Given the number of multimillionaires tapped for Cabinet positions under President-elect Donald Trump, I wonder if frugality will soon be considered un-American.
Trump rallied to victory in November with unapologetic boasting of his wealth. He is the personification of conspicuous consumption.
But throughout history, philosophers, poets, prophets and a very famous politician — Benjamin Franklin — have argued that penny pinching is better for your spirit and the country. Through their works, they made the case that “frugality and simplicity are praiseworthy; extravagance and luxury suspect,” writes Emrys Westacott, a philosophy professor at Alfred University in New York.
Since our next president is someone who represents the opposite of thrift, perhaps our country should be reminded of the virtues of living below one’s means. Thus, to celebrate the new year, this month’s pick for the Color of Money Book Club is Westacott’s “The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less is More — More or Less.”
During the election, many critics of Trump saw a contradiction in his strong support among working-class Americans. How could these voters so passionately identify with a man who has been rich all his life? But in Westacott’s exploration of frugality, Trump’s appeal makes perfect sense. Wealth often commands respect.
“Many people pay lip service to the ideals of frugality and simplicity, but you still don’t see many politicians trying to get elected on a platform of policies shaped by the principle that the good life is the simple life,” he says. “The majority of individuals everywhere . . . seem to associate happiness more with extravagance than with frugality.”
Many people do value affluence over thriftiness. Just look at some synonyms for folks who are frugal, Westacott points out:
Westacott doesn’t list the word “cheap,” but those of us who celebrate penny pinching as a lifestyle choice are frequently called this with a particular sharpness. Now let’s look at some synonyms for extravagant:
“There is, of course,” Westacott says, “no contradiction between advocating frugal living and viewing wealth as generally a good thing: the steady accumulation of wealth can be one of the goals that motivate frugality.”
What I especially like about the book is the path Westacott lays out. He’s teaching and preaching at the same time. He’s an advocate for simple living but his research explores both the pros and cons of frugality. He gets you thinking about so many important questions: What does it mean to be frugal? Is living luxuriously better than rejecting an extravagant lifestyle? Will either choice make you happier? What are the environment arguments for and against simple living?
Section after section will have you examining your own life. Are you aspiring to be rich for all the wrong reasons? What does your spending say about your values?
“Wealth carries other moral dangers,” he writes. “The desire for riches, it is feared, once aroused can never be fully satisfied. Like the dog who has tasted blood, those who have come to enjoy making money will find it difficult to say, ‘Enough!’ ”
Think about your early 20s. How did you live on so little? And now that you have so much more, why can’t you seem to make it all balance out?
Yet there is a negative side to austere living. There are a lot of penny pinchers who are making their families miserable. You risk alienating people and give frugality the bad name it sometimes has by an exaggerated concentration on saving money. Think Scrooge before his haunting.
In Dante’s “Inferno,” as Westacott points out, “misers are placed alongside spendthrifts in the fourth circle of hell.”
“The habit of thrift,” he adds, “can become a straitjacket that keeps one from enjoying the good things in life, and in the worse cases, gives rise to miserliness, which can be as serious a failing as profligacy.”
I want you to become more philosophical about your money, which, in turn, may result in your being more intentional about what you do with it.
“The teachers of frugal simplicity criticize avarice and consumerism on the grounds that working ever harder to make ever more money to buy ever more stuff is not the road to a satisfying life,” Westacott says.
A lot of financial management happens in your head.
So my assignment for you in 2017 is to spend more time thinking about what kind of life you want with the money you have.
I’ll be hosting a chat about “The Wisdom of Frugality” at noon Eastern time on Jan. 26 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Westacott will join me to answer your questions. Even if you don’t read the book, we welcome your participation.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.