A “terrific book,” “lighthearted and learned” — The Washington Post

The Washington Post’s Carolyn See gave ICWT a wonderful review on Sept. 4, 2009. Here’s an excerpt, and here’s the link to the full review.

Two lessons steam up from this terrific book about the history of thrift (and spending) in our great country: First, Americans possess a phenomenal capacity to endure scoldings about our fiscal behavior. From Cotton Mather to the present, we’ve been told we don’t save enough, we’re too materialistic and our spiritual lives are going to hell as a result.

Second, from the beginning, many Americans have nursed a seething contempt for the poor. Again, this goes back to Puritan times, when our ancestors labored on the brink of starvation but in the hope of God’s grace. After only a few decades of such labor, the hard work paid off. The Puritans had enough money to buy ribbons and pewter, but was this morally right? They came up with this comforting conclusion: To have worked and then prospered must surely be proof of God’s grace.

Those people on the outskirts of town who still lingered in poverty? They must be alcoholics and adulterers or irresponsible spendthrifts. For many of us, that attitude still exists today.

Money, in this country, has always been involved with moral stances. Americans deplore things as a national exercise; we deplore people who buy things that we wouldn’t buy. But the only thing that scandalizes us more than a materialistic yahoo is a penny-pinching cheapskate who won’t buy anything at all. Journalist Lauren Weber comes to this argument from a far-out, extreme position: Her father was a world-class skinflint who kept his home at 50 degrees during New England winters, washed the dishes by hand with cold water and no soap, and tried (unsuccessfully) to ration the family toilet paper. “It’s easy to mock these extremes of thrift,” Weber writes, “to marvel at the amount of time, thought, and emotional energy that some people will expend just to save a few dollars, even a few pennies. We call them eccentrics. We call them irrational. If we’re related to them, and even if we’re not, we complain bitterly about how cheap they are.”

Weber grew up to find — disconcertingly — that she had inherited many of her father’s penurious habits. Here she places her thrift-mania against the far larger nuttiness of America’s personal and institutional deficit spending, which has led to a sea of credit card debt, maybe even global warming and a host of other ills. What is it with us and money?

(See the rest of the review here)