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Finding wealth in a frying pan

Simple things (even the free ones) can make you feel rich.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 6, 2009 6:04PM

Last summer I found a cast-iron skillet in the "free" box at a yard sale. It was slightly rusty, but a little steel wool took care of that. I'd wanted an iron skillet and had been keeping my eye out for an affordable one. What's more affordable than free? 


Never having cooked in cast iron before, I'm really enjoying this pan. It's as useful as I'd hoped it would be. Having a new kitchen tool makes me happy.


Betsy Teutsch, who writes the Money Changes Things blog, had the same kind of skillet epiphany, except hers was a Teflon pan from the supermarket.


Frugal schnitzel
In an article titled "The two fry pan theory of feeling rich," she wrote that she likes a dish called chicken schnitzel. Because she'd cook two pounds at a time, the chicken wouldn't all fit into the frying pan at once. A few years ago, she finally invested in the additional skillet.


"What an improvement! I could start the second pan while the cutlets in the first pan were finishing up," Teutsch wrote. 


"For $15.99, I felt incredibly rich."

My skillet makes me feel rich, too. But so do a lot of other things that cost little to nothing.


Radio station KING-FM makes me feel rich: It's like having a tremendous collection of classical music, plus a staff to spin it for me. Ditto the Seattle and the University of Washington libraries: books, CDs and DVDs all catalogued and maintained just for me. Free, too, unless I miss the due dates.


Bus rides, sugar scrubs
The chance to attend the university is an immeasurable enrichment of knowledge, made even more luxurious by the scholarship I won in 2006; when I graduate at 51 or 52, I will do so debt-free. The bus pass included with tuition lets me travel to school or anywhere else I want -- for example, downtown to the Seattle Symphony for a $10 student ticket. What richness!


Using the grapefruit-scented sugar scrub my daughter made for me is like having a spa treatment. Yard sales that offer up perfect, still-shrink-wrapped Christmas gifts let me buy for friends and family without worrying about the cost. Rich people don't worry about the price of anything, right?


Having no consumer debt definitely makes me feel rich. But the main reason I have no debt is that I have been able to define my financial goals and values clearly, and find ways to fulfill them without breaking the bank.


Talk about wealth.


What price frugality?
Carried to an extreme, frugality may have negative consequences. Teutsch noted that she could have purchased the second pan years ago, if she hadn't been "so cheap." While she's glad to be frugal, she also realizes that frugality has "limited my imagination."


Extremes of any kind can be damaging. As my friend Linda Billington says, "Moderation in all things -- including moderation." If you practice a take-no-prisoners kind of frugality, you'll probably miss a lot of opportunities. You could save a lot of money by never traveling, for example. But then you'd never get to see the Grand Canyon, the Smithsonian, the Tower of London. 


Never spending money on the arts could improve your financial bottom line while impoverishing you culturally. Never donating to charity would strengthen your personal economy, but deprive you of the chance to experience compassion. 


And denying yourself something that you need, or that would improve the way you live, might not be frugality so much as perversity. 


So pick your spots. You might find, as Teutsch did, that it doesn't take much to feel rich. Some people's definitions of the luxe life are much costlier, and their effects much more fleeting. For some of us, a feeling of wealth can last a long time. As long as, say, an iron skillet.


Published Jan. 21, 2008

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