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Cathy Erway Headshot

The Frugalista Lifestyle

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It was only ten years ago that Carrie Bradshaw sloshed through the streets of Manhattan in $400 Manolos, a testament to her righteous sense of style and sophistication. I don't remember when I had that much fun ruining expensive shoes. But then, the fictional character would have had so many pairs in her fictional closet, it wouldn't have mattered that much.

That fairytale lifestyle may be largely lost -- less fetishized, looked down upon, and most of all, less likely to be imitated with today's drowning economy. Add to that worry a culture of greater "green" awareness, and it seems like everyone is looking for the sweet spot where economic and environmental conservation intersect. I've found one with hipness and fashion tossed in, too.

In a word, it's one that has fascinated the loftiest wordsmith of all, William Safire. Last winter, he made a tribute to it in his Sunday Times column, pinning it his choice for "word of the year" among the shortlist of new inductees into the New Oxford American Dictionary. In it, he traced the word's lineage to a 2005 article in the Palm Beach Post, and later a Miami Herald blog written by Natalie McNeal called The Frugalista Files, which discusses cheap and fashionable trends and events. As the dictionary defined it, a frugalista is, "A person who lives a frugal lifestyle but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying secondhand, growing own produce, etc."

We get it, you might be nodding. But how many are practicing the frugalista lifestyle, and to what extent of "staying fashionable"? More than ever, it seems. From blogs touting budget-savvy crafts, a rise in home gardening (for food, not flowers), food magazines featuring party ideas for pizza and other commonly eaten-out treats, DIY has gone from dowdy to sassy with increasing speed. Terms like "crafty diva" and "domestic goddess" have come to describe today's tastemakers. One could say they've always claimed a share in the style lexicon. Industry does it, too, with clever recycled goods such as Sea Bags that make a fashion statement out of being green. But with today's economy, being cheap about your choices can be chic, too. There's a frugalista in everyone, I like to believe. If Carrie were still strutting around on television, I imagine her baking desserts for a potluck and finding her frocks at clothing swaps instead of a day of shoe shopping and lunching in the Village.

Frugalista is an elastic term, for sure. Before reading Safire's article, I heard it first being referred to a friend who happened to sew everything she wore from scrap material, and for years received nearly all her nourishment from rescued food. That is, dumpster-dived food, would-be waste -- being a freegan. But you'd never know it from looking at her. With a petite silhouette and gorgeous makeup-free face, this frugalista could be a beauty queen, and is my personal poster child for the word (or movement?). When I asked her a few questions on why she began foraging from trash bins for food, she had confident, and sensible replies. It wasn't for the image, but a deep concern about the country's out-of-control waste stream. That, and of course practicality -- these goods are free. These days, she says, she mainly trash-dives for "extras" as communal goodies for her roommates and friends -- an unopened wedge of nice Parmesan cheese, baked goods only a day old.

On the other hand, casual practitioners like readers of McNeal's blog (and another blog that's since popped up, called The Green Frugalista), can embrace the budget and earth-friendly spirit to an extent that they're comfortable with. Me? I enjoy buying day-old bagels and produce from markets that have been packaged together because they're slighter older, or more bruised. I can make sauces from the tomatoes, or great pies from the fruit. One bulk buy like this takes me quite far in the week, with a little kitchen know-how, and tolerance to less perfect-looking food. Plus, I like to think that it still benefits the producer a little, and want to support him or her for actually selling their less fresh food instead of letting it go the way of the dumpster. (Trust me, freegans have enough to pick through as it is!)

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