On Being A Frugal Geek

cheap geek, materialism, frugal living, cheap interests, cheap homeschooling, There are plenty of assumptions about what geeks do. We own the most advanced technology. We see the latest movies, watch the newest series on subscription channels, play the most recently released video games. wouldn’t miss Maker Faire. If we collect anything, it’s probably awesomely obscure and sure to gain in value. All these things cost money.

I tend to geek out over less expensive interests. Outsider art, foreign films, poetry, recent neuroscience findings, nonviolence, mindfulness practices, the new acquisition section of the library—that sort of thing.

Still, stark economic realities have made penny pinching essential. Long ago I assumed I could afford more geeky indulgences once I got past pricey milestones like college, marriage, and new babies. Didn’t happen. Turns out sick kids, unemployment, and falling down houses are also expensive.

Instead, I’ve geeked out on frugality itself. I garden, preserve food, make homemade cheese, sew, repurpose, and concoct herbal remedies that look so vile my household prefers to stay healthy. I’ve advanced my career with little more than a not-so-new computer, a love of research, and library privileges. My kids have been dragged to every free concert and science program available, and know area nature preserves like their own backyard. They’ve become Makers almost entirely out of necessity, turning junk and other dirt cheap materials into marvels. Because every one of us goes deep into passions like forensics, turbocharger modifications, bagpipe playing, arachnid study, and advanced plasma welding techniques our dinner table conversations are strangely fascinating. We’re geeks all right, just frugal geeks. Maybe you are too. Mainstream assumptions about geeks don’t define us. GeekMom, where I’m a senior editor, agrees. As explained on the “about” page:

Being a geek is a state of mind, and that state of mind leads us to intensely explore our interests and approach the world with endless curiosity. When we want to get involved in something cool, we get really involved. In other words, we get geeky about it.

I know the research shows that frugal living benefits kids while materialism doesn’t. And I believe that living simply is good for the planet. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like a few geek frills, some day. More movies, newer gadgets, and the bucks to finally get to Maker Faire. While I’m dreaming, I’d like an invisible bike helmet too.

How does living frugally affect your geeky or not-so-geeky passions?


10 thoughts on “On Being A Frugal Geek

  1. Yes, we’re also a family of frugal geekdom.

    My daughter and husband are passionately interested in riding horses. We could never afford to own or lease one in the conventional manner, so starting at age twelve, my daughter was the very first “work-study” rider at the stable where she rode, spending hours helping out in exchange for lessons. My husband has learned how to use some electro-magnetic gadget and treats the stable’s horses (it helps keep their muscles supple and reduces a tendency to stiffness and arthritis, or something like that; I’m not sure), working twelve-hour Sundays; it’s his favorite day of the week now. In exchange, we get reduced fees for leasing the horse my daughter now rides, and my husband himself gets two lessons a week.

    I don’t ride, but I also don’t have a fun outside job that brings in money, as I am usually home with our daughter who has Asperger’s and an anxiety disorder. However, I have developed a passion for gardening and “slow cooking” (by the way, your forthcoming book on Subversive Cooking sounds seriously right down my alley!!), we buy many of our clothes from used clothing stores, thrift stores, or garage sales — sometimes the only new things I will be wearing are underwear and shoes — I’ve learned to patch the stucco on our house, I’ve sold a handful of homeschooling articles, and I’m trying, with agonizing slowness, to write a book.

    Topping my daughter’s interest in horses is her passion for theater. I have become an expert at finding cheap seats, free staged readings of plays-in-progress, Shakespeare read-alouds, preview discounts, etc. My daughter has taken usher training and is waiting for a spot to open up; ushers see plays free and also are invited to dress rehearsals. I plan to sign up with her for occasional office work at another local theater.

    My daughter has also discovered the UK’s Radio 4, which hosts a slew of improv radio shows she now wouldn’t miss for the world. She spends hours immersed in them, plus listening to the fabulous BBC radio plays made from classic fiction. She can get them free for a week after they are broadcast in the UK, and her to-listen list keeps her enormously busy.

    To keep all these passions afloat, we homeschool as cheaply as is humanly possible for high school. My daughter selects her own textbooks for math and Latin, which we try to find used. For everything else, she raids our extensive bookshelves, built up during my grad school years; goes to the library for DVDs and more books; uses free MIT Open Courseware materials for chemistry (we’re doing kitchen chemistry at the moment). We get Teaching Company’s Great Courses from the library, although this can be a pain as we have to order them from other branches and are never sure when or what is going to show up for us. She will also try out the local community college this spring, which is an expense I see as necessary for helping her practice independence more than for academics.

    Like you, we do lots of free things in the community as well. The most recent was a TedX taping session in our city, during which my husband gave a talk and my daughter could be there to watch.

    I hope this wasn’t too long! You’ve inspired me all over again to see what else I can do to rein in financially while romping through the world of geekdom. We just had our old leaking roof replaced, so we need to pursue geeky frugality more than ever.


    • Karen these are fantastic examples. It’s hard for people to imagine how their kids can have opportunities but, as you demonstrate, it’s all about using your imagination to create a solution, as you did with the stables. I wish I could have interviewed you for my first book!


      • I have a friend I’m hoping will comment on your post too. Her boys are all avid makers, started a local making club at their library, joined diy, etc. My friend spends hours collecting discarded cardboard from local businesses to give her middle son enough materials for his constant building and designing. This son made a cardboard prototype of a frame/holder for the badges diy has begun offering. Through the local maker club they got access to a laser cutter, so he made a formal prototype, and is now starting a home business selling — I’m not sure if the ones for sale are cardboard or wood. The diy staff were so impressed. they considered buying the design from him; although they ultimately decided not to, they are featuring it on their website. One of the staff also challenged the boy to make something from the hexagonal cut-outs left over after the frame is made. This boy is connecting with business owners, techs, designers, and programmers through his incredible interest in making. He just turned twelve! So now only are they frugal makers, but they are beginning to make money from their interests.


  2. It’s often assumed that being a maker requires a lot of money. It doesn’t have to.

    We eat out maybe once or twice a year. This is partly because of food allergies, but also because we are so used to enjoying non prepackaged food at home, it’s more of a hassle to go out to eat. We even make our own seasoning mixes and sauces.

    Family entertainment is usually cheap or free. Our favorites include exploring various trails and nature centers. We play boardgames, watch tv, and try new sports or activities together. For vacations we find it less expensive to rent a place at the shore for the week and do cheap or free things there. We actively involve the kids in diy around the house.

    The library has been a huge money saver. We have checked out thousands of books. They also have software such as Rosetta Stone. We bought a disc doctor because often dvd’s from the library are scratched and there is nothing more frustrating than getting partially into a movie and having the disc stop. We go to other libraries in our county that have different offerings such as a tool library and loaning stem kits to educators. We participate in library events and take their course offerings.

    We repurpose and salvage when we can. Items that would typically go in the recycling bin have many lives before they land there. Things that are outgrown are reconfigured. When something no longer works, it’s a reverse engineering opportunity. Misc. things that would typically get donated become random parts and turn into something else.

    When we buy, we look for things that are multipurpose. We’re also frugal when we shop such as why buy the $130 dollar bookcase for looks, when the $25 one will do. We are minimalists with stuff in the house, such as two towels per person and a winter sheet set and summer sheet set per bed. We use hanging sweater organizers instead of dressers. Nightstands are those $10 decorative tables that you screw in the legs and toss a tablecloth over. Our desks are 6 foot folding tables that are also used for feeding guests, projects, and yard sales. You get the picture. 🙂

    We spend on consumable resources for our passions and activities that can’t be obtained any other way. Each child is in a year round sport. The older two both volunteer and have figured out how to use their special interests to make a little money to support those interests.

    Birthdays and holidays are a time where supplies are restocked, inspiration for special interests and creativity are given, and new family games are added. When buying things, I’ve adopted an “if in doubt, do without” rule. So when I see something, if there is any hesitation, I pass on it. This has saved so much money.

    Technology is used as a tool. I like and follow companies and authors that I enjoy in addition to those my kids enjoy. This often gives me ideas on how to help them extend their interests. It also creates more common ground between us these preteen and teen years. I instapaper articles that looks interesting it so I can read while waiting for the kids at activities.

    My kids have always enjoyed tinkering, exploring, creating, designing, taking things apart, and customizing. I scored several years worth of the old Family Fun magazines when my kids were first born and those were wonderful. Then we have used project and activity books from the library. We also would scan for kits in clearance sections of stores, looking beyond the kit’s intended project, but at the value of the supplies in it. We still buy some items from the dollar store. All three of my kids did the free Lowes and Home Depot kids clinics. Now they get ideas from Pinterest, diy.org, Instructables, MAKE, and You Tube.

    I have several blog posts that relate to this topic. http://kidswhomake.blogspot.com


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