phyllis mcginley

The Thrill of Thrift

There is a satisfaction in seeing one’s household prosper,
in being both bountiful and provident.

--Phyllis McGinley

I don’t know a woman alive who doesn’t get a thrill out of thrifting—the finding of the perfect item at the perfect price.  But thrifting is so much more than a bargain bagged at a garage sale, flea market or on eBay.  For centuries, thrifting has been the heart of the homemaker’s honorable estate and a sacred trust that included the right apportionment of her personal and domestic resources:  time, creative energy, emotion, industry, strength, skill, craft, and labor; the management of property of all kinds, including money; the exercise of prudence and temperance; and the distribution of charity to those less fortunate.

In other words, all those homespun virtues necessary to keep a family healthy, prosperous and secure were contained in the Heavenly boon of this one expansive word.

But to truly understand the reassuring and redeeming spiritual qualities of thrift, let’s clear away all the old, hackneyed cliché cobwebs that surround this marvelous quality.

Let’s begin by what thrift isn’t:  parsimonious, frugal, mean, scrimping, paltry, shoddy, stingy or cheap.

What thrift is:  bountiful, generous, compassionate, vigorous, growing, abundant, blooming, copious, healthful, efficient.  Thrift is practicing the art of elegant economies, such as gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty and joy (interestingly, all the six graces of Simple Abundance).  Thrift is thriving, increasing, expanding and plentiful.

We can trace the role that thrift has played in the English household back to the 13th century bard Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well as William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.  Probably the earliest meaning of the word thrift was “the condition of one who thrives” or being endowed with good luck, good fortune, wealth and health.  But what made thrift such an honorable aspiration was that its bounty was not conveyed by celestial benediction or favor of the Crown—but rather through the everyday choices made by prudent housewives who were neat, clean, industrious, imaginative, honest, clever, enterprising and generous.  Women who found the mystical in their mundane rituals of their daily round and cherished their bounty of the everyday.  

Illustration by Coles Phillips.

Illustration by Coles Phillips.

The invocation of thrift was considered as crucial to a bride’s happy marriage as tossing rice, releasing doves or wearing something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.  Beginning in the 16th century, English nuptials introduced the custom of the bride’s father or guardian slipping a silver sixpence coin into her left shoe as a harbinger of wealth and protection against want.  The symbol of the sixpence represented the “reward” due to those drawn to the honorable estate of matrimony.

Intriguingly, “thrift” is also the name of a charming English flower, a pink perennial that blooms from April through September which flourishes in rocky crevices, requiring little soil for sustenance while acting as a barrier protecting the marshes from the ebb-and-flow erosion of the sea.  As a metaphor for our own reconsidered economic lives, the metaphysical boundary of thrift protects us from the ebb and flow of the emergencies.  It enables us to create our own protective barrier to cushion us from want and distress through our savings, or, the “Margin of Happiness” as the Victorians called it.  Fabulous name that makes you want to have or start one immediately.  

Without thrift “there can be little solid domestic happiness,” the Pulitzer prizewinning poet and essayist Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978) tells us in her Sixpence in Her Shoe (1964) written as an answer to Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique published the year before.  “For thrift is neither selfishness or cheese-paring, but a large, compassionate attribute, a just regard for God’s material gifts.  It has nothing in common with meanness and is different even from economy, which may assist thrift.”

Phyllis McGinley is a woman after my own heart.  She loved being a wife, a mother, a homemaker, an author and a poet.  She reveled in combining all the facets of her daily round in her writing, working on her poems, essays or books while a pot of stew or soup simmered on the stove.  And she saw no contradictions in combining all the aspects of her life into a tapestry of contentment—from meeting her husband’s train to being celebrated at a White House reception.

Phyllis McGinley on the cover of Time Magazine, June 18, 1965.

Phyllis McGinley on the cover of Time Magazine, June 18, 1965.

In her inspirational essay “The Pleasures of Thrift,” she describes how passionate thrift is the guardian of domestic bliss:  “Meanness inherits a set of silverware and keeps it in the bank.  Economy uses it only on important occasions for fear of loss.  Thrift sets the table with it every night for pure pleasure, but counts the butter spreaders before they are put away.”

Becoming a novice in Mother Plenty’s Order of the Hearth enables us to create a sustainable lifestyle protected from life’s storms, as best we can.  “Thrift saves for the future because the children must be educated and because one must not be a burden in old age,” McGinley tells us.  “Thrift keeps the house painted and the roof in repair, puts shoe trees in shoes, but bakes a jar of cookies for neighborhood children.  It is never stingy…”

Illustration by Coles Phillips.

Illustration by Coles Phillips.

What I adore about McGinley’s view of thrift is that “it has to be a personal joy which every housewife must work out for herself” by first examining what are her authentic extravagances.  Do you love to cook?  Then quality knives, organic chickens and virgin olive oil might be your affordable luxuries—but through your prudent meal planning, the chicken will stretch to three delicious suppers and the fresh baked sourdough bread accompanying your homemade chicken noodle soup doesn’t have to be made in your kitchen.  The thrill of thrift invites trade-offs not trade-downs.

“Everywoman has to learn to be thrifty in her own idiom.  Her economies must be like her luxuries cut to the shape of the family budget or the family dream and they must never descend to indignities.  Thrift implies dignity,” Phyllis McGinley reminds us.  “It might lie for one person as a thing so small as properly balancing her check book or for another in something so large as learning to make all the draperies for her windows…And, like laughter or sachets in bureau drawers, it is a pleasant thing to have around the house.”

I believe that once we approach thrift not as a straight-jacket of “can’t haves” but as a homegrown remedy for contentment and creativity, this ancient art can not only boost our morale, but increase our “Margin of Happiness” and that, after all, is why we seek the sacred in the ordinary.

Sending love to you and yours and always, blessings on your courage.