I’m always so impressed with the blog, The Frugal Kiwi, a site that has tips about making your own laundry detergent, composting, using cast iron pans, and more.
At Frugal Kiwi you’ll also find bawdy humor, incredible felting creations, and advice about organizing spices.
Melanie McMinn, founder of Frugal Kiwi, is a great believer in quality over quantity in many aspects of her life.
Today I’m excited that Melanie McMinn, who in addition to founding Frugal Kiwi is a professional copywriter, generously shares a bit of her history, wit and insight with us.
JM: How long have you been a writer and what got you started?
MM: Like many writers, I loved the written word from a young age.
My first published work (complete with age appropriate drawings) was a story they ran in the local newspaper, The Mountain Press in Gatlinburg,TN, when I was five years old.
I’m sure Mum has a copy of it somewhere…
As far as professional writing goes, I got into it after becoming hugely dissatisfied with my work in the health care sector in my early 30s.
I went to an Occupational Psychologist and took a whole raft of tests to help figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Writing came up in several forms.
I’d never thought about freelance writing as an option, but after reading a whole stack books on commercial freelancing like The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman and learned how to write queries for magazines from The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, I had enough information to get an article published in a trade magazine for expats working in New Zealand in the health care sector and another published in a glossy, but now defunct New Zealand focused travel magazine.
The travel magazine gave me my first taste of the highs and lows of working with glossies.
It was intoxicating seeing my name and writing on that shiny page with beautiful photographs.
It was frustrating and upsetting to learn the realities of getting PAID.
It took nearly a year!
Since then my writing work has focused on copywriting for businesses.
It’s less glamorous, but I’m more likely to be paid in a semi-timely manner.
JM: I’m constantly amazed by the depth and breath of the posts on The Frugal Kiwi. How did you get the idea for this blog?
MM: I cooked up the idea for The Frugal Kiwi as I was convalescing from my stroke.
I was looking for crafts that I could do to help keep my mind off of the pain, but that wouldn’t cost me ANYTHING.
I decided to turn old sheets into a rug and in learning how to do that I ran across the blog Little House in the Suburbs.
I’d never come across anything like it before and I was enchanted.
I decided I should start a New Zealand focused blog that was similar in content and The Frugal Kiwi was born.
Plus, I’ve got such a monkey brain that I’d never be able to keep a blog on just one subject!
JM: Speaking of the stroke, you suffered from it since we’ve known each other. I’ve never heard of anyone having a stroke so young. Can you share with us what happened? Is a stroke at that age more common than most people think?
MM: One day last April I was driving down the road and I got a blazing migraine-level headache—weird since I always wake up with migraines when I have them.
The symptoms were different than a normal migraine for me, I had no light sensitivity, it was centered in the middle of my head instead of behind my right eye and the nausea was overwhelming.
Thinking it was an atypical migraine, I decided to ride it out for a few of days, the normal time span of a migraine for me.
It didn’t go away.
I went to my GP who sent me to the ER where I was told I was just dehydrated and had a migraine.
I had to go back to the ER the next day, as things were worse.
The ER docs gave me nasty looks, told me again that it was just a migraine, and said they would do a CT but that “You’re 36, so it won’t show anything, not at your age.”
It showed something.
I had a bleed into a cyst I didn’t know I had in my pituitary gland.
Since then I’ve had constant pain, aphasia (word-finding problems), which is no easy row to hoe for a writer, and haven’t been able to work normally for the past 15 months.
I’ve had several people contact me to say they had strokes at early ages, so it is probably more common than we think.
The week before my stroke, I met a young woman who was 19 who’d just had one and I thought how terrible that must be.
The doctors have no idea why I had the stroke or what caused it. I have no family history to explain it and no risk symptoms.
They told me it was idiopathic aka “just one of those things.”
So I’m doing the best I can to live with “one of those things” not knowing how long the pain will persist and whether I could have another bleed any moment.
JM: You’re originally from the South but you live in New Zealand of all places. When did you move there and why?
MM: Only a true geek would feel that their life is bound up with a fantasy world, but it happened to me. The first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, was the last movie I saw with my soon-to-be ex-husband.
I saw The Two Towers post-separation with friends and was reminded of how beautiful New Zealand is.
I fell in love with the lush greenness and stunning vistas of New Zealand and I knew I had to see NZ for myself.
Knowing that people in health care were in demand Down Under, I applied for a position at one of New Zealand’s District Health Boards and got the job.
The last LoTR movie, The Return of the King, premiered not long after I moved to Auckland in 2003.
It was the first movie I saw with Terry, a fabulous Kiwi bloke, and we’ve been together ever since, nearly seven years now.
In addition to being seduced by New Zealand’s beauty, I was sick of working for a fixed salary based on 40 hours of work but being forced into 50 and 60 hours of work every week as an audiologist.
That wasn’t the kind of life I wanted.
New Zealanders place much more emphasis on work/life balance and it isn’t just lip service.
They mean it.
JM: Do you have advice for Americans who are considering expatriating?
MM: Living in another country can be the adventure of a lifetime or a complaint-filled grind that never ends.
Do your research.
Find a country that prioritizes what you value most.
I looked at Australia and New Zealand.
Australia is much more like the States.
People work like fiends; shop like fiends; consume like fiends.
They just do it with kangaroos and koalas nearby.
Plus there is a shocking amount of racism in Australia that is extremely ugly. Having lived in the South I didn’t need a new dose of that.
New Zealand is more like the UK in temperament.
Things are calmer, more reasonable, quieter and less consumption driven. Even in Auckland, the biggest city in NZ, malls close at 5:00 p.m. on most days of the week. Yes, the mall. Closed. 5:00 p.m. They stay open until 9:00 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, but not Saturday.
Plus the entire country shuts down for several weeks between Christmas and the middle of January.
The whole country takes those few weeks off to go on holiday and spend time with family.
Unless you’re in a tourist area, good luck getting any restaurant food better than McDonald’s for those weeks. Auckland empties out and becomes a ghost town. It is astounding to watch.
We have a government department that pays out for any accidents that taxpayers subsidize which makes it practically impossible to sue anyone.
Imagine a whole country without constant litigation, where people are expected to use common sense, where you can’t get rich on the back of some accident and a huge lawsuit.
How could that NOT be a better place to live?
These things drew me to NZ along with the fact that there is more stunning scenery in tiny NZ than all of Australia.
But other people might be drawn to the international level shopping of Sydney or the unbelievably good food in Melbourne, the warmer temperatures and more familiar approach to life in Australia.
Thinking about what is truly important to you and matching that with a new culture is key in becoming a happy expat.
JM: What is the single most interesting thing about living in New Zealand?
MM: Kiwis THRIVE on not being Number One in everything.
You can see that with the hugely popular and self-deprecating Flight of the Conchords band/ HBO show.
They bill themselves as “the almost award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand.”
There are ads for candy bars here celebrating that they are the third most popular candy bar.
Kiwis punch well above their collective weight in many ways, but know that being #1 isn’t the only thing worth having. I love that.
I was tickled at the recent local World Cup headlines that touted the NZ team as “undefeated.”
All their games ended in draws, so they were undefeated, technically. But it isn’t the sort of headline you’d get in the States for a team that won zero games in an international competition.
I love living in a country that celebrates getting out there and having a go.
JM: Your felting projects on Frugal Kiwi are so impressive. Where did you learn to do that kind of needlework?
MM: I was taught to do traditional needlework as a small child, but my felting is self-taught with help from craft books and online tutorials for the basics.
After learning the basics, I just went with the flow. Only my off-the-wall brain would think to spend two weeks poking a pile of wool fibres with a barbed needle to create a saucy modern interpretation of a Sphinx.
I started felting after seeing some beautiful felted soaps at a market I couldn’t justify spending money on post-stroke. Now I show people how to make their own at home.
JM: How does being crafty inspire you to write?
MM: I think that people have been bamboozled into learned helplessness and they believe it when they are told that everything must be purchased to be worth having and that no normal person can make things anyway.
I hope that writing about some of my crafts and artwork encourages people to give making thing with their own hands a try. Plus, I get to show off!
JM: My all-time favorite recipe on Frugal Kiwi is your homemade detergent. When did you start making laundry detergent from scratch?
MM: I started making my own laundry detergent back in September with that very post. It was the first of several investigations and experiments in making household goods that people normally buy without even thinking twice.
JM: What else do you make from scratch that other people may not?
Maybe the bread isn’t so odd, but it was a big one for me.
Yeast is like magic!
JM: What are your top three recommendations for how to save money?
MM: My first recommendation is incredibly obvious, but very few people do it.
1 .Don’t go to shops or spend your time looking at catalogs.
You can’t feel like you need something that you’ve never seen.
If you don’t know it exists, you won’t want to buy it.
I can’t tell you the last time I went to a mall so I want nothing there. But I do pine for a cool bread bin I saw online a couple of months ago.
I’ve lived all my life happily without a bread bin. Obviously I don’t NEED one.
But it calls to me now that I’ve seen the darned thing.
2. Next, if you do decide you really, really want something, wait for it.
I generally have a three-day rule.
Most things I forget about or decide I don’t really need within three days.
The ones that linger in my mind I’m more likely to invest in or at least find a cheaper alternative form.
3. Finally, make what you can for yourself and don’t assume it is all too hard to do.
As you’ve learned with the laundry detergent, it’s cheap, easy and actually faster to make than it would be to go and buy at the grocery store.
With 10 minutes of work for 110 loads of laundry, you are saving time AND money by making it.
You’ll grow in self-confidence and find that there is great pleasure to be had in being more self-sufficient.
JM: Anything else you want to add about writing, life, or saving money that I haven’t asked you already?
MM: I’m not the first to say it, but having a significant illness changes the focus of life for good and for ill.
While I still have pain every day, I probably would never have started the Frugal Kiwi, learned how to felt or created my own household products without the stroke.
I don’t know where life will take me next, but I know it will be a different and more rich in experience than if I’d never had my wee brain explosion.
First published: July 2010
Last updated: June 2019