Mary Beth Writes

This is a long piece of writing and I am proud of it. If you don’t want to read it all – here are my take-way points about how my friend Franc lives well on a surprisingly small income:

1. Don’t have kids. Funny but true. If you want to pursue a particular passion think about not having children unless or until you can visualize how to pursue your dream and care for kids at the same time.  If your dream is to have kids; this will be easier.

2. Keep your best people. If someone “gets” you – then keep them in your life; even if you only contact them once or twice a year.  People who know what you are about and make you feel stronger are part of your wealth. Keep them.

3. As much as you can, stick with and be generous with your family. They are the ones most likely to share their assets with you!

4. Don’t waste time or energy on relationships that don’t push/pull you further along your way. Don’t be mean or dismissive, just be aware life is short and you can withdraw from relationships and obligations that cost you too much in time, money, and emotions.

5. Prepare and eat one healthy meal most days. Other than that, try to minimize your life in your kitchen and in grocery stores.  Unless cooking is your passion.

6. Volunteer for organizations and efforts that interest you. That way you are learning more about things you care about, you are practicing skills that you can use further on down your road, you are networking with people who can be resources for you and your projects.

7. Don’t pile up assets you can lose if things go bust. Gather tools for your hopes and projects; don’t collect assets for no reason.

8. Know how much money you need to get through a month.  This sounds either too easy or maybe too hard- but figure out what your bottom line is and don’t go over that. Even if you have an uneven income (like Franc) - know what you need to have in the bank in order to get through the next few months, and maintain that sum.

9. Use small and local businesses as much as possible. They are more likely to make special deals for you. Like Franc’s Prius.

10. Share assets.  Friends and family can share one good car, internet access, one laptop and printer, construction tools, big pots and pans for special meals.  That kind of sharing. Not everybody needs to have everything.

11. Walk and bike as much as you can. Cheaper, healthier, and it lifts your spirits to give you the energy to do the things you were born to do.

12. Be grateful for what you get to DO, not what you connive to have. Make your goal to keep doing that thing as long as you can.

from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893, at WasteCap

Here we go:

Last week I spent an afternoon with my pal Franc (we’ve been casual friends since 1995). Franc owns a small house, drives a Prius, wears uppity-quality clothes, owns a grand piano and a thoroughbred Italian pup (or probably Maya owns him, you know how that goes). Franc has a yard so beautifully landscaped (20-foot koi pond!) that it’s been on Racine’s Garden Walk.

Franc also lives on under $15,000/year and almost always has.

Let’s talk about Franc.

I asked if I could interview him and take some photos of his cool house. He laughed and said he’s remodeling the kitchen so it isn’t a good time to photograph. Then I laughed because in 22 years of knowing him I don’t think his house has ever been “done”.

He suggested we meet instead for his regular Wednesday lunch at an Indian buffet in the Milwaukee area and after that I could accompany him on his weekly rounds of shops. That would be thrift stores and Habitats for Humanity and an awesome grocery store (more later) and WasteCap - the coolest non-profit recycled architectural resource warehouse (that’s a lot to say)that I didn’t even know existed.  (  old lumber at WasteCap

I said sure. My aim was to learn some new frugal strategies.  You know, in addition to using coupons, keeping a price book, stockpiling “deals”, scoring eBayable-finds at thrift shops, avoiding meals in restaurants and/or other unnecessary purchases.

None of these strategies explain or define Franc’s life.

Instead, as we talked and I listened, I took in what I’ve always understood about Franc but had not put into words. Franc’s approach to life is hugely influenced by growing up in a Puerto Rican family in a northern city. But also, Franc is uniquely and wholly himself.  You’ll see what I mean, after a while.

First this. Franc is not intentionally frugal. He simply lives a different middle-class life than most middle-class Americans.

Next, the obvious if you know him; Franc is a 60-something year old gay man. He didn’t raise children, although he was and still is very involved in the lives of many of his nieces and nephews. Yet financially, he’s only ever been responsible for himself. That’s huge and he says so and so do I.

He has had two long-term partners in his life and is still friends with both of them. His first partner worked in a well-paid field though even while they were together in his 20’s, Franc continued to work at the factory job he held for 14 years. The man owned the house they lived in but Franc supported himself and contributed to their life together. They stopped being partners in the middle 1980’s.

His second partner is a musician. They both contributed financially to their partnership in the 23 years they were together; both were financially impacted when they stopped sharing their life. They are still friends and still share some of their resources - such as cars (only one of them seems to have a reliable car at a time), meals, and attending concerts together, being friends with others (like me) together.

FRANC’S JOBS: After high school graduation Franc took a job as an industrial painter which paid well enough. He worked there 14 years but when the company moved off-shore, Franc didn’t look for another job. In his early 30’s he began his ‘alternative middle-class’ life.

He took a class in upholstery; then parlayed that into years of free-lance work for decorators in Illinois and Wisconsin.

He became known for his landscaping design artistry and was sometimes hired by folks (Illinois and Wisconsin) who heard, word-of-mouth, of his skill. He designed yards and then he did most of the physical work himself. He often sold plants directly from his yard.

For several years he was a part-time manager of the Racine Habitat for Humanity reStore. 

In the past few years Franc’s has been the part-time care-giver to his chronically ill first partner, visiting him most days to cook, visit, drive him to frequent therapy and medical appointments, and whatever else his friend needs. He is paid what commercial caregiving agencies are paid, per hour.

FRANC’S CAR AND PHONE: Before he became a caregiver Franc possessed one landline phone and no car. After a crisis when Franc wasn’t home and so didn’t know his friend had fallen –Franc bought a Cricket smart phone and a car.  The car salesperson at the neighborhood dealership where Franc shopped asked his annual income. When Franc told him, the owner laughed out loud and then arranged a loan with a super-low monthly payment. The car worked well; a year ago Franc’s ill friend helped him upgrade to the used Prius he now drives. Franc still has low payments. His friend has above-average support.

Franc drives his weekly trips to Milwaukee and occasionally drives to out of town events.  He continues to walk or ride his bike when he is does errands in town.

HIS HOUSE: Long story short, Franc lives in the 1500 square foot house in which his parents raised their seven kids. He rented apartments on his own or lived with his first partner until his middle 30’s. When his mom moved back to Puerto Rico after she retired (Franc’s father had died decades earlier) - that is when Franc moved back into family house. After their mom passed away last year his siblings put the house into Franc’s name, acknowledging his 20-plus years of care and major improvements (new furnace, new roof, slate siding, and much more).

EATING/GROCERIES/COOKING: Franc’s mother cooked Puerto Rican dishes from scratch all of his childhood. He learned from her, and then learned more the year he lived in PR with other relatives when he was a teenager.  He buys rice in 25-pound bags – he eats rice nearly every day and says Puerto Ricans are made of rice! He cooks sophisticated island dishes with vegetables, chicken, pork, or seafood. He makes his own sauces and mixes his own spice blends. He can make paella with one hand tied behind his back. 

He says he spends $15-20 a week (he doesn’t keep track, although he shops with cash and thus knows what he can spend that week). He prefers to shop at Cermak Market in Milwaukee. We stopped there on our afternoon rounds, and after one trip through the place, I prefer it, too. It is big, clean, beautifully stocked and arranged. I think half the store might be produce. Most aisles are dedicated to ethnic foods and most products seemed less expensive than chain stores. Franc shops here for the particular ingredients he needs to make the Puerto Rican dishes he always cooks. He says he occasionally shops at smaller markets in Racine but always avoids chain stores; they are too big to be efficient and they seldom have the fresh ingredients he needs.

Franc makes ONE meal most days; he eats leftovers for breakfast or a smaller evening meal if he’s hungry; eating that dish until it is gone, he doesn’t waste food. There is a clue here. He isn’t stocking “breakfast foods”, “lunch foods”, and “dinner foods”.  There’s the one amazing dish per day; maybe a piece of fruit or bread here or there is he gets hungry for something else.

Even though he lives alone he generally cooks enough for a small crowd; then shares that with the man he cares for, his sister, his other former partner, and his mother when she still lived. He doesn’t charge for these meals, I doubt it would even occur to him. He simply shares his cooking with the people he loves.

HIS HEALTH: Franc is on the slender side; probably because he basically eats one big meal a day.

He lived decades without health insurance; we talked about that. He didn’t have the money nor did he have or want the job to provide it - so he figured it was his job to stay healthy. He has always eaten well: he doesn’t crave sugary, salty foods so he rarely eats them. He has always walked and biked miles per week. He likes alcohol but rarely buys it for himself. He does buy coffee to make a cup or two for himself most days.

Now that he has Medicare he went for a physical. Actually, this was the FIRST complete physical of his life! After the exam and lab tests his new doctor asked in amazement, “How did you do this? You have the health of a 15-year old!”

Franc is interested in foods, herbs, and spices that have a healthy reputation. He knows his Puerto Rican heritage and therefore knows “folk” cures and remedies.  Such as: he cooks with turmeric because he likes the flavor, and because it reduces inflammation, thus preserving aging joints.

He was badly bitten by an unleashed dog years ago. He needed medical care and went to the hospital to get it. The dog’s owners were instructed to pay his medical bills, but didn’t. He didn’t pay the bill and after some years, that (under $1000) debt disappeared from his record.

This is huge and is what most poor American people know. Because his house was in someone else’s (his mom’s) name and he had no other assets, he didn’t risk losing his home if he needed extraordinary medical care.

 ART: Franc loves art and design and has since he was a kid teased and sometimes bullied as “St Francis the Sissy.” In his early adulthood a friend mentioned to him that she suspected his gaze was slightly unusual; he should get a good eye exam. He did that and for the first time in his life learned that he has a slight, almost imperceptible tendency towards being cross-eyed. Boom, a childhood explained. His eyes couldn’t work together to focus, so he couldn’t easily do anything which required aiming both eyes at one spot. Some teachers and family members called him lazy and stupid. He says he knew even then that he was neither, but early on assumed, as little kids will, that he would always do poorly in school.

The absurdity of this is that once this vision issue was diagnosed, he was prescribed glasses that correct for it, and he started reading for pleasure – in his 30’s.

 Art was the single class in which he did well. A particular nun-teacher saw this and encouraged him through his elementary school years. A public high school art teacher also encouraged his art abilities. Along the way he learned to listen better than most kids in order to cover how little he could learn by reading.  He forged his dad’s signature to skip some of his high school classes in order to pursue internship and job options. He figured out early that thrift shops have beautiful fabrics and items; he started shopping second-hand stores in high school and never stopped.

He had his first apartment by 19; that’s when he really fell into decorating with found items, thrifted furniture, scavenged fabrics, and paint.  He can still describe rooms he imaginatively decorated 40 years ago.

I think this is a telling illustration of Franc, thrifting, and art. We were shopping at a Goodwill store. I picked up a hand-thrown ceramic bean pot. It was a beautifully-shaped, chocolate brown pot with a white swooshy slash across the lid - but I don’t need a bean pot so I put it back. He immediately picked it up. “I rescue things that shouldn’t have been donated in the first place. I keep them or give them away, but I can’t stand for something unique and lovely to sit in a pile of mass-produced stuff, so I buy it if I can.”

He told me, over the course of the afternoon, about a few things he’s bought lately. “I bought some never-worn leather shoes a few weeks ago but now I’m afraid to wear them; I found out they sell for $300!”

I asked the obvious question. “Do you ever sell on eBay or some other site?”

He’s almost angry. “No, it makes me crazy to see people in a thrift stores researching stuff on their phones. I say either you love it or you don’t. Buy it if you need or love it, otherwise leave it.”

I respond that buying things to resell is how I justify going to a thrift store. I need very little, but I love perusing the aisles as much as he does.  I list 3 or 4 things at a time, usually don’t list anything again for weeks, and at best, made about $250 last year.

 “Well, maybe I would be interested in that. I know people who are always buying and dealing and talking about the money of it, and I don’t get that. I don’t want to do that. I will spend $500 to rescue something fabulous if I can afford it at that time; then I keep it until I can figure out what to do with it.”

He goes on, “This is how I got my grand piano; I saw it in a thrift store I visit frequently in Kenosha. I asked the price, the manager talked with the woman who had just donated it who was only getting rid of it because she had downsized to a small condo. They knew me because I have “been around” and I have volunteered at different times with many of the charity thrift stores in this area.  They came up with a very low price, but asked me to put in my will that the piano will go back to St. Vincent de Paul after I pass. I thought that was fair, and my sister knows this is the deal.

“Then, of course, I didn’t know how to play. I asked around, heard about a CD set that teaches one how to play that was being offered for $200 through a fund-raising auction. So I looked on-line and learned one could buy the set for $100. That’s how I learned and I play for myself only. I love it.”

HIS KITCHEN AND HIS HOUSE: Franc is remodeling his kitchen – and this is not the first time he has done this! He says a friend asks, before he comes over, where the kitchen will be this month.

Franc remodels around what he finds along his way. In the past few months he found a granite countertop for $200! He already owns the particular saw he will need to make it fit the space he plans to put it; he bought that saw for a freelance remodeling project years ago.  

After he bought the granite, he started seeing other kitchen pieces he liked; the top-of-the-line, low-priced floor-model stove at a Menards.  Similar but interestingly mismatched kitchen cabinets and cupboard sections at several Habitat for Humanity restores, he plans to sand and paint them all the same color (probably white) when he gets that far.

This is the private side of his artistic life. His little house and yard are his “medium”. His home is not where he sits down to relax into oblivion (well, not usually). Home for Franc is where he can do anything he wants manipulate objects, color, and light until it pleases his artistic eye.  It’s where he brings what he finds and stirs it into what he has. 

He does not often use his home to entertain others. He has friends and family who stop by often, who hang out, who are comfortable in his world. But he doesn’t invite people over for a dinner or an evening. Home is his palette. Writers don’t chat with pals while writing; artists don’t invite company to sit around while they paint. Franc’s house is where he DOES art, not where he utilizes it as a background for something else.

France works enough to pay for what he needs to afford his life. The hours he doesn’t spend working to buy things he spends perusing out-of-the-way stores. He strolls through the aisles slowly (like me!), scanning what’s new, his brain quickly sorting through what’s junk to him and what’s intriguing. He picks up a few things, puts them back down. Occasionally he touches something and says who would like it. In a long aisle of thousands of books he eyes “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean.  He turns to me, “I loved this book; you might like it.”

I bought it for a dollar – and he was right. It’s a well written history of the exploration, theft, and propagation of orchids – which then becomes a pretty good history of Western European Imperialism.  Franc knows his friends.

WHAT HE DOES WITH HIS TIME: Franc has time to repurpose items. The first time I saw his yard, I commented on his unusual, very cool galvanized steel urns. He said they were rejected highway lamp fixtures from his old factory job. He’d turned them upside down into planters.

Every piece of furniture he owns is found, thrifted, generally reupholstered with some fabulous fabric found at some unlikely place.  His house is faced with stacked slate – a community in northern Illinois was demolishing part of a municipal building and had piles of discarded slate. The manager of the project told Franc he could take as much as he could haul away. Franc re-faced his house, built a low retaining wall, made naturalistic paths in his yard.

Franc does all his work himself, even if it’s an ugly job. I remember the year his furnace broke. He bought an on-sale furnace, brought it home, and using the instruction booklet, spent weeks installing it.

He has one speed – Franc speed. He imagines his projects, what he needs to find sits in his head, and without lists he slowly collects what he needs at local, unexpected, often (but not always) second-hand places. He mentions what he’s doing; people share their expertise and resources.   

I asked when he got up in the morning; around 6 or 7. I asked when he goes to bed at night. He groaned. “I get into a project and I forget to go to bed. It can be midnight or 2AM before I realize I’ve been up and going since dawn, and I’m tired. And no matter how late I go to bed, I always seem to wake up early again the next morning.”

THAT PUREBRED DOG? For more than 20 years Franc has been a member of an Italian Greyhound rescue organization.  Over the years he, and his second partner, took in many of the tiny, badly used, delicate little pups. Some they simply kept safe and loved until someone else could adopt them. Some had complicated physical or socialization problems; those they sometimes adopted. Living with Franc, those pups slowly healed into beautiful, funny, lazy, loving little guys.

Sometimes our family left our gentle 60-pound mutt with Franc when we took vacations. There would be that wonderful moment when we would return to our big-ole happy dog - covered in tiny Italian greyhounds.

THE PEOPLE: We were in the same Sunday morning church adult discussion group back in the 1990’s. A woman in the group once mentioned that the single toy she most wanted as a kid was Lincoln Logs– but since she was a girl no one bought them for her.  A few weeks later Franc brought a round box of 1950’s Lincoln Logs that he’d spied that week and bought for her.  She cried when he gave them to her.  

Last week I start to mention that story. Before I could get through the first sentence he said, “Those Lincoln Logs, for Lorna.”  Franc and I haven’t spent much time together in the last 10 years, neither of us have gone to that church since the early 2000’s – yet here we were all these years later and he knew what I was going to say before I said it. The level at which he knows his friends is deep.

Maybe because Franc doesn’t fill his life with fulltime work that he isn’t passionate about, he has extra spiritual space to recognize and respond to the people in his life.

He also, and I recognized this in him the first years we knew each other – he is pleasant with anyone, but he truly likes, loves, and lets into his life - very few. I would guess this is true of many LGBTQ people; then and now. It was dangerous and exhausting to be a child in a world that told him that who he was, to his core, was wrong. He learned how to put up barriers against people who would judge him or his lifestyle. I’ve see him chit-chat, smile, and walk away from humans who are pleasant and kind – and I know he has no interest in them.  He seems to have an interior barometer that reads the weather others carry with them. He generally ignores people he doesn’t need.

He is generous to those he loves. He can be selfish and self-protective around those he doesn’t need or trust. 

He says, “I like artists and I like the people who like artists. I want to be around creativity. So if I decide I want a person in my world, they are in forever. Otherwise, I don’t pay a lot of attention.”

When he moved in with his second partner, that man did not exactly appreciate that Franc was still sharing friendship and doing errands for the first partner.  Franc told him, “I loved him once so I will always love him, and I do things for the people I love. Someday I will do the same for you.”

 Franc is close to his family, especially his younger sister who also has had long term relationships in her life but has not married.  They “get” each other. She has a good job that she enjoys, Franc doesn’t need her money, but she is one of the people in his life who would help if he needed it.  In return, she apparently frequently comes home from work to Puerto Rican dishes in her refrigerator that she just needs to microwave. There’s a brother to have!

Seriously, they lean on each other; they know each other’s lives. She’s currently buying a house in Milwaukee (closer to her job). Franc is already keeping his eyes open for things she might need or want.

SELFISH & GENEROUS:  Growing up gay in an often dismissive, sometimes abusive Hispanic Catholic family in the 1950’s and 60’s – that was not a day at anyone’s beach. He laughs now, but it isn’t a happy laugh. “I didn’t really come out. I knew from when I was 5 years old that I was a sissy, that I liked to play with girls more than boys, that I was not what people thought I ought to be.  Some thought they could change me by yelling or hitting or whipping. My mother and father were disappointed in the child I was. I was sent to Puerto Rico for a year just to get out of my father’s eyesight. What do you do? You’re just a kid. For me, it was art that gave me a place where I was whole and talented and special.”

When I think about Franc and his life, I consider where he could be now if someone had diagnosed his vision issues and he had had proper glasses when he was a kid. If being gay had not been as issue. If he had been able to go to college, and travel the world, and know big-name artists in big-time cities.

By now he would have owned his own house. Been driving a cool, energy-efficient car. Had a wildly imaginative home, at least one Italian greyhound, and been eating fabulous food every day.  

When frugality is our goal, we become cheap. We think too much about what we can’t have, and how we are better than others.

When frugality is the path, we might end up where we were headed all along.  









Thank you for sharing your friendship. This is a special story that resonates within me. Makes me think...
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you for reading it and commenting. People who live well on less than whatever we assume middle class is - those people have interesting wisdom to share.

I loved this story, full of heart and imagination. I could easily picture the two of you chatting and walking around town!
Mary Beth's picture

Leonard's picture

Now that I’m retired, I think I have a chance

Franc sounds like an awesome, giving person - I bet the two of you never stopped talking. Great read,

Mary Beth and I have probably spoken more in the past two weeks then we have in years. It's as if we never left that church group. When she first broached the idea of writing my story I pretty much thought she was crazy. Then the nappy headed kid in me with the broken glasses came out and said lets do this. I don't do facebook because I don't like the idea of putting my life out there so this was scary. If it helps even one person rethink their priorities then it was worth it.
Mary Beth's picture

Hey Franc, when I said at the beginning of this piece that I was proud of it.. that was more than just filling the air. This felt good. I want to do this more - with other people and also - I DO WANT TO SHOW OFF YOUR GARDEN this coming summer! People will swoon.... It pleases me immensely that I am still in your world...

Love this story-I struggle to manage frugality without the sense of lack that was so present in my childhood. MB, hope you are doing well!
Mary Beth's picture

Boy, you and Franc would be BFF's if you ever met. In the meantime, thanks so much and I know what you mean. It's why Franc's life is worth considering. He has time, he has imagination, he had health and energy - so it doesn't appear as if he lives with a sense of lack. Even though so many of us still struggle against that - for very strong reasons.

Loved the story about Franc. I saw his garden many years ago and would LOVE to see it again.
Mary Beth's picture

We've talked... there will be photos this summer!

The Franc story is inspiring and wonderful. I want more Francs in my life - they add colour, joy and love and who does not need more of that.. but Mary Beth, my favourite part was your conclusion: When frugality is our goal, we become cheap. We think too much about what we can’t have, and how we are better than others. When frugality is the path, we might end up where we were headed all along. There has always been something that bothered me about some kinds of frugality, but I had trouble putting my finger on it. It is the purpose to which we put anything that defines its value. Thank you!

What a great read! I feel like being friends with Franc would make one feel honored. Like when a child likes you. So humbling. I've subscribed to your blog Mary Beth. I enjoy your writing immensely. Thanks for putting it out there.
Mary Beth's picture

These kind comments from people we don't even know (!) mean the world to me - and to Franc. Thank you so much!

This is a lovely story and just when I needed it. thank you

Thank's to all for the lovely comments. They truly mean a lot two us both. Mary Beth went above and beyond with this and I'm glad it was edited the way it was because she knows some not so good parts of my life and chose not to put them in. I gave her cart blanche to use anything i said and she could have most likely gone on longer. when she finished it she called to say that she could send it to me for final approval. I told her I trusted her and to send it off. Mary Beth if you have the article you wrote for the journal times about our sick dog it would be a fun read.
Mary Beth's picture

Franc, a line I wrote about you and whatever pup that was, that year - still makes me laugh. (Sometimes I remember my own writing a little too fondly..) The line was, "I know people who own a $600 car in which they drive around their rescue pup dog who just had a $3000 surgery." Of course, that was you. I wrote a whole column about your dogs? Hmmm. I don't remember.

MaryBeth, I loved your story and added it to a links post on my blog: Franc's life shines bright, and your point about frugality not being an end, but a means to a good life - that is still circling around in my head. Thank you!
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you! I (and Franc!) appreciate it.

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1. We and, at this point, about half the nation, have had our Covid vaccines so we felt safe and ready to see something new. However, we traveled to a place where they had worked WITH the effort to fight this pandemic. This limited our choices and is the #1 reason we didn’t go to the Badlands. How we spend $ is our power.

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