Can cheap be sexy?

At a time when Americans are wallowing in consumer debt, let's reconsider the joys of penny pinching

Published September 10, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

Can cheap get sexy?
Can cheap get sexy?

True confession: I have always regarded paper towels as a minor extravagance. I grew up in a household where they were virtually unknown; to wipe up spills, my mother used cloth kitchen rags that she rinsed and wrung out afterward with hot soapy water. Although I've adopted sponges, I am my mother's daughter, and some visitors to my apartment are baffled to discover the utter absence of paper towels. Occasionally, to appease them, I'll buy a roll of the coarse, ultracheap kind, since the velvety-thick brands with patterns printed on them strike me as positively decadent. It's now commonly said that sponges serve as breeding grounds for bacteria, but having lived this way for decades without making myself or anyone else sick, I'm skeptical. I suspect the paper towel industry might be behind that particular health warning.

On the other hand, I have never reused a tea bag. Lauren Weber has. The author of "In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue," Weber grew up with one of those fathers who turned the thermostat down and told his family to put on sweaters. He scolded them for standing in front of the fridge with the door open and refused to drive to the store to pick up single items. He'd knock on the bathroom door when he thought his daughter had showered long enough, and to this day he refuses to use a dishwasher. He once tried to ration the family's toilet paper. Toilet paper!

Weber trots out tales of her father's extreme economizing for both color and humor in "In Cheap We Trust," and, you get the impression, in conversations with friends as well. Although she's a semi-proud tightwad herself, when Weber tells these stories -- when anyone regales a crowd with anecdotes about someone else's cheapness -- we're playing to the conventional sentiment that frugality is at best absurd and at worst evidence of a fundamental emotional failing, of meanness on more than just the material level. He forced his family to shiver all winter long, just to save a few bucks!

After eliciting a few chuckles at her dad's expense, Weber goes on to argue on behalf of his example. "In Cheap We Trust" aims to defend thriftiness at a moment when profligacy has proven itself abundantly flawed. Never before have Americans wallowed in more consumer debt with fewer prospects of paying it off. But she hesitates at calling for a "return to thrift," which to her mind sounds "stale, sober and even a bit dour." Instead, she'd like to see "a new framework for low-cost living," freed of associations with dowdy, sourpuss Puritans.

Much -- too much, really -- of "In Cheap We Trust" is devoted to demonstrating that the commonplace belief in a golden age of American thrift is false. "In every era," Weber writes, "Americans have indulged the temptation to live beyond their means." We've cut back on expenses and made do with less only when we've had to -- when we lived on frontier farms or weathered economic depressions or marshaled our resources for major military engagements during the world wars of the 20th century. Cut us loose, and we spend like sailors on shore leave. Official pronouncements on the subject have been equally bipolar. For every sage who counseled, Ben Franklin-style, that a penny saved is a penny earned, we've had economists who urged the public to spend in order to fend off recession. (The latter happened after both world wars, when experts worried that the manufacturing infrastructure built up for the war efforts would lead to overproduction and surpluses.)

Those readers who don't regard the history in "In Cheap We Trust" as too familiar will no doubt find it enlightening; a former reporter for Newsday, Weber excels at straightforward explanations of economic principles and trends. It's not clear, however, that such quantities of back story help her cause.

The heart of Weber's book lies in its more contemporary chapters and her advocacy for what she calls "ethical cheapness." This blend of environmentalism, anti-consumerism, social justice and old-fashioned parsimony asks both "Do I really need this?" and "What other costs -- to the planet, to workers, to myself -- lie hidden in this product I'm considering buying?" Weber interviews vanguard practitioners of socially responsible thrift, from adherents to "The Compact," a pledge to buy nothing new beyond food and medicine over the course of a year, to Freegans, who scavenge everything from groceries to housing to art supplies from the castoffs of major urban populations. Most of these hardcore scrimpers are motivated by political ideals ranging from the inspiring to the fairly ridiculous, such as the animal-rights faction among freegans who insist that raw clams found during dumpster dives must be returned to their natural habitat.

Shellfish advocates represent only a fraction of the freegan movement, which in turn constitutes only a soupçon of America's cheapskates, who themselves are a minority in the general population. Yet the mollusk debate among freegans illustrates one of the perplexities facing Weber's own, more modest campaign. As she observes, "advocacy in favor of thrift can be roughly divided into two types: traditional, religiously based appeals that classified consumption in terms of vice and virtue, and pragmatic appeals couched in the language of social mobility, budgeting and financial management." Furthermore, even when elites have exhorted the poor to conserve their resources as a path to future wealth or comfort, the moral implication remains that anyone who stays poor must lack self-control and industry. "No matter what the wording," Weber acknowledges, "one fact is undeniable: thrift advocacy has always carried a hint and often a stench of preachiness." Whether the gospel is Calvinist theology or veganism, it's equally likely to produce resentment, defensiveness and irritation as it is to win converts.

Weber points out that when Franklin recommended frugality and hard work in "Poor Richard's Almanac," the goal he envisioned for his readers was a "decent," independent (that is, debt-free) life, usually as a farmer, with basic needs satisfied and the occasional treat. Industrialization and the consumerism it spawned depends on workers seeking an ever-better standard of living, with a permanent perch in the lap of luxury held out as the grand prize for the few who supposedly win it through superior merit.

Weber traces thrift's fall from favor to both the propaganda of consumerism -- advertising -- and post-World War II social trends that reinforced Madison Avenue's siren song. Freudian psychology deplored the "repression" of desire as unhealthy and Space Age progressivism condemned penny pinchers as backward, negative thinkers and drags on the economy.

Yet in truth, we've never left our Puritan side entirely behind us. If we no longer condemn those who blow all their cash on flashy goods or, for that matter, no longer force adulteresses to sew scarlet letters on their bodices, we still censure some losses of self-control. Getting fat, going bankrupt and catching venereal diseases are, fairly or not, still seen as secular badges of shame worn by people who have "let themselves go" in some essential way. (You could say that body size by itself has replaced most of the old visible indicators of virtue.)

As a result, our conception of how to live is in constant oscillation between unsustainable license and impossible rectitude. We're Jerry Lee Lewis, coming to Jesus one day and drunkenly pounding out honky-tonk piano riffs and marrying 13-year-olds the next. We eat deep-fried onion blossoms now and sign on to no-carb diets later. Depending on where we are in any given swing of the pendulum, we may welcome calls to mend our ways as a much-needed corrective. On the other hand, we're just as likely to condemn those who make such pleas as pious meddlers who wouldn't talk such nonsense if they understood how real, salt-of-earth Americans have to live. And sometimes we do both at the same time. The person who testifies to the virtues of locavorism may turn around and buy a huge flat-screen TV, accusing anyone who raises an eyebrow of priggishness.

Since people seem to relish nothing better than condemning their fellow citizens for either heedlessly wasteful self-indulgence or pie-in-the-sky sanctimony, it's hard to see how Weber's prescription for "ethical cheapness" can escape the fray, despite her professed intention not to treat spending habits as a reflection on a person's "moral or spiritual caliber." If her brand of cheapness is "ethical" then what of the less-principled kind of cheapness, the kind that shops at Wal-Mart and spares nary a thought for Chinese sweatshops and environmental toxins? Like simple reckless extravagance, it must be "unethical," which makes ... what? of the people who practice it.

That whiff of preachiness seems to be unavoidable, but maybe we can do something about the ridicule. The easiest way to fend off scorn is to claim that you can't help it, that you were born with the quality that other people fault you for. Even Freud regarded parsimony as a temperament, including it in the "anal triad" along with orderliness and obstinacy, linked to conditions that we now collectively label obsessive-compulsive disorder. (He also thought these traits had something to do with toilet training, but let's just set that notion aside, shall we?) The thrifty feel greater "pain" (i.e., anxiety) at parting with their money, and possibly less pleasure at the delights that can be bought with it, according to recent studies of immediate and delayed gratification recounted by Weber. Yet this propensity is not always, or even often, pathological; the ability in a child to restrain today's desires in service of tomorrow's goals is one of the chief predictors of success as an adult.

So wipe that smile off your face. We laugh at the "stinginess" of Weber's father for a variety of reasons: because he makes us feel guilty or inadequate about our own financial prudence, because he exerts so much effort for what we believe are minuscule savings or because we recognize ourselves in him. Why not cut him and the rest of us penny pinchers some slack? As Weber explains, her father has never been tight where it counts: He gave all his children first-class educations and donates freely to charity. He's no Scrooge. He has what could be called an exquisite sense of his own priorities, and sees no reason to squander gas running back and forth to the supermarket when proper list-making could take care of it all in one trip.

For some, the time, energy and brainpower exerted in planning that list isn't worth it just to save a few dimes in gas (not to mention the impact on the environment). But that valuation, like others, is subject to change; Weber's father's aversion to unnecessary driving seems far more reasonable today than it would have in 1960. A good cup of tea is more precious to me than it is to Weber, as is the time it takes to find nice clothes in secondhand stores. Something tells me she doesn't buy paper towels, either, but I could be wrong. If she does, I refuse to judge her. All we ask of the rest of you is that you get off our backs and take a moment to reflect. The money you spend on paper towels could buy you a latte. The money you spend on lattes could buy you a restaurant meal. The money you spend on restaurant meals could buy you a pair of designer shoes. And the money you spend on designer shoes, as one pop culture icon realized to her chagrin, could buy you an apartment. Now: Consider the possibility that the cheap might set you free. And, for crying out loud, put on a sweater.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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