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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.

The Pew survey found that 49 percent of the public, including a disproportionate share of young adults, considers a cellphone a necessity.

"A relative newcomer in the everyday lives of most Americans, the cell phone is among a handful of newer gadgets that have held their own on the necessity scale from 2006 to 2009," the Pew researchers said.

Sixty percent of adults under the age of 30 say a cellphone is a necessity, compared with 38 percent of those 65 or older.

I have the hardest time trying to persuade people to cut back on their cellphone plans for themselves and for their kids. And I'm talking about people who have lost their jobs or their homes or are deep in debt -- or all three.

During a budget session I was leading at my church, I suggested that people should significantly cut back to a basic cellphone plan of $50 or $60 a month. I even had the audacity to recommend not paying to send text messages or access the Internet via their mobile device.

My suggestion did not go over well.

Recently, I visited an elementary school on career day. I spoke to two classes: sixth-graders and fourth-graders. I knew without asking that the majority of the sixth-graders had a cellphone. I asked the younger children who ranged in age from 8 to 10 how many of them had a cellphone. Nearly every child's hand went up.

I was shocked and then not shocked.

As an experiment, I asked students in both classes to take out a sheet of paper and write a short note to their parents or guardians. I instructed them to ask: "Do I have a college fund?"

Then I dictated to the students the next sentence. They were to write: "If I don't have a college fund, please take my cellphone away."

As soon as I finished that sentence, the children in both classes hooped and hollered. A few admitted there was no way they would show the note to their parents.

See how it starts. I dare say not a single one of those fourth-graders (or sixth-graders) needed a cellphone.

Let's be honest, shall we?

The vast majority of the talking and texting on cellphones is idle chatter. Most business travelers with cellphones plastered to their ears are loudly, annoyingly blabbering about nothing important. Clearly the recession has caused some people to hit the reset button on what they really need. And yet, we still can't give up or scale back on something that is clearly not a necessity.

-- By mail: Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

-- By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

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