two ladies in front a sale window

Paring Down

Mid-winter is belt-tightening season, literally and figuratively, everywhere except in Tuscany. The Tuscans eat just as much now as they do during the holidays, partially because, with the last feast, Epiphany, falling on January 6th, and Carnevale starting, some years, hardly a month later, there is no post-holiday season, and partly because the three- or four-course meals they enjoy over the holidays continue at family Sunday lunches all year round. So the belt stays on the same hole year round. Figuratively speaking, there is no household budget trimming either in the wake of Christmas, because frugality is like religion here—touching everything and everyone.

Before moving to Tuscany, my idea of frugal living was mid-1990s New York on a legal assistant’s salary—i.e., I couldn’t afford to go to Dorian’s every night of the week. The Tuscans, though, have taught me to interpret the term more strictly.

One of the first things my future mother-in-law noticed when I moved here was the price tag on some dish soap I had bought: “It’s thirty cents less at the other supermarket,” she pointed out helpfully. She also taught me how to save at the dry cleaners: “Just have them clean the skirt, not iron it. You can do that yourself,” which got me 50% off.

To consume less of that pricey dog food, I feed my dogs bread: bakeries sell a huge bag of the day’s unsold bread for a Euro. I set it out in the sun for two or three days so it fully dries and won’t mold. Then, a few hours prior to each meal, I soak a few pieces in water, add some table scraps and a small scoop of dog pellets and serve up my gourmet meal. We used to do the same for the horses, minus the table scraps. And by the way, horses do just fine unshod. In fact, I was told, “They prefer it.”

Instead of buying San Pellegrino, I go to my local “Casa dell’Acqua,” an automated water station that refills my bottles with delicious sparkling water for five cents a liter. As for our wardrobes, the Wednesday market in Siena boasts the one-Euro table for kids and the two-Euro table for adults, where there are serious bargains to be had. And if those prices are too high, there’s always the dump, where I once found a porcelain serving bowl from Ginori that remains one of my favorites to this day.

I keep a close eye on gas prices. There’s one station in town that charges a few cents less per liter than all the others. Waiting there, in lines of up to ten cars, I’m reminded of my childhood in 1970s oil-crisis America. When I’m in a rush, I go next store and pay more, not only in Euro but in guilt for the rest of the day. For a while, despite dire warnings from our mechanic, we even used part of our allotment of agricultural diesel (it costs half) to fill up the family cars.

In terms of other essentials, they are a source of almost infinite savings. The heat is turned on for an hour in the morning and two or three at night, with the maximum temperature set to 60 or so. For years, my daughters came home from school red-faced and sweating, after having been bundled off in woolen underwear, turtlenecks, sweaters and button-up vests. From November to April, I go around in corduroys over woolen stockings, a skiing shell, a thick Irish sweater over a thin angora one and a dark green hunting vest from Beretta meant, I am sure, for the outdoors. A woolen hat that I accidentally shrunk in the wash years ago–thereby making it even thicker and tighter—stays on even in bed, which may partially explain the failure of my marriage. Around Siena in winter, you immediately recognize the noblemen: they are dressed for the artic tundra, in order to survive winter in their enormous, freezing homes.

Appliances like my dishwasher and washing machine are programmed to run outside of peak hours (12 cents less per kW), and dryers are simply unheard of. No roaring fires—they consume too much wood—just a little flame to take the chill off the air. Rooms are kept decidedly dark, except for the ubiquitous glow of the tv, but if I have to switch on a lamp, I’m not worried: only 25-watt bulbs are installed. Water for washing hands and faces is cold, and if I want a hot shower, I go to the tennis club.

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Jem Macy

I am a mother, homemaker and winemaker living in Siena, Italy.

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