The Frugal Lifestyle in the New York Times

There was an article in the Saturday New York Times that provided further evidence of something I’ve been blathering on about here.  It is what I call the Frugal Lifestyle.Golf Course Crop

Just to be clear, I have nothing at all against saving money.  In fact, I have only respect for those who tightly manage their limited resources to get what they and their families need and want.  The same goes for those who now find themselves in difficult circumstances and need to make very hard decisions about what to do.

What I have outright contempt for are people who pretend to save money.  People who, for peculiar psychological reasons that need not be explored here, enjoy depriving themselves of small things, or spending small amounts of their time in tiresome ways, because it makes them feel good to be “frugal.”  My hostility is doubled for those who have taken the current economic tragedy as inspiration to adopt the Frugal Lifestyle in the same faddish way that they might otherwise take up a new hobby or start twittering.

Years ago, when I was young enough to know about such things, there was an activity that cool rich kids did called “slumming.”  The idea, as best I can remember, was that you went to bars that were normally socially beneath you,  drank Budweiser all night, and pretended to be one of the ordinary people.  Being neither rich nor cool  the whole thing was lost on me.  (To be honest, hanging out in bars of any kind was lost on me.  I was kind of a geek.)

The Frugal Lifestyle is slumming.  Case in point is the woman quoted at the top of Saturday’s article.

“I’m enjoying this,” said Becky Martin, 52, who has cut up her 10 credit cards, borrows movies from the library instead of renting them, and grows her own fruits and vegetables — even though her family is comfortable.

Ms. Martin is a real estate investor, her husband is a plastic surgeon, and their home sits on the 12th hole of a Cincinnati country club.

I like the image of Martin toiling the earth to put food on her table right there in view of the other doctors and their caddies. But I am betting that the seeds are heirloom, the fertilizer is organic, and when all is said and done she won’t calculate the annual savings from her Whole Foods bill because she couldn’t care less.

This isn’t about the hard realities of money, it is about image and empty symbolism.  “It’s a chance to pass along the frugal lifestyle that my mother gave to me”  Martin says, as if she were teaching the kids her grandmother’s recipes from the old country.  She’s not giving them a survival skill, she’s sharing a cultural experience.

The article then goes on to say that the savings rate in the US has risen recently and quotes an economist discussing the phenomenon.

“It’s huge,” said Martha Olney, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in the Great Depression, consumerism and indebtedness. The rapid reversal is even more remarkable, she said, because in recessions consumers usually save less money. Not this time. “It implies a re-emergence of thrift as a value,” she said.

It also implies a deflationary death spiral that has other economics professors waking up in a cold sweat at night.  Generally speaking, when the economy sours the savings rate goes down because folks don’t expect the bad times to last long, so draw down their savings to keep up their spending, which helps the economy stabilize.  Not this time.

But the tidbit from the article most emblematic of the Frugal Lifestyle is the San Francisco man who uses a program on his iPhone to find the cheapest gas.  That is, he uses a $300 mobile phone that costs him a minimum of $70 a month to run a search that he could do on any computer (gasbuddy.com) in order to save possibly a dollar or two at fill-up.

“It seems a little crazy,” he laughs, then adds: “I’m frugal and loving it.”

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