Frugal Bootcamp: Orchids On Your Budget by Marjorie Hillis, Part 1
I first read this book when I found it on the shelves of the library I patronized at the time and I found a copy of it at an estate sale I think (or perhaps in a thrift store) a few years ago and snatched it up. It was, honestly the first book on my thrift shelf where I keep all my money saving books, and so I took it up this week and decided I should start my Frugal Boot Camp with inspirations drawn from the book. I'm going to break the book down into a chapter by chapter review, I think because it's full of good advice overall though one or three areas might well do better with a more sensible approach. Nonetheless, I'll take the gems and leave behind the dross.
Miss Hillis wrote for Vogue magazine throughout the depression years and continued to write under her married name both as an author and co-author (Marjorie Hillis Roulston). While the primary focus was the single woman (whether by choice, or being widowed or divorced), her focus was enjoying the life you have, but not being limited to a strict budget with no frills. Her theory was that any budget could be adjusted to fit your needs and a few of your wants and that naturally if you really wanted a few of those wants you'd happily adjust your budget to afford them. In this, I think she was very smart and her ideal is still applicable today.
The overall tone of this book is cheerful and almost, but not quite, frivolous. I recall hearing that movie studios really dolled up their stars during the depression in an effort to make audiences feel not every one was having a hard time and good days were ahead yet. A sort of reverse psychology optimism that those who didn't have it (it being a grand old time) would have it if they just kept their chins up. And indeed who wanted to go to the movies to forget their troubles and see lives similar to their own upon the screen? I think this is more or less the same point of view that Miss Hillis tried to impart in her book.
In Orchids On Your Budget, Miss Hillis ends each chapter with several 'case study' illustrations of various women who prove her point. I won't share her case studies but I may add a few of my own views. I think, if you can find the book through library or by purchasing, that you'll find the information is not really out of date even these many years after publication and it truly is a good read. There are a few copies on eBay from $8 - $25 and Amazon has listings ranging from $3 to $26. You might also look for copies of Bubbly on Your Budget which seemingly is the same book reissued with a new title. My own copy of is a first edition I found at a thrift store for under $2...So jot it down on your book list if you're interested in seeking it out.
Chapter 1: Well Who Isn't Poor?
Written in the Depression years, her opening question was quite poignant. Nearly everyone suffered a financial loss and nearly every one was having to downgrade their living in one form or another at the time. The U.S. has been through a few economic slumps since then (the most recent being the one most decried as not being one and whose effects we are all still reeling from). Altered financial circumstances happen and we adjust our lives accordingly. Miss Hillis rightly points out that anyone who is struggling to pay their bills or who has to forgo the simplest of wants is having a financial struggle. She advises that anyone might plan to have some of what they want or plan to go without!
My favorite quote from this section is:
"Planning about possibilities and dreaming about improbabilities are not the same thing."
She also divides people into two groups: those who use their difficulties as an excuse to let things go and those who have the brains and energy to do something about it.
She rightly points out that there is no shame in economies, but goes on through her own illustrations to point out how shameful it is to be 'mean', or stingy. It's all a matter of attitude and adjusting that attitude until it's fine tuned to one that is positive and sunny if it is an economy minded one.
One lesson I paid heed to in this chapter is how unpleasant for myself and others it is when one complains endlessly of having no money. Granted, it's hard to write a blog dedicated to living well on a budget and not mention the many economies I make but I also share my splurges. I do have an occasional tendency in real life to whine about circumstances and Miss Hillis rightly points out that it's not only unattractive, it's not nice. Well she's right! I shall try hard to do better on that score. I've often gotten more than a little sick of hearing my own plaintive tale and who cares? Everyone must stretch their dollars and how we stretch them might be a good lesson for others who must stretch them, too, but if it's not instructional I'll do my best to keep quiet!
She urges the reader to 'make a good job of your work. Do things superlatively rather than just well enough.' I couldn't help but think of Brandy's blog, The Prudent Homemaker, which was started as an inspiration from her own experiences during an economic 'downturn'. Brandy excels at needlework, gardening and cooking on a slim budget while nourishing and caring for a large family. She does things beautifully and creates a lovely environment for her family while economizing, as does Anabel of The Bluebirds Are Nesting. Two good examples to follow!
Chapter 2: The Old Homestead
This chapter deals with shelter. As Miss Hillis rightly points out there's no need for anyone to be house poor, nor should one attempt to keep up appearances when the substance that kept appearances up in the first place has disappeared. She urges home owners to lose that sentiment that makes them hold on to the old family place they can't afford and to get out and look for what they can. Of course, in a few instances, a larger home in need of work might well be the less expensive option but not if you're not in the least handy or DIY minded.
The point of this chapter is that sentiment has no place in economy and she's quite right. If your budget won't cover the expense then you are better to let it go and find the house that your budget will cover. She is not recommending anyone live in a hovel. She does suggest that you look hard, both high and low, and find the place that has some of what you want. So if your dream is a penthouse view, a garden, or a place near the city center, then look until you find that spot that fits both budget and desire. Granted the 'penthouse' view might well end being a studio apartment with a full wall of windows at one end, and the garden spot might end being a 1'X 8' balcony, but you're only limited by time and imagination in making something fine out of both.
I will say that here my advice is that if, in fact, your home fits your budget but isn't your ideal then do all you can to make it so. Even when I was just longing for a country home and living in town, I managed to create my desire by planting pots of flowers and growing a small vegetable garden on my city lot. Frankly my dreams for this home died out long ago. My children grew up and left home as they well ought to have done, Granny passed away, and family moved away. Embracing my dream isn't possible but my home is paid for and it's my own and not too big...and so I'm learning to have new dreams for my home. You can, too.
If it happens that selling your home is impossible, perhaps you can figure out a way to use it in a better way. Many and many a boarding house was started by widow women with large homes years ago. Boarding houses might be a thing of the past but if you can manage you might be able to turn the house into apartments or rent to traveling executives who must work away from home. A mini fridge and microwave and coffee pot in a room large enough for seating and bed with an attached bath, might well work into a great paying proposition for someone, and let's not forget the Air BnB movement where one rents out the home to vacationers. It might be an option if you live near a major city, a historic area, beach, mountains, or theme park.
Chapter Three: Please Dress
The information in this chapter may seem a bit dated but there is sound advice in it all the same. Miss Hillis promotes the idea of dressing well with a small wardrobe. That is not far off the current trend towards Capsule Wardrobes in which you essentially purchase a basic wardrobe and then change up accessories to create multiple looks.
In the day and age in which the book it was not uncommon for women to choose a neutral color base of navy, black or brown. Today's advice is still to choose a neutral base wardrobe, but 'neutral' is more loosely defined as any flattering color. The main purpose of a capsule wardrobe is that all pieces are lovely and flattering on you and completely interchangeable.
Miss Hillis rightly points out that good quality items that will wear long and well should be purchased in the line of coats, day to day shoes, purses, etc., choosing classic styles that will last season to season and year after year. She touts the 'little black dress' as a workhorse in any wardrobe, suitable both for work, casual and evening looks with a change of accessories and shoes. She recommends evening clothes be kept to the lower end of the budget and rightly points out that you'll live and work in your day to day wear but evening shoes and dresses and evening purses are used only occasionally.
Also recommended is that you purchase the next size up in clothes and have them altered to fit rather than buy the size you would normally wear and have it fit poorly. I still see plenty of signs for tailors and 'alterations' in larger towns so I'm sure this is still good advice. I could stand to have a few pieces altered myself but I'd like to learn to do it on my own which is a possibility for any of you via YouTube. In one of her illustrations she mentioned a woman who'd collected antique buttons and used those higher quality ones to replace cheap buttons on a dress with good lines but inexpensively made. She said no one could tell the difference between the knock off model and the designer original simply because the finishes so improved the appearance of the dress.
Miss Hillis mentions clothing be repaired immediately: stains treated, buttons sewn snugly on, hems restitched. Sound advice yet again and advice that nets you the well kept look. I think it pays to go over your wardrobe weekly and make those repairs.
It is also recommended that if clothes need to be dry cleaned you figure that expense into your budget. I chuckled over this because not too many years ago actress/singer Zoey Deschanel went through a divorce and she had to release her financial information which included her budget. I was rather impressed to see that not only did she adhere to a modest (proportionately in comparison to her annual salary) budget but that she included a monthly dry cleaning bill amount.
Miss Hillis also mentions something about clothing worn at home. The book suggests inexpensive house dresses which is dated information. However, many women these days could benefit from a nice house dress versus those gosh awful pajama pants I see far too often. Yoga pants are what my girls have adopted and I find they look reasonably neat and nice without being sloppy or slouchy. I myself prefer pants and tee-shirts, but my current house wardrobe has left me embarrassed once too often when someone showed up unexpectedly. I mean to right this by purchasing a few cheap shorts, loose knit long pants and a fresh crop of new t-shirts in flattering fit and color for here at home.
I have noted in the last few years that I replace my shoes far less often now that I'm willing to invest in them. I used to wear only the cheapest shoes and not only did they fit poorly but they didn't last a full season, much less from year to year. Now I purchase good name brand shoes, often at a deep discount from Ross for Less or Marshalls or TJMaxx, and I wear them for several seasons over a number of years. In fact, I'd still be wearing most of the pairs I purchased four years ago had I not lost a shoe size with the weight loss!
Accessories do not have to be pricey. I love to switch up my purses and I find nicer bags at the same stores mentioned above. I don't invest a great deal in my purses because I do like to change them out and that limits the wear upon them. However, if it happens that you're a one purse sort of woman, you'd do well to buy as good a quality investment purse as you can afford and to choose something neither too casual nor too dressy so that it works well for you in all situations.
I find it viable to purchase better costume jewelry. I don't ever pay full price, but will happily pick up deeply discounted clearance pieces. I find the better made pieces are less inclined to 'turn' color and often will wear for years and years. I've only deviated from my own good sense twice and both times, having paid full price, the piece ended up in the salvage bead bin. I feel a lesser loss if I've only paid $5 or $6 for something that doesn't last or which I tired of quickly. I've picked up a number of classic looking silk scarves at thrift stores for $2 or $3 and I have to mention that is also a great source for better quality purses, shoes and costume jewelry but it's hit and miss in finding them.
Two quotes from this chapter captured my attention:
"A smart wardrobe requires money, time or taste."
"A cheap dress worn with good accessories will fool people more often than not."
Chapter 4: Can You Afford a Husband?
I've little to say about this chapter as Miss Hillis' supposition is that the majority of women marry poorly and want to continue to live at least as well as they did on their own. Remember this was written in the depression era and many men were under- or un-employed though most of her case studies seem to dwell on wanna be writers and starving artists sorts of men. It's worth noting that she herself eventually married a very wealthy man...
Fortunately my fate in marriage didn't fall to such ne'er do well types and hopefully neither did yours...
Chapter 5: Things You Can't Afford
"The hairline that separates sensible economy from the first suspicion of closeness also separates charm from one of the most unlovely qualities known to humankind."
"It takes a lot of minor repairs to total up to the cost of major ones that result from years of neglect."
In this chapter Miss Hillis warns against the sort of stinginess that fails to consider the point of good grooming, upkeep on a home, maintenance of common goods and just plain good manners. I've referred to this point as 'good stewardship' for physical possessions and it's money saving sense. To take good care of what you have is always a savings, as opposed to simply letting things go. I'll refer to my Granny's viewpoint about plain good manners: it's a reputation maker or a reputation breaker. And in her wise words, "A good reputation once lost isn't easily recovered." It's not about putting on airs but about what used to be referred to as 'common decency'.
The advice in this chapter really is meant to help one to find the balance between being happily thrifty and overbearingly stingy. The chapter ends on a quiz and I am including that here. Jot your answers down and I'll post the answers in the follow-up post to this one, as well as including the last five chapters of the book. A few of these questions may seem to date the book and I've skipped those that are blatantly outdated, but the questions and answers that follow here are valid ones
#1 Do you take friends you don't care about impressing to a cheap restaurant and smart friends to a more expensive one?
#2. At a party, do you talk loudly about calling for a taxi then wait to see if friends with cars will take you home?
#3. When getting on a train with a friend who has a paper, do you buy a copy of your own?
#4. Do you walk instead of taking a taxi when it's wet or inclement weather and you haven't protective shoe covers or when you're late and a friend is waiting?
#5. Do you keep putting on your oldest dresses and 'saving' your new ones?
I'm skipping #6 and #7 as I can't think how either apply to our modern lives...
#8. Do you hang on to your old dresses and coats that you don't wear but think you might make over sometime instead of sending them to charity?
#9. Do you check your restaurant bill before paying?
#10. Do you wear a nightgown or slip (or bra) just one more time even though it's a shade soiled , before putting it into the clothes hamper?
#11. Do you buy Christmas gifts that 'will do' for relatives to whom giving is duty, instead of trying to think of something they will really like?
#13. Do you painstakingly untie package string (or unwrap gifts or packages)?
#14. Do you salve your conscience over buying an extravagant item for your wardrobe, that you don't need, by going without lunch?
I'm skipping #15 as well, which has to do with forgetting to pay for long distance phone calls in other people's homes...with the advent of personal cell phones I certainly hope that this is not pertinent to any of us!
I shall end here and in the continuation of this post will provide the answers...
To be continued!