings. Maybe I’m cheap after all.

I love woodworking, although the price of materials seems to have skyrocketed lately. My solution is to reuse old pallets and fencing that my neighbors place on the curb. To date, I’ve made two Adirondack chairs, a porch swing and countless planters from rescued wood. On the flipside, I needed to purchase updated tools after attempting to repair my circular saw. Don’t ask. Just know I still have 10 fingers.

Did I mention my plumbing expertise? Toilets and sinks are easy to fix. The bathroom shower leak behind the wall was not. I managed to turn a slow drip into a gusher. Yes, I did know where the shutoff valve was located, and probably should have used that knowledge prior to undertaking the task. We hired someone to repair the downstairs ceiling, although I repainted the plaster and new drywall to save a few bucks.

My wife thinks I try to reuse just about everything. I was driving yesterday, and accidently cut off another driver. He gave me the finger.  I took it, and saved it for use at a later time. For my actions, my wife gave me the evil eye. That was another gift worth keeping and reusing, although I will have to hide it from her for the time being.

Am I frugal? Am I cheap? It is indeed a fine line. I’m comfortable being labeled as either. By saving a penny here and there, it has allowed me to be generous in multiple other avenues of life. Like emergency calls to plumbers.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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