Courtesy of Little, Brown Publishing
Courtesy of Little, Brown Publishing
In Cheap We Trust
By Lauren Weber
Hardcover, 272 pages
Little, Brown & Co.
List Price: $24.99
Introduction: Cheap Thrills
Cheap. 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 eighty-four-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 thirty-three years at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. 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 tea bags not three or four times, like most proud cheapskates, but ten or twelve 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 thermostat above fifty 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 even 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 onto 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 overleveraged, 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 1820s 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. And 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 sh**- house on the wharf." It was a contemptible profession, and through that usage, the word cheap entered our vocabulary 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' 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 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.
As 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 thirty years, but he and my mother provided three kids with priceless educations, and they continue to set an example of decency, generosity, and openhearted 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-sh** 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 adjective, 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 range 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, presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, along with the Democrat-led Congress, passed "fiscal stimulus" plans in the last two years, giving us all tax rebates and telling us to spend them in order to keep the economy aoat. 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 gratication, 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 of America in the 1920s, they traveled to Muncie, Indiana, and studied 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 expressed 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, as most Americans probably do, that we were once a thrifty nation but that we had become lazy and spoiled over time, a condition 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 made do with 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 his 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 condent that 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 further 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. And the refinancing boom of the early 2000s led millions of Americans to use their homes as ATMs. Today, mortgage holders owe, on average, a balance of $129,789 on their homes. Credit card debt averages $3,161 per American man, woman, and child. And our personal savings rate 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 abundance 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 twenty-first-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 how to 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 thirty different ways. But cheapness is also a mind-set, 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 gratication and promotes the idea that we can understand and express our identities through the 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.
This book is also a history of thrift, frugality, and cheapness in America. As you'll see, though, it's not a linear tale moving from our thrifty past to our profligate present. Though I tell the story chronologically, the history of thrift is cyclical; this is a virtue we've abandoned and then circled back to over and over again in the last four hundred years. Americans' interest in frugality has waxed and waned, usually in response to economic events like financial panics or political calamities such as the two world wars of the last century. We Americans are an intemperate and mercurial people, but perhaps these qualities also help us adapt to unfavorable circumstances. History shows that in hard times, we hunker down and make do with less. It also shows that as soon as the danger passes, we cheerfully reset our appetites a notch or two higher than before.
I tell the story of cheapness and thrift as a subjective, lived experience and also as an idea, one that has meant different things to different people over the course of our history. At certain moments, it has been proposed as a panacea for sin, luxury, moral corruption, poverty, alcoholism, marital discord, war, and urban vice and depravity. At other times, like the present, it's been blamed for recessions and for choking off the consumption needed to keep the economy chugging along.
I also explore the ways that thrift has been used and, at times, deployed like a weapon to judge, praise, and condemn those who were or weren't conforming to shifting standards of patriotism, Protestant Christianity, bourgeois convention, or psychological self-control. The history of thrift in America is as much about social conflict, class anxiety, and hardscrabble conditions as it is about evolving cultural values.
Thrift has always been a morally charged category, used to define a vision of the good life and to separate out the upright and righteous from the prodigal and wayward. Advocacy in favor of thrift can be roughly divided into two types: traditional, religiously based appeals that classify consumption in terms of vice and virtue, and pragmatic appeals couched in the language of social mobility, budgeting, and financial management. The former type dominated in the Puritan days and remained potent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The latter type found an audience in the 1800s and through the early 1900s as the Industrial Revolution fueled interest in concepts like efficiency and scientific management. No matter what the wording, though, one fact is undeniable: thrift advocacy has always carried a whiff and often a stench of preachiness.
Wealthy reformers in the nineteenth century, for instance, urged sailors, milliners, and other laboring people to practice thrift and put their cash away in newly opened savings banks. Doing so, promised the — well-meaning but out-of-touch upper crust, would not only provide workers a measure of financial security, but would also induce in them piety, sobriety, and high moral standards. Such preaching papered over the reality that working people lived exceedingly precarious lives, vulnerable to the convulsions and insecurities of an unregulated economy. If many of them lived on the knife-edge of poverty, it was as much a result of their low wages and unsteady employment as any "thriftless" habits of alcoholism or gambling.
There have also been those who celebrated simplicity thrift, frugality, nonmaterialism, cheapness — without trying to impose a way of life onto anyone else. Henry David Thoreau helped build the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-1800s on the premise that plain living cleared time for truth-seeking and spiritual satisfaction (though like just about every other thrift advocate, Thoreau didn't always live up to his own ideals). In the post-World War II era, the philosopher Paul Goodman recommended "decent poverty" as the aim of an equitable society, one that would allow individuals the leisure and freedom to pursue their creative goals. As the essayist Richard Todd has written, "There has seldom been an era in America where someone hasn't argued that the simple life is the good life."
I've grappled with this history of moralizing and sanctimoniousness, in part because with this book I insert myself into the long lineage of writers who have complained that Americans place too much stock in the ability of material pleasures to bring happiness. I've tried to look skeptically both at my antecedents and at the current incarnations of thrift advocacy, whether at the compulsive aspects of my father's and my cheap personalities or at the politics of a band of anticapitalist activists that I profile.
I've also attempted to take some of the moralizing out of the topic of cheapness and thrift. When I analyze the consumer nation that America has become, I try not to suggest that whether one is a cheapskate or a spendthrift reflects on one's moral or spiritual fiber. Instead, I approach these issues from a practical standpoint, arguing that cheapness is a virtue in the sense that it creates financial security at a time when government is exiting the business of providing economic safety nets to individuals. That it's better for the planet. That, in unhinging us from a cycle of working and spending to provide for our basic needs and our more extravagant desires, it can provide us with the freedom to pursue our true passions. The virtues of cheapness are autonomy, independence, a deeper sense of fulfillment, financial security, and a lighter footprint on the world around us.
But 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 a unique calculus we each concoct. I'll walk thirty minutes out of my way to get to my own bank's ATM (and thus avoid fees), but I use a French face 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'd coveted but had never been able to afford. They were high-heeled oxfords, tooled from soft brown leather and crisscrossed 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 tea bags so he can reuse them two or three times; about a computer programmer who ate peanuts for lunch every day, shells and all (he didn't want the shells to go to waste); 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 give in to 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 I, and in the crowds of women who responded to a newspaper ad for a designer shoe sale. 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 lled 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 saw tooth 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 Hershey's.
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, they are 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 reusing plastic bags, and I'll sometimes walk thirty blocks rather than spend $2 on the subway. I also had dial-up Internet service until November 2007, when I nally upgraded to DSL, and, too frequently, I save money by skipping lunch if I'm too busy to make a sandwich before leaving my apartment (I've been a little better about that since a friend looked at me as though 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 briey dated a man who weaseled out of taking her to dinner by claiming to have an eating disorder. I still haven't totally forgiven my father for keeping the house so cold that I could sometimes see my breath, and neither has my mother. I asked her recently how she had managed to coexist 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 re exits. That tragedy and others like it forced a reckoning that manufacturers, in pursuit of high prots, 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 fteen workers at a Texas oil refinery found that the owner, the British 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 — deally, all workers around the world — with healthful 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 in the long run than a laissez-faire approach that burdens us with the costs of global warming and a deeply unbalanced distribution of resources.
But I can't tell you how to live. 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 efcient SUVs, 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 overconsumption since the days of the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, and where has it gotten us? Our national debt rings up at more than $11 trillion and we've accumulated another $14 trillion in mortgage and consumer debt.
Americans slash their spending en masse only 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 nd we can live without four hundred 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, we'll be reminded that there's no simple formula for finding the right mix of frugality and comfort, self-denial — and self- indulgence, lentils and high-heeled oxfords. We've each got to craft our own solutions. 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.