Friday, 26 June 2009

Austerity Parties

By Kate
Living The Frugal Life

Originally uploaded by Inkyhack

I left home two years before I graduated from high school. So I know what it's like to have no money and to live on a shoestring budget without any safety net. Fortunately, I can look back and say that on the whole it was a positive experience. I took on a lot of responsibility for myself at an early age, and nothing disastrous came of it.

One of the things I remember fondly from those years was a recurring event that some of my friends would host. These friends were all older than me, but I was drawn to bohemian types, so they didn't have much money either. About once a month they'd host what they called austerity parties. This was back in the late 80s, in a large liberal university town, so it was partly an ironic joke and partly dead serious.

These parties took place in cramped little apartments, or sometimes in parks. There were never enough chairs, so people sat wherever they could. The atmosphere of cheap fun was invariably festive, and of course it was always potluck. Some guests even dressed up in Hooverville attire, or brought their contributions in large tin cans. I remember bean dishes, collard greens, bread pudding, boiled potatoes with butter, and lots of vegetable dishes from various cultures. The friend of mine who often hosted it was vegetarian, but some dishes showed up with small amounts of meat in them. If there was wine, it was in a jug. The food was surprisingly good for the most part.

After everyone had eaten enough, someone usually broke out Monopoly, or some other board game. Someone else would bring out a guitar or put on some Italian opera. Others just carried on talking and socializing. Conversation was rich and lively. Some people who came obviously had no need to cut corners, but they had no pretenses and enjoyed the celebration of frugality anyway. Everyone had a blast, and always wanted to know where and when the next austerity party was going to be held. I remember once that it was someone's birthday, and when a friend had asked what she wanted as a gift, she had answered. But the gift giver wasn't sure whether she'd said she wanted some "Plato," or some "Play-Doh." She was intellectual enough to read Plato, but also creative enough that she might really have wanted Play-Doh. So she got to unwrap a slim used volume of Plato, and homemade batches of Play-Doh in several colors. Everyone roared with laughter, and to be honest, I can't remember which gift was the one she had really wanted.

I've been thinking back over those austerity parties in recent times. I wonder if the magic of them was that most of us really were living on tiny budgets, but determined to enjoy life anyway. Instead of trying to hide the fact that we were poor, we decided to embrace it and have fun with other people in the same situation, or with those who were willing to meet us at the economic level we could afford. I'm really grateful that I fell in with such a crowd at that age. If I had socialized with people who prioritized appearances and the display of whatever wealth they had, I might have ended up with a good deal of debt early in life. I deeply admired these people and their ability to have fun doing something so outrageous as celebrating their own poverty. Of course, this was strictly financial poverty, not an intellectual or cultural impoverishment. It seemed terribly sophisticated and counter-cultural to me at the time. I found such a lifestyle and an attitude quite novel, but worth imitating.

I suppose I've been thinking back on those austerity parties lately because of the economic situation we are in at a national and even global level. Perhaps such a defiant celebration in the face of recession and growing poverty has something to offer us now. It is difficult to be optimistic when the news seems so unrelentingly bad. But communal festivity is good for the spirit. There is comfort in the company of others who are in the same situation, in seeing them unbowed and celebrating. If frugality is the new black, then perhaps the austerity party should be revived.

What dish would you bring to an austerity party potluck? Would you dress up as a hobo? What would make it a fun evening for you and your family?