Entertaining history of scrimping and saving in America.
In her debut, former Newsday reporter Weber makes clear that frugality is not a long-lost virtue of consumer culture. Rather, scaling down has been a cyclical manifestation of hard times: Americans have tightened their belts in periods of war, financial panics and recessions, only to go on spending sprees shortly thereafter.
A cheapskate’s daughter—her economist father uses teabags a dozen times—Weber advocates a moderate approach of “mindful consumption: considering each purchase, embracing a stricter set of guidelines for winnowing down what I buy…thinking about the values that are most important to me, and spending or saving accordingly.”
Beginning with a consideration of Colonial-era thrift advocates from the Puritans, who legislated against vulgar forms of consumption, to Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged prudent living in The Way to Wealth, the author shows how patriotic self-denial during the War for Independence soon gave way to the frenzy of consumption that has become the American way. Sometimes-preachy advocates for frugality have ranged from Booker T. Washington, who urged the “saving habit,” to 19th-century self-help writers like Lydia Maria Child (The American Frugal Housewife, 1832), to the U.S. government, whose slogans touted the virtue of austerity and war-bond buying in both World War I and WWII (“Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, or Do without”). By the 1950s, Americans had abandoned Ben Franklin and other thrifty heroes to embrace credit cards and postwar prosperity.
In the current recession, writes Weber, Americans recognize once again that savings matter but are discovering that they have racked up record amounts of personal debt. The author also covers the many ways in which some Americans live on the cheap—as a way to reverse ecological damage or to opt out of the consumer culture completely—whether by fixing appliances, foregoing new clothes or even dumpster-diving for food. Her stories about tightwads like a friend’s uncle who walked miles to work each day, ate peanuts for lunch and gave away $1 million each year, will force many to reconsider the motives of cheapskates.
Welcome reading for a newly frugal world.