By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 4, 2009
IN CHEAP WE TRUST
The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue
By Lauren Weber
Little, Brown. 310 pp. $24.99
Two lessons steam up from this terrific book about the history of thrift (and spending) in our great country: First, Americans possess a phenomenal capacity to endure scoldings about our fiscal behavior. From Cotton Mather to the present, we've been told we don't save enough, we're too materialistic and our spiritual lives are going to hell as a result.
Second, from the beginning, many Americans have nursed a seething contempt for the poor. Again, this goes back to Puritan times, when our ancestors labored on the brink of starvation but in the hope of God's grace. After only a few decades of such labor, the hard work paid off. The Puritans had enough money to buy ribbons and pewter, but was this morally right? They came up with this comforting conclusion: To have worked and then prospered must surely be proof of God's grace.
Those people on the outskirts of town who still lingered in poverty? They must be alcoholics and adulterers or irresponsible spendthrifts. For many of us, that attitude still exists today.
Money, in this country, has always been involved with moral stances. Americans deplore things as a national exercise; we deplore people who buy things that we wouldn't buy. But the only thing that scandalizes us more than a materialistic yahoo is a penny-pinching cheapskate who won't buy anything at all. Journalist Lauren Weber comes to this argument from a far-out, extreme position: Her father was a world-class skinflint who kept his home at 50 degrees during New England winters, washed the dishes by hand with cold water and no soap, and tried (unsuccessfully) to ration the family toilet paper. "It's easy to mock these extremes of thrift," Weber writes, "to marvel at the amount of time, thought, and emotional energy that some people will expend just to save a few dollars, even a few pennies. We call them eccentrics. We call them irrational. If we're related to them, and even if we're not, we complain bitterly about how cheap they are."
Weber grew up to find -- disconcertingly -- that she had inherited many of her father's penurious habits. Here she places her thrift-mania against the far larger nuttiness of America's personal and institutional deficit spending, which has led to a sea of credit card debt, maybe even global warming and a host of other ills. What is it with us and money? She remembers that after 9/11 we were exhorted to go shopping and take the family to Disney World. But she also discovers, in her research, that during World War I, citizens were exhorted to invest in the conflict by buying 25-cent stamps that they could paste into a book until they had $4, and that was the patriotic thing to do.
Is spending, or saving, best for our economy? In the early days of Ben Franklin, perhaps frugality was best. He thought so, wrote famously on the subject, but spent generously -- except when he didn't feel like it. Thrift embodies a paradox, as John Maynard Keynes suggested: To save rigorously may be a personal virtue but a social crime; we may be hurting our economy by refusing to spend.
Yet here we are, in this very moment, in a tremendous financial pickle from spending too much. Weber suggests we should think about saving. And after a fairly straightforward, very engaging history of thrift in America, she switches gears and tells us of her own adventures, as she attempts -- for the sake of this book project? -- to live on next to nothing.
Of course, she uses tea bags until they beg for mercy. She washes and reuses plastic bags and aluminum foil. She walks when she can ride. She buys her clothing from thrift stores. She extols the virtues of fixing one's own appliances -- although she seems to stay away from anything electrical herself. She lives on dried beans and learns to cook lentils 30 ways. She searches out communes and organizations that have pledged to buy nothing but food and medications for a year. She hints at how to cure sinus infections with cayenne pepper. She darkly lectures us about landfills. And she hangs out with a New York outfit called the Freegans, who lead tourists on dumpster-diving jaunts, where they retrieve no end of (free) baked goods and vegetables. Perhaps America does waste so much that it's possible to live for almost nothing on its gleanings.
It's not all easy for Weber: She buys $60 face cream and purchases a $400 pair of shoes on sale for $100, but at what an emotional price! You'd think she bought the Goodyear blimp on impulse.
Reading this lighthearted, learned book is not a lighthearted experience. It messes with your fiscal psyche. It's in the American nature, as I said, to deplore, and you're apt to develop post-financial stress syndrome. All of us have friends or relatives who are either sinfully wasteful or sinfully cheap. I was forced to remember a father-in-law who refused to flush the toilet except in the very, very direst of circumstances; he was vigorously loathed by everyone who knew him. But he represented an extreme. What if the rest of us did stop buying for a while? Would the country keep hurtling to hell in a handbasket, or might we -- one by one -- get out of credit card debt and get a good night's sleep for once? Weber doesn't scold us, thank God. She just invites us to take a closer look at how we live our financial lives.
See can be reached at http://www.carolynsee.com.
Sunday in Outlook
-- The epic story of Asia's quest for wealth.
-- The untold story behind the fall of the Berlin Wall.
-- Why 1959 was way cooler than the 1960s.
-- How globalization fleeces working people.
-- And Kay Redfield Jamison's new memoir.