Tuesday 3 November 2009

Epic Feats of Frugality: Thoreau, Walden, and the Simple Life

Tight Fisting It, 19th Century Style

This article is part of the 'Epic Feats of Frugality' series, which calls attention to innovative and inspirational Tight Fisters from around the world.

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau is a towering classic of American literature. Most people are familiar with the basic story: middle class Thoreau leaves society and goes off to live by himself, extolling the virtues of a simple, natural lifestyle. In the book, he describes his life in the woods and (favorably) compares his life to that of those engaged in modern society. But what may not be completely obvious to you is that Thoreau is a TOTAL LEGEND OF TIGHT FISTEDNESS. If you read the book, you will see that this guy is constantly dropping inspirational nuggets of wisdom that are still relevant to we Tight Fisters today.

Thoreau is not the first (nor the last) to promote ditching society and living out in the wilderness. But these days, those people tend to be a bit off their rocker, and not exactly shining example citizens. But even if you don't feel like rushing off into the woods and plotting your revenge on society, you can still take lessons in Tight Fisting from Thoreau.

Let's start with a perfect example. When Thoreau decides to move to the woods, his first order of business is to build himself a house- everyone needs a house, right? But if you're a true Tight Fister like Thoreau, you cut down your own trees, negotiate with locals for materials, and build that bad boy yourself. In fact, Thoreau was so pleased with his house that he was able to smugly proclaim,"I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one. " Take that, city snobs!

Sure He Lived In The Woods, But I
Think Ted Missed The Point

How much exactly did it cost Thoreau in total? $28.125! And before all you econ nerds weigh in on the differential value of money in 1841, I'm pleased to inform you that this is worth a cool $552.465 in 2005 dollars. Go ahead, try to build a house for under $600. Let me know how it goes.

According to Thoreau, one of the major benefits of a simple life is that if you stop consuming luxuries, you no longer need to work hard and long for money. (This concepts has a lot of parallels to the ideas found in our very own Tight Fist Manifesto) In a telling example, there is a passage in the book where Thoreau happens upon a poor but hard-working neighboring farmer, and he tries to open his eyes to the virtues of living without luxury. He illustrates their lifestyle differences in the following passage:

I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them; again, as I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard, and it cost me but a trifle for my food; but as he began with tea, and coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef, he had to work hard to pay for them, and when he had worked hard he had to eat hard again to repair the waste of his system — and so it was as broad as it was long, indeed it was broader than it was long, for he was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain

So obviously the farmer must have seen the error of his ways? But alas, it is not so, as he had fallen under the trap of consumerism: "and yet he had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day."

We all know that giving up luxuries will free you from the bonds of money, but Thoreau is takes it to the extreme- giving up even minor luxuries such as tea, coffee, butter, milk, and meat. (And before any snooty vegans chime in, make sure you first take a look at your tofu and tempeh bills.) Sure, Thoreau was lucky enough to be able to go fishing when he wanted a delicious meal, but his restraint is impressive nonetheless.

I could keep going, but if you're looking for more 19th century inspiration, you may just have to read the book yourself. But here's the good news: thanks to an expired copyright, it is available for free on the internet. A book on Tight Fisting, available for free? DOUBLE SCORE!!!

Henry David Thoreau, inspiration to Tight Fisters everywhere for a century and a half, I tip my cap to you.

Do you know someone who is an inspirational Tight Fister? Do they perform Epic Feats of Frugality? Email The Tight Fist at thetightfist@googlemail.com


  1. And that Thoreau lived on someone else's property, thus avoiding having to pay for things like property tax and still have the luxury of a toilet and other such frivolities in his friend's house.

  2. If you are such a tight fister that you don't want to pay for the internet, or pay for a high priced coffee to use someone else's internet; Walden is a staple at everyone's public library.

    Internet Walden requires:

    Library Walden requires:
    Walking to the library.

  3. Sounds like Walden could be compressed to a pamphlet: "Don't Buy Shit You Don't Need." It really is the golden rule of tightfisting.

  4. When I calculate 28$ as % of 1841 GDP, I get 235,000$. :)

    But still, Walden was the man. That said, I've heard he actually didn't live that far out of the lap of luxury, or town. That explains the rather notable personnages that dropped by this cabin in the "woods."

    That said, Walden was a great tight fister, example to us all.

  5. David, I really think % of GDP is not really the best measure. It may make sense if we assumed Thoreau to have 'average' income in 1841 and wanted to compare his decisions to someone with 'average' income today. But I think you get a more applicable result if you just look at the change in prices of similar goods over time, which you can interpret as trying to figure how much it would currently cost to buy all the materials that went into Thoreau's house. For this I used the GDP deflator.

    On another note, Thoreau is the person, Walden is the pond.

  6. Nice work with "Tight Fisting It, 19th Century Style" but as far as Thoreau, I can hardly be inspired by this man. I'll never give up my tiny 1 bedroom apartment in NYC and my cable television to stare at ants for enjoyment. There is tight fisting it, and squeezing to hard and Thoreau was def. the latter!

  7. Wow, if you want to be an idiot follow the examples above. Reading and comprehension problems above.