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Frugality Is The New Chic

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Frugality Is The New Chic

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Frugality Is The New Chic

Frugality Is The New Chic

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The financial crisis is squeezing many Americans' budgets. In an expensive city, like New York, that is especially true. Trend-spotting experts say being frugal is suddenly cool — even in Manhattan.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Most of us can't afford hats like Aretha's or Jason Wu dresses, especially in these tough economic times. That's why throughout the country, shops and restaurants are offering big sales and bargain meals. In Manhattan, reporter Kaomi Goetz found New Yorkers are interested in saving money not just to be frugal, but also because it's the new hip thing to do.

KAOMI GOETZ: It's a busy day at a grocer in Chinatown. It's the kind of get in, get out store with no carts or fancy lighting, just stacks and stacks of fresh produce. And forget Muzak, this place has a clamor all its own. Crystal Mobiani(ph) is clutching a coffee in one hand and wades through a throng of shoppers. It doesn't take her long to spot and bag broccoli and Asian pears. She's a 26-year-old Web designer who just got back from a holiday trip to Argentina. She says she's doing pretty well financially, but still wants to save money.

Ms. CRYSTAL MOBIANI (Web Designer): The broccoli is a dollar a pound, which I don't know anything that's a dollar a pound anymore.

GOETZ: It's not that Mobiani needs to hunt for the lowest prices right now, but it makes her feel more savvy, more in the know. She used to go to a pricier grocer, but since the economic downturn, she says she switched to Chinatown. And Mobiani says it's probably a permanent change even if the economy bounces back.

Ms. MOBIANI: The interesting thing with Whole Foods is that it was like this focus on local and organic. And, you know, that stuff right now kind of doesn't matter anymore. It's all about saving money and getting stuff for like, you know, the cheapest price.

GOETZ: Matthew Rosenberg tracks trends on the Web site edopter.com. He says earlier buzz about saving the environment is shifting. People now are more concerned with saving money.

Mr. MATTHEW ROSENBERG (Edopter.com): People are living their lives, but they're trying to do the same things but with a frugal bent, and I think that that's what we're seeing reflected across the site.

GOETZ: He says people are doing little things to save money but still look cool. Like brewing their coffee at home, but carrying it in a stylish container, or having people over for dinner and enjoying a nice bottle of wine instead of an expensive meal out. Jonah Berger studies why and how trends become popular at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He says there have always been people who like to save money or consider themselves frugal, but now that behavior is evident in mainstream culture. He said it's even becoming cool to be frugal these days.

Professor JONAH BERGER (Marketing, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania): If it was bad to be thrifty, people would hide their frugality, right? They might be hurting financially but they'd cut back at home in private ways to avoid being ostracized by others and by their friends. But I think what we actually see, what's actually happening, is the exact opposite.

GOETZ: Berger says people are now broadcasting how much money they've saved as if it's an aspirational quality. And big spenders are concealing their purchases, even asking luxury shops to put their stuff in unmarked bags. But how about in New York? We asked people in the shopping mecca of Soho if the economy has made them more frugal. Caroline Richardson(ph) just moved here from Texas. She pondered for a moment whether she considered it cool to be frugal.

Ms. CAROLINE RICHARDSON: To look forward to the future, you don't want to be spending all of your money because I know for me I want to be able to save stuff up just in case I have a problem or there is an accident.

GOETZ: Elizabeth Suman(ph) is 24. She says with her friends, it's a group effort.

Ms. ELIZABETH SUMAN: Well, I think there's sort of - at least with people my age - sort of a we're all in it together attitude that I guess is kind of cool, or at least a camaraderie that's nice to have the support, to not feel like you're the only one in the world who has to save money.

GOETZ: It doesn't mean this frugalness will be in forever. Professor Jonah Berger says it's cyclical. He says people will probably go back to label-conscious showy habits once the economy improves. For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York.

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