What would Arty do?

With money tight, a retired couple gain fresh admiration for a frugal neighbor.

My neighbor Arty grew up during the Great Depression and worked his way through college by delivering ice in the summers. Later, during the war, he served on Guam and Okinawa. He once told me there was so much war stuff on Guam near the end that jeeps were stored on their sides to fit more in. The sheer excess must have shocked a young man who came of age during hard times.

One day, maybe 10 years ago, during a financial downturn of my own, my brother and I were fixing a section of my fence. The fence was 6 feet tall. I bought 8-foot redwood posts, sank them in the ground, and cut off a 1-foot section per post.

Arty walked slowly up the street to investigate. Staring at the cut sections, he asked, "What are you going to do with all that nice wood?"

I grew up in the boom-time 1950s and didn't have the heart to tell him that I was just going to toss them.

When I was a kid, there were a lot of older guys like Arty who changed their own oil, drove cars until the wheels fell off, and always painted their houses themselves. If something broke they didn't replace it, they glued it. They never took a car to a car wash, let alone paid somebody to detail it. Arty's wife once complained about the condition of their 10-year-old Volvo; he had it painted.

Years ago, my 14-year-old had a bigger TV in his bedroom than Arty had in his family room. I have a fancy new stainless steel barbecue on its own tiled island. Arty has had the same rusty one forever. From the window where I'm writing this, I can see his ancient, dented Toyota pickup truck. I helped Arty fix a broken rearview mirror on that wreck five years ago. We used a couple of zip ties – smaller version of the handcuffs cops use on "bad boys." I can't even begin to imagine what Arty could have done with them in his heyday.

And yet, if I magically tripled my net worth tomorrow I'd still be poorer then Arty – a lot poorer.

My nest egg was just about enough to see me through retirement – that is, until last September.

Things are different now. Our nest egg has shrunk and, as a result, we get to do things we hadn't done in a long time such as mow the lawn, change the oil, and even paint the house. Before we buy something new, we'll fix something old.

My wife darned a pair of my socks last week for the first time in 43 years of marriage. My comfy wash pants are a little frayed because they're a tad too long. She wants to hem them tomorrow, right after she finishes clipping the supermarket coupons.

This is the same lady known to her children and grandchildren as the Catalog Queen. At our house you used to have to watch not to trip over the Fed Ex box by the door. But not anymore.

Maybe it'll all become drudgery later, but right now it's fun, like camping out when you are a kid.

Tomorrow my car needs an oil change. I'll Google "oil change" first to make sure I do it right. I need to do that because the last time I changed the oil myself I wasn't old enough to vote.

It's an SUV, and I think I can get it high enough to take off the drain plug by backing it out the driveway a little and scooting in the depression by the curb. It sounds scary but will be safer and quicker than crawling under a jacked-up car. I figure I can save at least 20 bucks that way. Afterward I'll go to the place where you wash it yourself. If I work fast enough it will only cost two bucks. And it's greener; they recycle.

The really strange thing about all of this is that I'm looking forward to it. I need to get some exercise anyway and who needs the gym when you've got the Spray 'n' Wash.

My wife and I have a new saying, which we think will see us through this latest crisis. (After all, we've been through a few others in 43 years.)

Whenever we're planning a night out or a new catalog purchase we ask: What would Arty do?

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