Is Extreme Frugality Embarrassing? Should It Be?

After rescuing a huge bounty of free produce last week from the farmers' market, that would have otherwise ended up in the trash, I decided to head back to the farmers' market yet again yesterday to see what goodies I could glean this time.
While I ended up with a huge haul (this at the right is but a fraction of the free stuff I got), some things happened during my food rescuing that left me a bit unsettled and in a bit of a quandary, wondering about what I should do.

On top of that, quite a few comments on that last post mentioned that they wouldn't do such a thing, as it's "out of their comfort zone" and a friend told me that in her opinion, that's "just beyond frugal".
A few days ago a neighbor invited me to pick apricots from her tree, and I did, climbing her tree and picking all the hard to reach apricots. A different neighbor saw what I was doing and said that he'd be too embarassed to climb a tree to pick fruit.

I think it boils down to something that I didn't completely get until yesterday. Most people are too embarrassed to do extremely frugal things.

I've mentioned that I'm not embarrassed to be extremely frugal, and for the most part that holds true. Until something happens to me like what happened yesterday. And then, while I'm still not embarrassed, it bothers me and makes me rethink whether I want to be doing what I am doing.

Yesterday, at the farmer's market, I saw a guy putting down 3 large boxes of celery and eggplant and peppers into a pile designated for garbage. I asked him if there was anything wrong with those vegetables, or if they were just past their prime. He gives me this look, and says "It's garbage."
I said "Yes, I know those are heading for the garbage, I just wanted to know if they were very problematic or just less than ideal."
Again, that nasty look, then he snaps at me "Why do you want it? It's garbage!"
"To eat it..."
He glares at me the whole time I looked through it and took out some decent looking stuff to bring home.

Another pile of boxes, some filled with produce, on an unmoving wagon that is destined to the trash. I look into it to see if there's anything usable there, and this man who was sitting nearby snaps at me "Why are you doing that?"
Calmly, I tell him that I'm looking to see if there's anything edible in there.
"Stop, you're going to make a huge mess!" despite the fact that I was just picking up one box at a time, checking its contents, then replacing it.
"Don't worry," I reassured him. "I'll put everything back right where it came from" and I did.

After that, I picked up a box of fennel parts that were going to the trash but were in perfect condition. A man asks me why I have those, if they are edible.
"Certainly" I said.
He asked me what I was doing, and after asking him if he worked there, I told him I was seeing what edible things people were throwing out and rescuing them from the landfills.
He asks me "Do you need corn?" I wasn't exactly sure what he wanted, and I didn't come to the market intending to spend money, only to rescue veggies, so I told him I didn't need them.
He asked me why not; I lied because I felt weird telling him that I was only interested in rescuing things from the trash, not buying, and told him that I already had corn at home.
"How about cucumbers? Do you have those?"
"No, I don't; I'll take some," I said, seeing that his price for cucumbers was astonishingly low. He fills a large bag for me, then I ask him how much it is.
He tells me "Nothing."
"Hold on a second- wait right there! I don't need charity!" I tell him, it finally dawning on me what he's trying to do. "I have the money for groceries, I just think its a shame to let so much usable food end up in a landfill," I tried explaining to him, but he was pressing the cucumbers, some eggplants, and a melon into my hand.
"Seriously, I don't need it! I'm not looking for charity!" I try to convince him, but he won't let up and keeps pushing the veggies on me, until finally I consented to take it.

After that encounter, I really had second thoughts. Is that what people are thinking of me? Are they assuming that if I live extremely frugally, if I'm happy to eat food that other people would throw out or pass over, then I must be in dire enough straits financially that people would try to convince me to take free produce from their shop? Do they really think that only people who can't afford to buy food would be willing to do what I'm doing?

No wonder food rescuing is "beyond the comfort zone" of most frugal people- they don't want people mistakenly to assume for them like they did for me that they are dirt poor and can't afford to buy "normal food" and "have to resort to extreme frugal measures" like food rescuing, climbing fruit trees, and foraging.
Its embarrassing for them, even if people are making mistaken assumptions about them.

Me on the other hand? While it was a drop uncomfortable and weirded me out that this guy thought I needed charity, I've decided that I won't be embarrassed. I won't be ashamed of my extremely frugal living. I have no reason to be. Because ashamed comes from the root shame- it means you're doing or have done something wrong and therefore shameful, and don't want to be caught in the act.

But there's nothing shameful or wrong about living beneath your means. There's nothing wrong or shameful about stopping things from ending up in landfills, and instead putting them to use.

Why then, is it embarrassing for so many people (and admittedly, a little as well for me yesterday) to do what I did, to dumpster dive, to forage for vegetables and fruit, to rescue food from landfills?

Because society has made it to be so. Because society is messed up. Because society makes the type of life that people have lived for thousands of years to be "shameful" and "pathetic", to the extent that if you saw someone doing what I was doing, you'd probably also think that they were dirt poor and couldn't afford to buy food. (And to be honest, if I saw someone doing the same, I'd probably assume they couldn't afford to feed their family. Hypocritical me, I know...)
Because getting things free is somehow considered to be shameful. Ok, for certain things, free is considered cool. But for food? Free food? Shameful.
Even some people that are struggling and can't make it through the month and accept charity to survive won't do many things I do, because they consider it to be beneath their dignity. They'd rather go to the food bank than forage or pick fruit or rescue food... Extreme frugality is even more shameful than accepting charity.

I wonder why...
And now that I'm thinking about it, I think I might understand a bit why.
In the olden days, people that were extra fat were considered beautiful and special, the heavier the better, in part because in order to be able to gain that much weight, the family had to be well off enough to be able to afford to provide that much food for the person. Weight was a status symbol, showing you "had enough".

Today, there isn't a race to be fat, but society shows status by things. By buying things. Nice things. Because having the means to buy anything you want, and doing so, is a sign of "being good enough", being "worthwhile".
And perhaps in the olden days, a person wasn't interested in being fat, despite having enough money for all the food she desired. She wouldn't get that "status" of "worth", even though she was able to if she desired to.
And today, if a person is wealthy enough to afford things, but decides to abstain from it, and instead to minimize and not spend more money than necessary, they lose that "status" and society often looks down on them. People don't respect them, usually. They feel sorry for them, because, after all, what type of life can a person have if they don't have all these things, if they aren't buying stuff on a regular basis?
And as much as some people try to reject societal pressures to have stuff, as much as people try to shrug off others' opinion of them and just do what they feel is the right thing, its really hard to do so. We all (or almost all) have a desire for acceptance. Its innate. And its really hard to be different, especially if it means getting the types of responses that I got yesterday- scorn, derision, or pity.

So, I get it. I get why certain public extreme frugal measures are considered to be "out of people's comfort zone". Because people want to be accepted by society, and not pitied.

I think its sad though, that we're such a throw away society, that salvaging things instead of allowing them to be thrown out, is considered to be a "mark of poverty".

Fortunately, frugality, and even extreme frugality is taking off and becoming more and more accepted.
You end up having groups like the Freegans whose philosophy is to shun spending money, and try to dumpster dive for as many things as humanly possible, and barter for everything else. And not because they're too poor and can't afford to spend money, but rather, because they're making an intentional decision, choosing a way of life that doesn't cost money.
And fortunately, there are blogs like mine where I can write about extreme frugality and connect with other extremely frugal folk as well, who, when they hear about my rescuing food, don't say "Oh gross!" and pity me, but rather, congratulate me on my score and want to learn how to do the same.
Because living beneath your means, being green, reducing, reusing, recycling, doesn't necessarily mean you can't afford else wise. Sometimes, oftentimes, its a conscious decision, either for moral or financial reasons.
In my case, I live extremely frugally for many reasons. Highest among those is because I'd rather save my money to spend on things that are important to me, and I don't mind pinching pennies in other ways that are less important to me.
And on top of that, I get a real sense of satisfaction knowing that I did my part to help the environment. Because, contrary to popular belief, just because something is biodegradable, compostable, doesn't mean that it will degrade and decompose in a landfill. Because it doesn't.
And because every bit of food that is grown taxes our natural resources; every bit of food wasted is wasted natural resources, from the fresh water used to water the plants, to the fuel used to transport the food, etc...
Rescuing food, helping to eliminate waste, at least somewhat, is not only friendly to your pocketbook, it's also friendly to the Earth.

Slowly, hopefully, being environmentally friendly, being money conscious, and deciding that you don't need to spend on things, even if they are "the norm" will become more accepted in society, so that people don't mistakenly assume that I'm too poor to buy food because I'm rescuing food, so that people aren't nasty to me because I'm dumpster diving, etc...
Slowly. We're getting there. One day...

And in the meantime, I'll just keep on doing my thing. I'll be the "Rosa Parks" of frugality, doing things that sometimes get people riled up or that aren't "societally acceptable", in the hopes that maybe, maybe, I'll be helping to change society.

I plan on going right back to the same farmers' market next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. No matter how the people there react to what I'm doing.

Because I don't care what they say.
I'm not looking for their acceptance.
There's nothing shameful in what I'm doing.
And fortunately, there's a wonderful community of like minded individuals on the internet, both blog readers here at Penniless Parenting, and in general on the internet. And like minded people in my community, who not only don't look at me like I'm crazy because of what I do, but actually ask me to teach them how to do the same.

Thank you.
Its people like you that help give me the confidence to keep on shamelessly doing something that shouldn't be shameful, but society has made it to be that way.
And its people like you that one day, will help change society to be a place in which things like this are the norm, or at least "more normal" than they're considered to be today.

Someone recently asked me if I'd keep on being extremely frugal if I didn't have to be.
Just for the record, even if I had a ton of money, enough to buy all that I wanted, I probably would still being doing the same. Or very close to it.

Are you frugal? Extremely frugal? 
Is your level of frugality accepted in your community, or does it cause people to look down on you and/or make mistaken assumptions about you and/or pity you?
What extreme frugal things would you not do merely because they're "outside your comfort zone"?
Would you ever rescue produce like I do, forage for veggies, dumpster dive, climb a tree to pick fruit, etc? 

Linking up to Simple Lives Thursday

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I agree with what you are doing. I hate to see waste. It's sad to see people waste so much.

  2. I also enjoy reading about your frugal adventures, and love what you do.

    My daughter and I live with my boyfriend and his boys in a large house on the best street in town. But, the economy has hit us(he is self-employed, and I am in commissioned sales, our income is unreliable at best), and we are thrilled to be able to stay in our home each month. We have been discreetly slashing our spending where we can, planting a garden, packing kids lunches, making as many things as we can(laundry soap, dish soap, etc), but I'm ready to step up the game.
    I make a game of foraging, sending my 7year old out to pick as many edibles as she can find for dinner, and teaching her the perils of frankenfood and big agribusiness so she views our home garden as "cool".
    I'm open to any suggestions, and don't have so much pride that I'm unwilling to be conspicuously frugal. Bring it!

    1. How wonderful that you can do this for your family. I grew up on a farm and nothing went to waste. If we couldn't use it we found someone who could.

      I live in the Illinois and things a are much different here. Bleach is thrown on " dumpster food" so you won't take it. They say it's because of freegans and they don't want to get sued when someone becomes ill.The least they could do is send that food over to the homeless shelters, such a waste to throw edible food away.

      In this day and age every little bit helps. I lost my job 2 yrs ago and I'm now cleaning homes. My OCD has paid off and I have a nice client list that keeps my kids in college without massive debt.

    2. How wonderful that you can do this for your family. I grew up on a farm and nothing went to waste. If we couldn't use it we found someone who could.

      I live in the Illinois and things a are much different here. Bleach is thrown on " dumpster food" so you won't take it. They say it's because of freegans and they don't want to get sued when someone becomes ill.The least they could do is send that food over to the homeless shelters, such a waste to throw edible food away.

      In this day and age every little bit helps. I lost my job 2 yrs ago and I'm now cleaning homes. My OCD has paid off and I have a nice client list that keeps my kids in college without massive debt.

  3. I think you're absolutely right--you shouldn't feel ashamed of being willing and able to use what would otherwise go to waste, but I'd also say that there's nothing shameful about being poor. If you experience embarrassment over being _mistaken_ for poor, you're participating to some degree in a culture that makes it shameful to be poor--and that same culture makes it hard for many, many people to be anything but. So I say don't be ashamed to be frugal--and don't be ashamed if someone mistakenly believes you're poor. It really doesn't make any difference. :-)

  4. Amazing that folks will hand money out of their car window to someone holding a cardboard begging sign (and thereby encouraging that lifestyle,) but they look down on someone who is doing the work to get their own food.

  5. I used to dumpster dive fairly regularly. Not so much anymore. Most grocery stores, at least the majors, have taken to locking their dumpsters and/or putting signs up to stop the practice. It's a crying shame. So much goes to waste.
    The explanation they have given me is purely liability. They are afraid of getting sued if someone gets food poisoning, or the like, from it.
    The local grocery stores in my area have installed tall chain link fences with locked gates around their dumpsters

  6. thanks for the article, now i understand
    i started teaching a free basic cooking class and teaching frugal recipes (well it's aimed on especially young people on a tight budget because so many have not learned to cook at all). i used to have very little money and learned partially due to that how to cook frugal, on the other hand from my great grandmother that lived through 2 wars and she could certainly stretch a penny. we find it hard to get people to come to the cooking class and i always wonder why since it's free and there's no shortage of people on a tight but your article sure made me look at it differently now... maybe i have to start charging and get more people interested, what a strange world. me for one, i have enough money to eat basically what i want,but i always look for what is on sale and last day sales etc., even if i really feel like having a steak and can afford it, i won't buy it unless it's on sale... a bit over board maybe, but being frugal and cooking on a tight budget has become somewhat a hobby i proud myself with. plus i sure don't just cook 'cheap' food, it's more classy food (but for $10 the most for 4 people).

  7. "After that encounter, I really had second thoughts. Is that what people are thinking of me? Are they assuming that if I live extremely frugally, if I'm happy to eat food that other people would throw out or pass over, then I must be in dire enough straits financially that people would try to convince me to take free produce from their shop? Do they really think that only people who can't afford to buy food would be willing to do what I'm doing?"

    To answer this question - yes, that's what I would think. We live on a budget, but I would never go looking for free food that is intended for the garbage. I think that is low for any human.
    I think what that man did was really noble.

    1. To each their own. I think its a high thing to stop things from entering landfills, stuff that are perfectly good. But if its not for you, that's fine.

  8. Penny...Good for you! The man sounded like the boss I used to work for! Food rescuing a so important in today's world. I don't care what the government says the economy is not getting better for many people who have been left behind by it! I live very frugal and love doing things on a dime. I scrimp and save but I also give where I can. I think it is all in a balance!

  9. i really like this post. it touches on some important 'issues' of frugal living - pride and shame,

    pride in disregarding the monetary system, and saving food that would otherwise be wasted. pride in feeding your family with food that was produced for consupmtion, and took a lot of energy to cultivate, farm, transport etc. i thinkyour shameful feelings are very humble and reflects the fact that mob society can affect people. just because society as a whole would treat foraging or dumpster diving as shameful because it could be considered a lowly act, doesnt mean that it is. i think we all, as responsible citisens should reflect on this now, and try to analyse where these shameful feelings come from. sure you were standing by a garbage and removing food from there. but it's food! it's nutritious food! how can it be wasted, ignored, or forgotten?

    i have acquired food through dumpsters and i have lived off dumpster dived food. right now i am lucky to work at a grocery store where i have access to the kitchen compost. unfortunately we have to disgard food that is cut, moldy, or not aesthetically pleasing. of course for health reasons moldy food shouldn't be sold. but if you have a cut on a tomato, an apple, etc...what is the big deal? would you throw out a whole block of cheese just because it had a bit of mold? maybe that's not the best comparison, but if the 'bad spot' covers less that 25% of the item, i always think it is worthwhile to salvage it and remove it from the compost.

    i've rescued food in different ways that are outside of most comfort zones - dumpster diving (literally) at multiple bins, and picking up food that isn't sold from markets. i consider myself extremely frugal. people i know seem surprised with what i can do with food, and how i can stretch a dollar. but it's a resourceful perspective that is key.

    i've used my juicer, or blender for food i bring home that's less than stellar by typical grocery store standards.

  10. I am in my early 40's and remember as a child -my parents saving an entire pallet of potatoes. There were a few bad potatoes in each bag so my parent brought them all home and we sorted out the good... washed and re-bagged them. There was an assembly line in our yard. We ate plenty of them, gave some away to friends, and the rest my dad sold out of his car. I still pass on this story to friends just for shock value. Not sure I would do this today but I did go to a local farm a few years ago at the end of season to salvage potatoes and carrots. The potatoes were beautiful and the carrots a little over grown but everything tasted good. It was so much nephews and my son were able to see where food is grown.

  11. I'm 16 and starting to be frugal with almost everything. I turn the plastic bags from grocery stores as well as old clothing into yarn and use it to make reusable bags and storage containers. I always hit the neighborhood yard sales when I can and buy plenty of clothing, books, and anything else I could want or need. (I will admit to buying new things at sale prices frequently, however. I'm just getting started here.) My parents don't really get why I'd want secondhand things when I could ask them for firsthand things, but we're a typical White Suburban Middle Class Family and they don't understand why I refuse to throw things away and reuse them instead. The only thing I don't feel comfortable being frugal with is food because I'm afraid of being sick, as silly as it may sound, but maybe one day it won't be out of my comfort zone to eat an apple from a farmer's market that would otherwise be thrown away.

  12. This is so intriguing to me. I have grappled with these issues for years and feel very much an outsider to mainstream viewpoints. Also notice how many comments are anonymous. We swim against the tide and are unusual.

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