It was once hip to be threadbare. In fact, it was patriotic — during World War II, posters told the Greatest Generation to “Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do.” They explained, “America Has Plenty, If It Is Used Wisely.” Those were pithy, powerful messages, and the country listened. Victory gardens sprouted up, carpooling became de rigueur, and raw materials morphed into bullets and planes instead of household appliances.
That was 65 years ago. Now, when our soldiers go to war, the president tells us to go shopping. And, again, we listen. The average American keeps a car for 4.5 years before trading it in for a new one. We throw away 125 million cellphones — that’s 65,000 tons — every year. Landfills teem with the outdated, the unstylish, the “functionally obsolete.”
Vermont is no exception to the rule, but a tradition of frugality holds firmer here than in, say, New Jersey. Some trace its roots to the short growing season, when nothing could be wasted. Others just attribute it to self-righteous parsimony. Neither explains Hermie, a character in David Budbill’s Judevine who’s happy living in a bread truck — fireproof and snug, too. “It was a good place and cozy,” Budbill writes. “Hermie didn’t need anything big as a bus.”
The ember of that Yankee thriftiness still burns throughout the state, and its light doesn’t discriminate. Back-to-the-landers and regular folks alike, there are people out there who know how to make things last.
Robert “Dunnz” Dunn, 60, of Norwich, is in the off-the-grid camp. He lives at the end of a Class IV road in a house he built himself 32 years ago, powered with solar panels connected to 12-volt car batteries. How much can he rely on the sun? “Well, we more rely on not using much energy,” he says, turning off an ancient car radio perched on his kitchen counter.
I visit Dunn the week after Thanksgiving, on a raw, overcast day. Inside, the wood stove is cranking and a cool light streams through the windows, set in walls with pine siding. Dunn makes us turkey sandwiches while I open a bottle of wine with a wooden corkscrew four decades old. It works perfectly, and makes those newfangled “rabbit” corkscrews seem like a complicated solution to a simple problem.
“Dunnz” is a soft-spoken guy with a gray beard he’s growing shaggy for the coming winter. He has a wife and a 22-year-old daughter who was born in the house on a snowy March day. A Massachusetts native, Dunn spent his childhood summers on his grandmother’s chicken farm in Maine, where he became accustomed to saving junk and seeing decrepitude. After graduating from Northeastern with an engineering degree, he moved to a hunting cabin in East Orange, Vermont. “I could have bought a BMW, did cocaine, and worked on 128,” he says, referring to a highway outside Boston that’s lined with big engineering firms. “But it seemed like I needed to be one person saying, ‘I don’t want to contribute to the way the country’s going.’”
Some people find old-time Vermonters’ way of life quaint or amusing, but Dunn was drawn to it. “They lived a very rustic lifestyle,” he remembers. “If they had electricity, they just had a few bulbs and didn’t even have a shade most of the time. I found that incredibly fascinating. That’s what really set me going to how I wanted to live in Vermont.”
If there are any hard and fast rules of New England frugality, the first one dictates that you shouldn’t buy stuff you don’t need. The old farmers couldn’t buy frivolous things, so they didn’t. Dunn adheres to this basic tenet, which has kept him out of debt and allowed him to work part-time since he was 29. Indeed, as we stroll around his modest, somewhat rambling cabin, he has trouble thinking of anything interestingly old to show me — he just doesn’t have much.
But everybody needs some stuff, which leads to the second rule of frugality: If you’ve got to buy something, make it as cheap as possible by amortizing its cost over a score of years.
Dunn’s best example of this credo is his 1956 International Farmall tractor. He bought it from a neighbor and uses it to grade and plow the road to his house. His wife, he says, follows the tractor and picks up the parts that fall off. She brings them home to Dunn, who uses reverse engineering to put things back together.
How has he kept the machine going for 50-plus years? “There’s not many tricks to the tractor,” he says laconically. “Just keep the oil to it, you know.” That, and regular maintenance and repair. Dunn has replaced nearly all the parts, doing most of the work himself — and, though his engineering training comes in handy, he says it’s not a requirement for DIYers. “You gotta be mechanically minded, I guess, but the tractor’s real easy to work on.”
When the tractor’s axle broke a few years ago and Dunn didn’t have the tools to fix it, he sent it to a mechanic in Sharon. It was a big repair job, he says, but better than buying a new tractor. “Once you stop working, it isn’t easy to create money out of nothing. A new tractor could be $30,000, while fixing it might cost $1000. Given that choice,” he says with a wry grin, “we’ll always choose the thousand.”
Other local folks agree. Chris Gibson, the service manager at Yandow’s Sales and Service in North Ferriburgh, advises that it’s getting easier to make farm and landscaping equipment last, “because machine tolerances are so much better today.” He names two ways to get the most out of your money: Start off with a first-class unit, and keep it oiled. “The biggest thing, really, is keeping the fluids and filters changed,” Gibson adds. “It’s not rocket science.”
Maybe not, but it takes commitment and time to follow Gibson’s advice, especially with smaller, cheaper consumer goods. When you can pick up a new microwave at Best Buy for less than $100, few people have the patience to repair that malfunctioning “dinosaur” from, say, 2000.
Not so with John and Donna Burkett of Barnard, who have turned the tedium into a hobby. “We make a game out of making things last,” Donna, 53, tells me. “It’s a challenge.”
I meet them at a bar in Woodstock for a few drinks. Donna has an Irish coffee, and John, a groomer mechanic at Okemo Mountain Resort, looks dissonant with a dainty martini glass and a woodsman’s beard. They moved to Vermont from the San Francisco Bay area in 1990. While Dunn’s somewhat Spartan ethic was derived from old Vermonters, the Burketts say they owe their thrift to John’s parents, who grew up in the Midwest during the Depression. “They just learned to make do,” Donna says.
The Burketts stand out today because they combine Depression-era ingenuity with modern purchasing power. That combination makes for some pretty smart policies, the first of which is to heavily research your major acquisitions: Know exactly what you’re buying. John says, “We always ask: Is it serviceable? If it is, it means we can buy parts and fix it.” Donna contributes an illustration: “We bought our washer and dryer in 1984, and it’s not funny, OK? They have push buttons and rotator dials, which can all be replaced.” To maximize appliance longevity, she recommends buying from Sears, because the chain can get parts for everything it sells. “You have to fight for them, but you can get them,” Donna stresses.
Another rule, which dovetails with Gibson’s advice, is to buy top-quality American items. “We don’t buy cheap,” Donna says, “because we want it to last 20, 25 years.” Good stuff usually comes with a good warranty, which the Burketts use to its fullest extent. Take the example of their microwave — a floor model they purchased in 1990. Thirteen years later, the door cracked, but it was under warranty. The Burketts found a guy in White River Junction who services microwaves, and he fixed it for no charge. Now he emails them whenever the microwave is due for an upgrade or a recall. “If you buy something with a lifetime warranty,” Donna urges, “use it!”
The Burketts have a laundry list of staggeringly old stuff they still use every day: a stereo from 1980 (serviced twice), a TV from 1984 (the mute function broke, so they silence it by flipping to a satellite channel they don’t get), and a California King waterbed from 1974. Donna uses a computer of 1999 vintage: “My kids walk through the door and yell at me to get a new one, but this one does what I need it to do.”
“It’s slow,” John adds.
“The longer I wait,” Donna replies, “the newer the new one will be.”
Two 1995 Jeep Cherokees sit in the driveway of the couple’s sensibly sized house in Barnard. John’s has 310,000 miles on the odometer, while Donna lags behind with only 229,000. The secret? “Synthetic oil and yearly check-ups,” John says. He adds that tune-ups, radiator flushes and oil undercoating all stave off self-destruction and the deleterious effects of Vermont winters.
The Burketts take the same conservationist approach to non-mechanical items that don’t break so much as wear out. In the comings and goings of daily life, we walk through soles, we pull off zippers, we come unstitched. This is where the cobbler comes in — if you can find one. The Shoe Service Institute of America, whose motto is “If the shoe fits, repair it,” says the number of cobblers in the U.S. has decreased from 100,000 during the Great Depression to 7000 today. One of the few cobblers in central Vermont is Ernest Boisvert, 80, of Boisvert Shoe Repair in Barre. The third-generation cobbler is dutifully passing the trade on to his son.
“The slowdown of the cobblers is due to longer-wearing material — soles and good threads,” Boisvert says. “Where before it used to be just cotton, now it’s modern nylon, and it wears really good.”
Boisvert repairs handbags by the hundreds and replaces zippers by the gross, all for a fraction of the cost of buying new. Still, he says, the cobbler is fading to the periphery because “people are not so poor as they used to be. I used to get people coming in and saying, ‘Can you fix these? They’re my only pair.’ I don’t get that anymore.”
But just because we’re affluent enough to buy new and buy often, does that mean we have to do it? Donna Burkett thinks most American shoppers consume to fulfill psychological needs, not pressing physical ones: “I think people shop because of boredom, stress, and to keep up with the Joneses. They don’t shop because they need something anymore.”
For others, the pay-off for making things last is a sort of intangible fulfillment. Dunn says he stretches resources not just out of fiscal savvy but to satisfy his own sense of what’s equitable. “If we take all the money and use all the resources, it’s not fair. It’s pretty obvious, but people go through life not thinking about it.”