Frugal Living: Embedded in American History

Lauren Weber explores our complicated relationship with thrift.

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Lauren Weber grew up in a family that values frugality. Her father, in particular, avoids waste wherever he can: He uses tea bags up to a dozen times and keeps the thermostat tuned to an almost-frigid 50 degrees. That experience inspired Weber to write In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, that challenges the idea that being "cheap" is a bad thing, or something shameful. She looks to American history, as well as contemporary culture, to show that frugality is thriving, and popular. While we might not use earwax as lip balm, as one thrifty writer recommended in the 1800s, other creative techniques, such as dumpster diving for food, are alive and well. Here are excerpts from my recent conversation with Weber:

You say the notion that we're "returning to thrift" isn't really accurate—what do you mean?

I'm skeptical when I hear people say that. You see people cutting back, but the evidence is pretty anecdotal. There's also aggregate evidence; the savings rate is higher than it's been in six or seven years. I'm skeptical about whether this is a permanent change. In the book, I go back 300 years, and if you look at every financial or political crisis that has caused people to tighten their belts, the effect is always temporary. After the economy recovers, usually people's appetite comes back, too.

So you think we'll go back to spending more as soon as we can afford to?

Yes, I think we'll see a temporary shift towards frugality and away from over-the-top spending, but I don't think it's a seismic shift like some economists are saying. If you go back to the American Revolution and World War II, consumer spending not only recovers but recovers at an even more accelerated pace than before the downturns.

Will anything lasting come out of this recession?

I think the lasting part will be the regulation. America has had many experiments with credit but the amount of cheap money that was available in the last six to eight years was unprecedented. The government is realizing that it didn't do enough to protect consumers from predatory lenders so we'll see a tightening of regulation and credit markets. I think that's a positive change.

Do modern-day "freegans," who buy as little as possible, reflect the older American traditions of Emerson and Thoreau?

There is definitely a lineage there that expresses itself differently according to the times. With freegans, they have a very active website and use all the forces of technology to spread their word. Emerson and Thoreau obviously didn't have that. But there is a real thread that runs through American history. There's always been someone, somewhere championing the benefits of the simple life. In the end, the impulse is often the same. It's about creating a meaningful life. For a lot of people that means a life without a lot of materialism.

Is that unique to Americans?

Generally, in most other countries, they're known for wasting less. It probably has to do with the fact that America is the land of abundance. We have such a surplus, so it seems like less of a sin to waste. That provokes a movement counter [to such waste].

You write that Benjamin Franklin's thoughts on thrift have been misunderstood, and that his motivation was partly so he didn't have to work so hard.

For Franklin especially, frugality was a means to an end. It was to buy your freedom and to not end up in debt to people. He believed debt was a form of enslavement. It was about the freedom to create your own life. He retired at age 42 and then devoted himself to public service.

Do you live frugally?

I live extremely frugally. The national savings rate is around 4 percent; I save around 25 percent of my income, so I'm much more frugal than most people. I do little things, like get my clothes from thrift stores and make my own detergent, but the biggest thing is cultivating a mindset of frugality and simplicity that says, 'I have everything I need, I don't need to spend money to make myself happy.' I look around my apartment, and I have more than enough. There's just so little I need.

Is there anything you splurge on?

My winter boots. I spend a lot of time sludging through the snow and slush in New York. After a few years of buying boots that fall apart, I bought $350 leather boots from Italy. I resole them every year, and now they're going into their fifth winter.

Corrected on : Updated on 10/02/09: An earlier version of this post didn't include references to shifts in aggregate data reflecting heightened savings rates.