Practicing Sustaining

Making Do and Doing Without

Do what you can with what you have where you are—Theodore Roosevelt

Prices are high, salaries are stagnant, and war and ongoing climate crises aren’t helping keep our bottom lines from dipping further. But we humans have big brains for a reason.

If we can’t do big things to make living easy, we can make lots of small everyday changes in our lives to ease the pain and help us find new sources of more organic happiness.

Here’s how to make do with what you have where you are – in your house, closets, pocketbook, pantry, and elsewhere,  finding new ways to do the same old things for much less — and things you can do without — or do in a different way– or do for free.

First, what’s the diff between want and need anyway? We definitely get them confused, by choice or unwittingly.

Needs are air, water, and food,  basic health care items, clothes, tools like computers and phones, and a roof overhead.   Non-material needs which can sometimes be hard to come by include self-esteem, a sense of security, and love.

Wants, on the other hand, are things that you would like to have that are not essential to your survival. We all have our own set of desires.  A salary that jets you into the upper class, a flashy car, a jaw-dropping house, pricey food, travel to faraway places, name-brand clothes, and the wherewithal to send your child to an elite university  (as opposed to a city college).  And the list goes on.

None of these upgrades make us any happier. At least not for long. They certainly don’t improve the state of Mother Earth, already overstuffed with plastic and paper, chemicals, and the burning of fossil fuels  So what does?

Learning the art of making do and doing without can help. Here are ideas and actions to kick-start the transition, in no particular order.

  • Pause pricey entertainment: instead of live theatre and concerts, check out performances by local theatre, church and community groups, even local high schools. You save money, support the local economy and you may be surprised at the caliber of the talent right under your nose.
  • Give up costly streaming TV services and podcast subscriptions. Stay home and tune into the wealth of free online art shows, dance concerts, and museum tours at sites like ALL ARTS. See Travel and Leisure magazine online for their link to virtual tours of world-class art galleries and museums without leaving your armchair or paying admission fees.
  • Forget fast fashion. Cheap clothes are not cheap considering their effect on the environment and the human slave trade that it often uses. Before you buy, check out nearby thrift and consignment shops which support the local economy and hometown charities  Online, browse commerce sites like eBay, ebid, and etsy for second-hand previously owned and overstock appliances, furniture, clothing,  tech items, and more. Sparing your wallet and the landfill.
  • Cut out takeout.  The average U.S. household spends $2,375 annually on dining and takeout purchases. And the average American eats out 5.9 times a week. You could cut that in half and be much healthier, shop for better quality ingredients and learn some creative skills in the kitchen. Even better, how about sharing meal prep (and clean up) and enjoying sit-down homemade meals with your family at least 2x a week instead of eating out or getting take-out?
  • Don’t buy, Got a group of friends you meet for pickleball, cards? Why not let it double as a bartering /swap meet?  We all have something nice in a closet or in our attic that we don’t need or want anymore. Why not meet and swap for something you can use.  Saves cash for both of you and helps perform a closet detox
  • Swap smart: How about doing an exchange of talents/chores? Could you sit with your neighbor’s kids if she/he’ll walk your dogs? Or clean your friend’s fridge while your friend runs errands for you? It saves money both ways and gives you both a different outlook on the daily grind in someone else’s life.
  • Make don’t buy. Make your own cleaning products that will be less toxic and eliminate the need for multiple plastic bottles of cleaner under the sink. Buying a different cleaning product for every job in your home can be costly and potentially toxic for you and your pets. You can get by with a lot less. For example, here’s the recipe for a cleaner that’s safe enough to drink.

All Purpose Cleaner

Combine one part white vinegar, one part water, lemon rind, and a bit of rosemary. Put in a spray bottle, shake and let it “infuse” for a few days. Done. No chemicals to worry about and you saved five bucks.

  • Walk or bike, don’t drive. Try doing without your car for a week, if you live close enough to work or bike to work and stores. Or if you need it for Monday to Friday work, try doing a four-wheels fast on the weekend. Saves on gas, you get exercise, and it’s good for the carbon footprint.
  • Do without ordering in. Food to go is wasteful in terms of throwaway non-compostable packaging and delivery service that involves gas-powered transport not to mention the unneeded extra calories added to your diet.  If there are a couple of items you routinely order (pizza, buffalo wings, fries, sushi) learn how to make your own versions at home. It’s creative, saves $, and you’ll be using better quality ingredients than restaurants and food services do.
  • Tag sale times two: Get together with a friend (or two) and have a three-person tag/yard sale. It cleans out the closet, keeps stuff out of the dumpster or landfill and makes you all some big or small change.
  • Book lover exchange:: start a book loan/ swap project. Take a photo of your bookshelves and trade for photos of a friend’s shelves. Then pick a few titles of theirs you’d like to read and swap. Or try a blind swap. Pick out a title for your friends and that friend chooses one for you. You might find a new author to love.
  • Kitchen Smarts: Do you rush out to the store when you are out of one ingredient? Why not find a substitute right where you are? Make do. There is always something that at least comes close. For example, no fish sauce? Try soy sauce. No buttermilk?  Use 1 cup of milk with 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice. No white wine? Use an equal amount of apple juice or white grape juice. Check out for more instead-ofs.
  • Do you really need that biweekly gel mani-pedi? According to the Harvard Health Newsletter, most curing lamps which cure and dry the polish emit ultraviolet, a light that is a known cause of cancer and cellular aging. Wearing gel polish for long periods can also cause brittle dry nails, they add. Take a vacation from time to time or get the treatment but skip the color. Avoid polish colors that contain formaldehyde resin, another carcinogen.
  • No to plastic. That single plastic baggie you are using to take the green onions home in can take 1,000 years to degrade. Buy or make your own reusable bags. Stop being one of those Americans who comes home from the grocery store with 1,500 single-use plastic bags annually.
  • End games: Think twice about any perishable food you are about to toss: Celery leaves and carrot tops, parsley stems are edible, ditto broccoli and cauliflower stems. And the bits and ends of most vegetables can be used to make a tasty and free vegetable (add beef bone for meat) broth. Tag ends that can’t have a second life can be composted.
  • Stop food waste by buying slightly imperfect produce that might otherwise go to waste. Companies like the MISFITS MARKET ( ship you a box of goodies –including organic and sustainably sourced foods each month at up to 40% off grocery prices if you subscribe.
  • High brow, low cost: live theatre tickets are pricier than ever. Why not entertain yourself locally for free or close to it? Libraries offer no-charge concerts, movies, art shows, and receptions, and many offer museum passes so you can visit major galleries in the nearby area for free. You can also see ballet performances, listen to operas and symphony performances at sites like ALL ARTs online.

  • Why drive or fly two states away for a vacation? When you can do a “Staycation” for much less? Every state has attractions for singles and families.  There are probably scenic lakes and beaches and mountain ranges in your own state that you’ve never visited.
  • The joy of self-sufficiency: Learn how to tackle the projects you want to get done yourself. The more new skills, the more you save. There are free courses everywhere including at big box stores and sewing centers, and hundreds of videos on and elsewhere where you can get instructions on how to do pretty much anything.
  • Better choices: What about that kitchen gadget or pair of boots or pretty bedspread you’re eying that will set you back $ $25? $50? $80? Before you click or get out the credit card, think of five better things it might be spent on—maybe a donation to fighting hunger or poverty, buying cans of pet food for the local animal shelter, gifts cards for local low-income seniors, maybe paying off some outstanding household balance or starting a savings account for your child as a surprise. Which action will actually make you feel better and be the better choice in the long run??
  • Pause before you purchase: Are you or other members of your family making impulse purchases? Try walking away and waiting before buying. A survey by the AARP  found that more than half of the people who can do this, don’t make the purchase. So, instead of getting whatever you pick up, consider simply moving on. If you really want the item(s), you can always go back. Of course, the absolute best way to deal with impulse purchases is to avoid temptation. If you know you’re likely to be tempted to buy things you don’t need, stay out of malls and put those mail-order catalogs directly into the trash. Better yet, ask the company to take you off the mailing list altogether.

Last but not least in the “do without” department: erase the ongoing negative self-talk and negative talk in general. It’s estimated that we talk to ourselves using 300 to 1,000 words a minute, many of them defeating and hurtful. Stop the chatter. In fact, here’s a formula from one cognitive psychologist: don’t criticize, don’t complain, and don’t make excuses. Simple, effective (if harder to put into action than it sounds). It calls for discipline and self-monitoring, but get ready for the rewards in self-esteem and a new-found satisfaction with yourself and others.

-Frances Goulart

Photo: WWII-era thriftiness brochure (Wikimedia Commons)

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