Living the Good Life, on a Budget and with a Conscience

Melissa Massello’s Somerville roots run deep. Her dad worked at Somerville Hospital and she spent a lot of time there with him as a child. And before that, her grandfather had a law practice in Ball Square. It was that grandfather and her grandmother who taught Massello the value of thriftiness.

“From a very young age, I was always taught to invest in higher quality items,” Massello said. “I grew up way before it was cool going to thrift stores and sewing stuff with my mom.”

While growing up between Lexington and Somerville, Massello absorbed the city’s D.I.Y. thriftiness and entrepreneurial spirit. She eventually turned it into a business, launching Shoestring Magazine, where she and others write about things that are both good for your wallet and good for the planet, in 2007. Basically, it’s a guide to the good life, on a budget and with a conscience.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as the world was about to enter a massive financial crisis, which would have nearly everyone rethinking their values.

“It’s the best flip of tables I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Massello said of people’s interest in thriftiness and sustainability in the wake of the financial crisis. “The more people that are out there buying things secondhand, the better for all of us.”

In February 2009, Massello saw firsthand just how much had changed when she hosted a clothing swap in the middle of a snowstorm. She didn’t expect anyone to come to the event, but 275 people attended, bringing with them two tons of clothing.

“We hit a nerve,” Massello said. As word spread about the success of the swap, she quickly came up with a name for the venture, Swapaholics, and threw together a website. Before she knew it, she was being interviewed on CBS.

“It was timely,” Massello said. “It was just at the end of the mortgage crisis, unemployment was going up, the recession was not going anywhere and there was a mainstream awareness that global warming is a real thing. We all need to be more green and secondhand shopping is a good way to do that.”

And Somerville seems to be the perfect place to be spreading that message. While Massello grew up in the area, she left during and after college to attend school and work at various newspapers around New England, even contemplating a job in New York City at one point. But she realized that this was home.

“Somerville’s just in my blood. I never left, even when I lived in other places. I’ve always been a champion for it,” Massello said. She added that she appreciates all of the positive changes the city has undergone in the last several years while still holding onto what makes it unique. “Mayor Joe has done a great job of retaining the Somerville-ness.”

All of Somerville’s secondhand clothing shops, most of which are in Davis Square, have made it a destination for those who hunt down treasures at such stores, Massello said. And it’s the city’s support for independently owned shops that has allowed them to flourish. She’s felt that support in her work on Shoestring as well.

Photo courtesy of Cuppow

“The Somerville community and the Boston community at large could not be more supportive because we’ve championed local businesses,” Massello said. In fact, Shoestring recently published a Shop Local Guide to the Holidays featuring 250 gifts (five from each state) under $50. And the Massachusetts page features Somerville’s own Cuppow, which was created right in Union Square.

In addition to buying locally made gifts for the holidays, Massello recommends making presents, such a flavored liqueurs and salts. And she said, “it’s all about packaging.”

“I always have a rule with the holidays that thoughtfulness wins,” Massello said. “It’s not about cost if it’s from the heart.”

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