Robert Wringham, author of Escape Everything, is the real money-saving expert
I offer the following frugality tips in the time of plague as a way to offset any money creative idlers and other precaritarians might have lost from cancelled gigs or steeper-than-usual grocery bills. But please remember that small businesses still need to get by: I’d encourage you to spend some money locally, especially if you’ve successfully clawed some back from, say, the airline companies. Comedians and musicians continue to sell their wares online, including streams of live performances, and many forced-to-close restaurants are offering delivery services of your favourite delectable, so be sure to give them some monetary love if you can afford a momentary lapse in frugality.
Life is less expensive when you stay at home. Expensive temptations like an extra pint, a cinema ticket, a taxi cab, a restaurant meal are all gone. It’s a pity of course, for such things are the joyful fabric of city life, but their domestic counterweights (cooking, meditation, rumpy-pumpy, sleeping, craftwork, reading, arm wrestling, games) are also joyful and largely free. Dwell not on what you’re missing out there in glittery townsville and focus instead on a reacquaintance with the Great Indoors.
And get your money back. I cancelled a long-desired holiday in Lisbon and a trip to see my parents in the Midlands. Both were sad to do, of course, but I’m also quids in. Kerching! I have so far clawed money back from airlines, train companies, and AirBNB (as well as saving money on expensive activities I’d have indulged in while away) through an enforced retroactive abstinence. I’ve been having a ball with cancelling things, scrubbing commitments–professional and consumerist–from my diary. Clearing a schedule should be a heavenly experience for an idler, even if it results in missed opportunities. Think of the opportunity to do nothing instead. Bliss.
Reading doesn’t cost very much. The libraries are woefully closed but, if you’re a good idler, you’ll already have a few library books in hand (and late fines have been trashed). Haven’t been using this gateway to every book ever written in the history of the English language for free? An alternative is to read the backlog of books you’ve probably bought on various whims over the years but not found the time to read. Until now. Not got a backlog? Re-read everything. Don’t fancy that? Look into the free electronic provisions likely offered by your public library. And failing that, there’s Project Gutenberg. All free. Resist the temptation to read too much pandemic news, lest it induce anxiety.
Strike a blow
Instead of feeling like a tight-fisted miser, you can reframe your acts of parsimony as a sort of countercultural heroism. I do this at the best of times, choosing not to shop in part as an ecological standpoint and also as a way to hone a default state of creativity and improvisation. Not shopping for anything you can’t eat is to strike a blow against The Machine, the corporate monster that wants to devour us all (and the other inhabitants of the Earth along with us). The Covid-19 crisis offers extra incentive not to shop: self-isolate, self-distance, stay indoors, save your money for the food you’ll need to weather this.
(While we’re on the subjects of ecology and crisis, many people–presumably inspired by years of watching movies about zombies and disease panics–are likening the pandemic to the Apocalypse. To me, the situation is less apocalyptic than a normal day: pollution and carbon emissions are down, the populist politicians have shut their filthy mouths for a while, and people are listening to experts again. Not bad.)
You can still, at the time of writing, go out for a walk. Avoid busy areas like large public parks and shopping districts lest the microscopic foe take refuge in your alveoli, but a stroll around a quiet neighbourhood, self-distancing all the way, is the essence of flaneurism, a cost-free activity I (and others) have championed in the Idler. See the cracks in the pavement, the architecture of buildings, the shape of clouds, the machinations of ants or magpies, the infinite miracle of the night sky. Let you mind wander, let the drift move you along. Cost: nowt.
Don’t panic buy like a Black Friday dullard
But if you do need to stock up, the sensible thing to do is to buy things you’d have bought anyway. Clever frugalistas will already have a fixed rotation of culinary needs, so there should be few surprises when trying to predict what you’ll need in a week from now. UHT milk, canned goods, frozen vegetables, rice, and dry pasta are all things you’d probably have bought in the future anyway, so bringing their cost forward will buy you a “grocery bill holiday” in the future as you much through your stockpile and can be offset anyway by refunds from those events you’ve been forced to cancel.
Cut your own hair
Hairdressers and barber shops have been ordered to close as part of the containment measures. But what of the encroaching undead army that is our ceaselessly growing hair? Well, we could all let our hair grow and see what we look like as a shaggy beatnik nation. Come on, let’s do it! It would save money and be a harmless spot of fun to boot. But readers of my column in Idler 64 will know that my partner and I like to cut each other’s hair at home. All you need is a pair of clippers (consider buying some, mail order, before the rest of the world remembers that its hair does not stop growing in a pandemic), a chair, and a towel to catch floorbound tufts.
Oh! One last thing. Stay in touch by joining my free idler-compatible newsletter and I hope to still pop up every now and then with a feature or a letter or a blog such as this one In the meantime, stay safe, stay clever, stay frugal.
Robert Wringham is a writer of books including Escape Everything! (Unbound). He is the editor of New Escapologist, a long-running small press magazine that has evolved into a popular blog and a free monthly email newsletter. It’s a lot of fun and a decent source of entertainment to the self-isolated. Subscribe to his newsletter here.