Necessity or Luxury? Please Redefine.

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Time magazine cover this spring featured a glass jar partially filled with coins labeled "The New Frugality."

Months earlier, BusinessWeek featured a red cover cinched by a black belt. It declared the recession had pushed us into "The New Frugality" age.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center's project on social and demographic trends found that 60 percent of all younger and middle-aged adults say they are doing more shopping at discount stores or avoiding more expensive brands.

Pew said nearly a quarter of younger adults say they plan to plant a "recession garden" to trim their food bills.

Another Pew study released in April found that from the kitchen to the laundry room to home entertainment, consumers are paring down the list of things they can't live without. I loved the title of that report: "Luxury or Necessity? The Public Makes a U-Turn."

Is this dawning age of frugality here to stay?

I'm not so sure. Frugality isn't like your basic black dress that is always in vogue. Frugality is a foul-weather trend quickly replaced by rampant consumerism the moment the economy begins to pick up.

I'll be counting the number of months it will take before people forget this recession and return to their wasteful ways.

Still, for now, people are reevaluating what's a necessity.

A majority of respondents to the Pew survey said that microwave ovens, television sets or even home air conditioning are not necessities. Similarly, the proportion that considers dishwashers or clothes dryers to be essential dropped sharply since 2006.

"These recession-era reevaluations are all the more striking because the public's luxury-versus-necessity perceptual boundaries had been moving in the other direction for the previous decade," wrote Pew researchers Rich Morin and Paul Taylor.

The share of adults who consider a microwave a necessity was just 32 percent in 1996. By 2006, it had soared to 68 percent. But it has now declined to 47 percent. Similarly, just 52 percent in the poll said a television set is a necessity -- down 12 percentage points from 2006. Ah, but the trendy thriftiness has not touched certain technologies. People may be willing to give up microwaving their food, but they aren't parting with their cellphones.

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