The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue
Little, Brown and Co.
Sept. 7, 2009
Introduction: Cheap Thrills
Cheap suit. Cheap date. Cheap shot. It's a dirty word, rife with negative associations. We hear the word cheap and we think miser, whore, Wal-Mart, made in China, something that's going to fall apart. It's an insult, almost any way you look at it. An 84-year-old man heard about my interest in cheapness and got so excited that he offered himself up for an interview about his frugal ways. At the end of our conversation, he said, sheepishly, "Please don't use my name.... I don't want people to think I'm cheap."
My father has been called cheap for most of his life, by family members, friends, colleagues, and me. Dad is an economist in both senses of the word. He was an economics professor for 33 years. And he's also a master economizer, a legend in our extended family. I remember him dashing around the house turning lights off all the time, even if the room's occupant had just left to make a brief phone call. If I was in the shower for longer than a few minutes, I'd hear a knock on the bathroom door, followed by my father's voice saying "Laur, you're using too much water." He refuses to use the dishwasher; instead, he insists on washing all the plates and cutlery by hand. At some point, we discovered that he was using cold water and no soap; that explained why the knives and forks were often encrusted with the remnants of recent meals.
His latest conceit? He doesn't like to use the brakes on his car because he doesn't want to wear them out. So he coasts when he's approaching a red light, or employs a series of light taps and thrusts, a system he believes minimizes brake wear-and-tear. Dad also prefers to use hand signals out the window instead of the car's turning lights.
I recently learned that he uses his teabags not three or four times, like most proud cheapskates, but 10 or 12 times. ("I just dip it in for a few seconds, until the water gets a little color," he says.)
I spent my girlhood doing homework at the kitchen table, sock-clad feet nestling on the radiator, hands resting on the oven as it cooled down from dinner. This was the only way to stay warm during New England winters, when my father forbade us from turning the heat above 50 degrees. Cold? "Put on another sweater," he'd snap in his native Queens accent. Once, he even tried to ration toilet paper, sitting the family down after dinner to tell us how much we could use for each bodily function. Proving too hard to enforce, however, these rules were eventually forgotten.
It's easy to mock these extremes of thrift, 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 often if we're not, we complain bitterly about how cheap they are.
Then we turn into them—at least, I did. And maybe we realize they were on to something.
This book is a reconsideration of cheapness. It asks why we malign and make fun of people who save money. After all, when we as a nation and as individuals are so dangerously over-leveraged, when we've watched our global financial system teeter and then tumble because of greed and ill-considered spending, when all of us could use a little more parsimony in our daily lives, why is it an insult to be called cheap?
The word cheap actually started out with a positive spin. It derives from the Latin word caupo, or tradesman, evolved into the noun ceap (a trade) in Old English and came to be used in Middle English mostly in the phrase "good chepe," meaning "good bargain" or "good price." The opposite phrase was not "bad chepe" but "dear chepe," which referred to high prices. By the sixteenth century, cheap was employed, without judgment, as a synonym for "inexpensive."
But soon, the word began assuming more malignant meanings. When the Earl of Clarendon wrote in 1674 of "the cheap laughter of all illiterate men," he referred to laughter too inexpensive, too easily obtained and thus worthless. Cheapness came to indicate not just a low price but low quality as well. In 1800s America, a "cheap John" or "cheap Jack" was a man who peddled flimsy pots, ill-fitting suits and inferior merchandise of all types, asking unreasonably high prices to begin with and gradually letting his customers haggle him down. In 1880, a story in Harper's Magazine mentioned a character named Isaacson, "a traveling cheap-John who had opened a stock of secondhand garments for ladies and gentlemen in a disused fish-house on the wharf." It was a contemptible profession, and through that usage, the word cheap entered our argot as a term of derision, an adjective synonymous with miserly or stingy.
Every culture, it seems, sustains a deep discomfort with the figure of the miser. A Native American legend tells of a hunter who refused to bring his kills back to share with his hungry tribe; he was punished by the gods. Jamie and Edmund Tyrone, the two sons in Eugene O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey Into Night, blame their father's penny-pinching for their mother's drug addiction and the other woes they've endured. And Mr. Burns, from The Simpsons, lives by himself in his vast mansion hatching schemes to multiply his fortune. He's a tragicomic figure of bewildered loneliness and pecuniary preoccupations, a modern version of Dickens's Scrooge.
The miser of legend offends the approved values of our religious and social traditions by favoring the base satisfactions of his pile of money over the rewards of spiritual wealth. He chooses his own personal comforts over selfless love and charity. But even as we scorn the miser, we admire the kindred qualities of saving and prudence. Miserliness has always been the dishonorable cousin of thriftiness, the habit of playing it close with money. So when writers, ministers, and wealthy elites in the nineteenth century admonished the poor and middle classes to be thrifty, they nearly always included a complementary warning against miserliness. But where is the line between hoarding and prudence? That's never been clear. Instead we're told, Save your money, but don't hoard it. Be thrifty and prudent, but generous as well. There is a narrow and nebulous band of acceptable behavior: spend "too much" (relative to one's circumstances, or perhaps to one's peers) and be labeled irresponsible, spend "too little" and be labeled parsimonious and stinting.
Cheap as he is, my father is also one of the most generous people I know. All my life, he has given time and money to causes he cares about, from homelessness and hunger to AIDS and political campaigns. He rarely passes a panhandler on the street without giving him the coins in his pocket. He's scrupulously honest; if a restaurant undercharges him, he points out the error and pays the higher check. After my grandmother's savings ran out, he and my mother began bankrolling all of her expenses at the assisted-living facility where she resides, rather than see her move into a Medicaid-funded home. When it came time for my sister and brother and me to attend college, we were never told to limit our sights to a state school or other lower-cost option. Instead, our parents sent us to some of the best and priciest schools in the country. Neither our father nor our mother ever complained about the high tuition. That was not only generosity in the extreme, but also a sign of my parents' priorities. The house may be freezing, and my father may still wear the maroon polyester blazer that he's owned for 30 years, but he and my mother provided three kids with priceless educations, and they continue to set an example of decency, generosity, and open-hearted engagement with the world around them.
So is my father cheap or thrifty when he turns off lights, or when he refuses to use the car for what he calls "dippy-shit trips," like a quick run to the grocery store for a single forgotten item? Is he cheap or thrifty when he notes which station sells gas for a penny or two less than the competition? He always seems to be branded with the former, even by relatives and friends who don't have two nickels to rub together and who could learn a thing or two from my father about low-cost living. Money stirs up fierce and deeply uncomfortable emotions, emotions like resentment, envy, guilt, self-righteousness, anxiety. It is a source of conflict; we war with ourselves and with others about it. And we feel a peculiar pleasure in judging what other people do with their money—how they spend it, how they save it, how and what they consume.
Since the earliest civilizations, philosophers and friends, prophets and lovers have carped and quibbled about other people's excesses or austerities. Confucius warned that "he who will not economize will have to agonize," but the Greeks countered indirectly with the proverb "A miser is ever in want." The censure we heap on others for their expenditures is so intense that it calls to mind Freud's theories about projection. Teasing or censuring my father for being cheap seems to neutralize some of the confusion or shame his critics feel about their own relationships with money, and perhaps helps them validate their own choices. I'd call that a cheap shot.
Part of the reason I embrace the word cheap is that it embodies some of the contradictions, ambivalence, and confusion we feel about money. Our culture bombards us with a schizophrenic cacophony of messages about how we steward our cash. On the one hand, personal finance experts tell us we're wildly unprepared for retirement, that we have to practice restraint and save for the future. On the other hand, former President George W. Bush and the Democrat-led Congress passed a "fiscal stimulus" plan in 2008, sending us all rebate checks and telling us to spend them in order to keep the economy afloat. Editorial writers like David Brooks lament the lost virtue of thrift, but their employers—newspapers and magazines—stay in business by advertising pricey diamond jewelry and peddling images of a glamorous life that's far out of reach to most of us. Is it any wonder we're confused? We hold in our minds and in our culture an unrelenting tension between the twin imperatives of spending (for personal gratification, for economic growth) and saving (for our future security, for moral uplift).
If it's any consolation, this confusion is not new. When the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd set out to capture the personality, mood, and lifestyle of America in the 1920s, they traveled to Muncie, Indiana, and spent many months studying the dynamics of this "typical" American town. In their seminal 1929 book Middletown, they wrote that the local newspaper printed editorials over the course of a single year that offered perfectly contradictory opinions on the importance of both saving and spending. One editorial opined that "The American citizen's first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer. Consumption is a new necessity," But another editorial soon after the first contained the opposite message. "Better start saving late than never," it warned. "If you haven't opened your weekly savings account with some local bank, trust company, or building and loan, today's the day.'"
Given the turgid economic straits of the last couple of years, many commentators have been calling for a "return to thrift."
This phrase—a return to thrift—leaves me cold.
For one thing, I'm not convinced that ordinary Americans ever truly valued thrift in the first place. When I started researching the history of frugality, I assumed, like most Americans probably, that we were once a thrifty nation but that we had become lazy and spoiled over time, a condition aided and abetted by a cabal of corporations and advertising firms. I began this book with a single question in my mind: What happened to thrift in America? But as I got deeper into the subject I came to realize that what we consider old-fashioned thrift—some combination of resourcefulness, prudence, simplicity and aversion to debt—was more the result of circumstance than virtue. Thrift was determined by necessity in the early days of the republic. Goods were scarce and often prohibitively expensive for the average family, so stockings were darned, clothes were patched, fruits were preserved and stored. People used what they had until the stuff fell apart or was used up. Very little went to waste when each cord of firewood or linen nightshirt was the product of one's own hard labor.
But when industrialization and financial innovation brought Americans opportunities to make their lives easier and more comfortable—through new technologies like railroads and refrigerators, and the emergence of installment plans, mail-order shopping and credit cards—by and large, they took advantage of them. Indeed, the truest story of America is not, as we might like to believe, the story of political freedom—slavery and the Japanese internments of World War II, for instance, put the lie to that—but the story of an ever-rising standard of living. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams envisioned a nation of thrifty, industrious farmers and artisans. But after the Revolutionary War, even many of the patriots who fought for independence from England celebrated Americans' new opportunities to get rich and spend lavishly. By the beginning of the twentieth century, politicians and ordinary consumers alike crowed about how the United States boasted the world's highest living standard, as measured by the consumption of modern conveniences like canned vegetables, washing machines, and automobiles. Thrift was a "virtue" many Americans couldn't wait to relinquish.
The idea, too, that our ancestors shunned debt and lived within their means turns out to be false. In a wonderful 1999 study of consumer credit called Financing the American Dream, the historian Lendol Calder refers to this misconception as "the myth of lost economic virtue." In fact, as Calder writes, "A river of red ink runs through American history." Debt has vexed Americans since the first European ships landed on these shores. Hard currency was scarce in the colonies and the British forbade Americans from printing their own money, so almost all business was transacted on credit. This led to a steady stream of lawsuits against delinquent debtors, and thousands of Americans were thrown in jail—debtors' prison—for taking on obligations they couldn't repay. While many of these were business debts—a shopkeeper restocking his inventory or a farmer buying an expensive piece of equipment—consumer debt piled up too, as early as the late 1700s and the first decades of the 1800s. Upwardly-mobile planters and townspeople purchased pianos and parlor furniture on credit, ever confident their circumstances would eventually rise to match their consumption. Similarly, loan sharks and pawnbrokers operated lively and lucrative businesses in the early twentieth century, offering advances to cash-strapped workers as well as to people who simply wanted to own the markers of the emerging "American dream"—a radio, a car, a family vacation. In every era, Americans have indulged the temptation to live beyond their means.
This is not to say that our cultural values haven't changed at all. Our attitudes toward debt have certainly relaxed over the last hundred years. To many Americans, into the middle of the twentieth century, the only debt a person might respectably hold was a home mortgage. But new forms of credit invented by retailers, manufacturers, and financial institutions—installment plans in the mid-1800s, credit cards after World War II—made borrowing easier and more convenient. By the 1920s, even once-conservative banks were giving out loans for luxury items like jewelry and new suites of furniture. The refinancing boom of the early 2000s led millions of Americans to use their homes as ATM machines. Today, homeowners carry, on average, a balance of $67,881 on their mortgages. Credit card debt averages $2,712 per American man, woman, and child. And our personal savings rate has plunged from around 10 percent in the early 1980s to less than 1 percent for much of the past decade. Recent generations have grown up with expectations of an ever-rising standard of living and ready access to the fruits of consumer capitalism, not the experience of scarcity that drove our ancestors to conserve and save.
The other reason I dislike the phrase "return to thrift" is that it looks backward with the gauzy imprecision of nostalgia. No one can argue with thrift itself, as a word or a concept. It's solid, unimpeachable, respectable, like a sturdy old rocking chair or a pair of good jeans. But a "return to thrift" sounds stale, sober, and even a bit dour. It speaks of New England Puritans and Ben Franklin's folksy maxims, of religious sermons and laments over lost virtues. Like most of the things for which we feel nostalgic, the old-fashioned thrift some pundits long for exists more in the realm of myth than reality.
I imagine cheapness as a new framework for low-cost living, a 21st-century version of thrift. I'm not talking about getting a lot of stuff at low prices, even though I love a bargain as much as anyone else. I'm talking about living cheaply, consuming less, scaling down our needs and wants to modest levels that are economically and ecologically sustainable. Cheapness requires practical knowledge—a set of skills and strategies, such as knowing how to fix a leaky faucet or tile your own kitchen floor, driving at the speed limit to conserve gas, eating by the seasons to take advantage of bumper harvests, replenishing your wardrobe at thrift stores, or cooking lentils 30 different ways. But cheapness is also a mindset, a habit of asking yourself "Do I need this?" and "Is this a good use of my hard-earned money?"
Cheapness doesn't necessarily require abstinence and austerity—simply a thoughtfulness and care about how we live, and a skepticism toward the messages peddled by the retail-industrial complex. It means seeing oneself as an outsider in a world that values instant gratification and promotes the idea that we can understand and express our identities through the brands and products we consume. It means embracing and even cultivating an adversarial relationship with consumer culture. It means rejecting the belief that spending money is the route to feeling good about ourselves or feeling better than, or the same as, or different from other people, that it can help us fulfill our longings or soothe our hearts.
I don't mean to hold myself up as the embodiment of frugal virtue. After all, our uses of money are personal, often eccentric, and deeply inconsistent, adhering to some personal calculus we each concoct. I'll walk 30 minutes out of my way to get to my own bank's ATM (and thus avoid fees), but I use a French skin cream that costs $60 an ounce. Like most of the people I write about—including the most fervent nineteenth- and twentieth-century moralists—I'm prone to temptation and too easily seduced. Not long ago I was visiting my sister in Chicago and we stopped in at a chic atelier. I spied a beautiful pair of shoes by a designer whose products I coveted but had never been able to afford. They were high-heeled Oxfords, tooled from soft brown leather and criss-crossed with thick laces. The shoes were marked down from $360 to $99. I tried them on and traversed the store, admiring my feet in every mirror. Should I buy them? I asked my sister. I was midway through writing this book, and nearing the bottom of my advance. I went back and forth, talking myself into and then out of buying the shoes. There was absolutely no reason to fork over 99 bucks for a pair of shoes I certainly didn't need.
Reader, I bought them.
I'm not suggesting that anyone should be a purist or live in ascetic isolation from worldly pleasures. I don't believe one has to disavow all attachment to money and the things it can buy. Even my father believes in the occasional splurge, unable to give up his country drives despite gas prices that at one point rose north of $4 a gallon. But I am talking about moderation, about living below one's means, about spending less money and buying less stuff, about casting a critical eye over the exigencies of our late-capitalist consumer economy.
When I started working on this book, my friend Darcy suggested I call it "Thrift: A Short History of a Dying Virtue." But thrift—or cheapness, or frugality—is not dying at all. In fact, it's alive and well. I heard about a doctor who uses surgical forceps to hang up his teabags so he can re-use them two or three times; about a computer programmer who ate peanuts for lunch every day, shells and all; about millionaires who refuse to turn on the air conditioning in their enormous homes; about fathers and husbands and grandmothers who wash and dry their tinfoil; about my accountant's brother, a lawyer who will spend a half hour in New York City traffic looking for a free parking spot rather than parking in a pricey garage.
I wrote sections of this book while staying (cheaply!) in East Hampton, New York. Even in this gilded zip code, I saw signs of cheapness everywhere. It was there in the line of Mercedeses and BMWs following the same weekend yard-sale circuit as me, and in the crowds of women who responded to a newspaper ad for a designer shoe sale (20 to 70 percent off!). Everyone—even the rich, maybe especially the rich—loves a bargain.
The Internet has breathed new life into the long tradition of Americans sharing strategies for saving money. Decades ago, this information passed seamlessly from father to son and mother to daughter, and was traded at general stores and cattle auctions. It filled the pages of women's magazines and, later, mimeographed newsletters. In 1990, a Maine housewife named Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced "decision") began penning a monthly bulletin called "The Tightwad Gazette," which garnered more than 100,000 subscribers during its seven-year run. In it, she offered instructions for making jump ropes from old bread bags and volleyball nets from plastic six-pack rings. She suggested cutting out the serrated edges of wax-paper boxes and using them to make the sawtooth hangers on the backs of picture frames. She gave recipes for making chalk. She calculated that you can cook up your own chocolate syrup for 3 cents per ounce, less than half the cost of the Hershey version's 7 cents per ounce.
Though no one can take the place of the Frugal Zealot, as Dacyczyn called herself, there are now dozens of websites and blogs devoted to the same kind of thrifty living. Many fall into the "frugal mommy" category, written by stay-at-home moms who manage the family budget and swear by chest freezers as the number-one secret to conserving cash. Others are penned by reformed debtors, environmentalists, and those who have embraced their "inner cheapskate." One of my favorites, www.fallenfruit.org, maps out public fruit trees in Los Angeles and encourages readers to gather up the bounty. Another, www.swaporamarama.org, lists clothing swaps nationwide for people who want a new wardrobe without spending a dime. All these sites offer some combination of ingenious new ideas and tried-and-true methods for living on less.
My own cheapness hit its apex during the writing of this book. I've long been an advocate of washing and re-using plastic bags, and I'll sometimes walk 20 blocks rather than spend $2 on the subway. I also had dial-up Internet service until November 2007, when I finally upgraded to DSL (not cable—too expensive!), and, too frequently, I save money by skipping lunch if I was too busy to make a sandwich before leaving my apartment (I've been a little better about that since, many years ago, a friend looked at me like I was out of my mind and asked, "Is it because you think you don't deserve to eat?").
But the moment when I realized I had truly veered into the Cheap Dimension came not long ago, when I decided to cut my budget by using up some of the older items in my kitchen pantry. I knew there was a can of baby clams in there, which I'd had for five years (okay, maybe seven). On my way home from the library one day, I bought spaghetti, parsley, and a lemon. These were all simmering on the stovetop that evening, along with garlic, olive oil, and white wine from my pantry, when I opened the can of clams. Inside, the mollusks were greenish-blue. I sniffed; they smelled like old pennies. I considered throwing them away but I just couldn't, not after I'd already cooked up the other ingredients. Forging ahead, I tried to cover up the metallic taste of the clams with extra parmesan and salt. A few minutes later, I was sitting at my kitchen table eating the pasta with my laptop open in front of me, looking up the symptoms of botulism, just in case. The thought occurred to me, "I may have gone too far this time."
Indeed, cheapness can become compulsive, pathological even. An acquaintance of mine briefly dated a man who weaseled out of taking her out for dinner by claiming to have an eating disorder. I still haven't totally forgiven my father for keeping the house so cold I could sometimes see my breath, and neither has my mother. I asked her recently how she had managed to co-exist with Dad's stinginess. "I should've divorced him a long time ago," she said bitterly (turned out they'd had an argument about something else that morning, which partly explains the acrimony). According to a possibly apocryphal story, Hetty Green, the early-twentieth-century millionaire who was named by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's "greatest miser," refused to take her son to the hospital when he had gangrene, a decision that eventually cost him his leg.
On a broader scale, too, cheapness can come with a high price. Congress passed a national minimum-wage law in 1938 because employers, in a slack labor market, will happily offer their workers sub-subsistence pay if they can get away with it. One hundred and forty-six women died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City because of poor ventilation and a lack of fire exits. That tragedy and others like it forced a reckoning that manufacturers, in pursuit of high profits, often skimp on safety precautions. It inspired the state legislature to pass regulations mandating fire exits, fire drills and sprinkler systems, but there are innumerable examples of corporations still cutting corners to swell profits at the expense of employees, customers, or the environment. According to labor groups and even former executives, Wal-Mart has long fought workers' attempts to unionize, which has the effect of depressing wages and benefits and thereby keeping prices low. An investigation conducted after an explosion killed 15 workers at a Texas oil refinery found that the owner, British oil company BP, had severely reduced its capital and maintenance spending in the years before the accident. And in 2007, parents removed Thomas & Friends train sets from their kids' shelves because the toys were coated in lead paint. Why? Lead paint costs about half as much as lead-free paint in China, where the toys were made.
In addition, we've damaged our planet through our addiction to cheap commodities such as oil, food, and water. Gasoline at $1.50 a gallon should seem like a cheapskate's dream. But that low price is an illusion; it doesn't factor in long-term costs related to pollution and climate change or the political violence and instability sparked by competition for energy supplies. And we're unlikely to steward our resources carefully when, like the plastic necklaces thrown out of floats at Mardi Gras, they're cheap and plentiful. Only when the various costs of these commodities shoot up for good will we start getting really serious about challenges like global warming and energy independence.
So what's a tightwad to do? I opt for something I call ethical cheapness: reconciling my goal to live cheaply with my desire to consume conscientiously, shopping in a way that supports my values. One has to know which corners can be cut safely, on an individual level and on a broader scale. Laws and regulations that require employers to conserve resources and provide all Americans—ideally, all workers around the world—with healthy working conditions and a living wage might drive up the cost of consumer goods, but they also prove the maxim that "What's most dear is most cheap": Environmental and labor regulations are more economical than a laissez-faire approach that burdens us with the long-term costs of global warming and a deeply unbalanced distribution of resources.
But I can't tell you what to do. In a 2007 article in the New York Times, Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, talked about his group's brand of environmental activism and said, "We'll encourage companies to make more efficient S.U.V.'s, and we'll encourage consumers to buy them, but we do not find lecturing people about personal consumption choices to be effective." Hundreds of years of history tell us the same thing. Americans famous and unfamous have been preaching on the evils of over-consumption since the days of the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, and where has it gotten us? Our national debt rings up at nearly $11 trillion and we've accumulated another $15 trillion in mortgage and consumer debt.
Americans only slash their spending en masse in times of national crisis—wars, economic depressions, periods of high inflation. Hard experience teaches quick lessons. Unfortunately, that may be one of the few silver linings of our current recession. Perhaps we will find we can live without 400 cable channels. Perhaps we'll decide that big houses are too costly to heat, and we'll demand denser developments of apartment buildings and small homes. Perhaps we'll turn our rooftops into gardens that insulate our houses and provide low-cost vegetables. Perhaps I'll finally take up quilting so I can put all the fabric scraps from my old clothes to good use.
Perhaps, perhaps. As we figure out the way forward through these hard times and through the next cycles of prosperity and pain, I hope this book will contribute to the dialogue. There's no golden ratio between frugality and comfort, self-denial and self-indulgence, lentils and high-heeled Oxfords. We've each got to calculate that for ourselves. But in the meantime, I hope this book can help generate a new respect for values like prudence, resourcefulness and economy. A new respect, even, for the cheapskates among us.
Blurbs"Lauren Weber's fresh take on the quirky side of saving and spending couldn't be timelier." — Sylvia Nasar, author, A Beautiful Mind
"Consumers have been researched to death. It’s about time the tightwads among us got the same kind of loving attention. In Cheap We Trust is immensely readable and highly illuminating – the perfect guide to the oncoming era of like-it-or-not thrift." — James Lardner, co-author, Up to Our Eyeballs: How Shady Lenders and Failed Economic Policies Are Drowning Americans in Debt
"This book has a far better chance of making cheapness socially acceptable than Ben Franklin, Jack Benny and my father combined."— Joel Stein, Time columnist