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 ( 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.”

No Comments

  • By Spliffe, April 13, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    The ones who grind my gears the most are dumpster divers. I’ve never met somebody who admits to dumpster diving who didn’t have a job or couldn’t walk into a job that would pay two or three times minimum wage. And still, they’re beating actual indigent, hungry people to the punch of rooting around in organic food stores’ dumpsters’ for expired goodies, and they’re proud of it. Honestly, it makes me want to vomit. And not because of the grossness.

  • By The Weakonomist, April 13, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    The problem with quoting people is that they can say one thing and do another. People aren’t cutting back as much as they claim to be. I’m glad some consumer are finding utility in fiscal conservatism but for anyoelne with the means it is merely a fad. This was a good read.

  • By Rob Bennett, April 13, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    This isn’t about the hard realities of money, it is about image and empty symbolism.

    I think it can be both. I don’t deny that the phenomenon that you are describing here really does exist. But my guess is that a number of people who “try out” frugality for image reasons end up loving it and becoming serious about it over time.

    Few of us make instant conversions to any idea. It’s human nature to put a toe in the water before jumping in with your whole body. Yes, people are playing at the frugality idea. For some it will never be more than a pose. But for some it will become a life-changing thing.

    I learned about dumpster-diving from Amy Dacyzen (author of the Tightwad Gazette). She didn’t do it as a pose. Her husband earned about $40,000, she was a stay-at-home mom, and she was raising a big family. What’s the downside of dumpster diving in those circumstances?

    I don’t jump in dumpsters. But I am not above taking a piece of furniture that someone has left at the roadside as trash. Is there some reason why I shouldn’t do that?

    Aren’t the people who REFUSE to do something like that engaging in a pose too — the pose that they are too important ever to need to make use of someone else’s trash?

    We all act symbolically all the time. That’s just the way we are made, the spendthrifts and the frugalists alike.


  • By Spliffe, April 13, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    If I wasn’t being clear, I was talking about dumpster-diving for food by people with income to spend on food, when people without income obviously need free food more.

    The downside is not only that they’re not contributing to the economy, but that they may be taking food out of the mouths of people who actually ARE desperate.

    I don’t know Amy Dacyzen. I just know, personally, a bunch of college grads who think they’re doing something really great when they beat not-for-pretend indigents to the Whole Foods bin.

  • By DR, April 13, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    The economist who claimed “It implies a re-emergence of thrift as a value” misses the point completely. In the 90′s, Japan went through a balance sheet recession. Companies had cash flow, but they were using it to improve their balance sheet (i.e., pay down debt) rather than for further investment. Of course, Japan is still struggling. The difference is, as compared to the U.S., that Japan can fund a massive stimulus package by borrowing from within; the U.S. can’t even come close.

    All of that said, one way or another the U.S. will go through a balance sheet recession. We simply can’t sustain the current leverage indefinitely. While in a recession the saving rate typically goes down, with the U.S., short of more borrowing, the savings rate couldn’t get any lower. And with the credit crunch, borrowing is out of the question for many. with the financial meltdown, many are “scared straight” into saving more than they did when real estate was going up 20% a year “forever.” Consumers are “fixing” their balance sheets whether they realize it or not, and our consumer spending-based gdp has got to take a hit.

  • By Jon, April 13, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    I have to disagree with the commenter who mentions dumpster diving. While the only dumpster I’ve ever been in has contained only electronics, I can’t fault anyone with the motivation to do it for food. If they don’t take it chances are it’s going to be wasted. I don’t think the homeless make a habit of dumpster diving, they’re not on the street because they are frugal. Whoever is the most motivated should get the goods from the dumpster, if that happens to be a frugal person, so be it.

    One frugal activity that seems to be popular in the blogging circuit is “making your own laundry detergent.” While admirable, the real frugal types can get the expensive name brand stuff on sale, using coupons, at a lower cost per load than the cheapest homemade without the work of making it or storing it(it’s far less concentrated).

    Since you are from Massachusetts Frank, you’ve probably noticed the trend towards shopping at discount grocer Market Basket. Suddenly shopping at Market Basket is the cool thing to do, in fact it’s so crowded most of the time I now do most of my shopping at *gasp* Shaw’s. Shaw’s double coupons and loss leaders have made it a haven for the real frugal types unlike Market Basket which seems to be the store of choice for people who downgrade from Whole Foods and want the Boston Globe to write a story about them, frugal amateurs, and food stamp recipients. (Don’t get me started on the frozen convenience foods and shrimp cocktails I see purchased with food stamps, I avoid Market Basket just to save myself from rage)…

  • By Mary, April 13, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    Love this post. Here’s a story you’ll appreciate as this guy fits exactly into the “slumming” lifestyle you describe. In a blog post a year or to ago, he, quite arrogantly, put down all of the people in SUVs that he saw while driving down and back from the Cape for the weekend. See, since he was driving a Prius down and back, he was saving the environment as he traveled to and from his second home! He was extremely self-congratulatory.

  • By Kevin, April 13, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    That’s terrific that you mentioned the iPhone anecdote as well. When I was reading the article I saw that also and thought to myself, “now wouldn’t someone who was really frugal have a five-year old Startac phone or something, or better yet, no phone at all?”

  • By Wm Tanksley, April 13, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    I’m not impressed.

    I don’t understand why you have contempt for “people who enjoy depriving themselves of small things.” Your post failed to enlighten me on that.

    I like your blog, and I like its purpose. If I attempt to fit this post into the purpose of this blog, I might guess that you’re trying to say that it’s bad financial advice to claim that frugality is pleasant for its own sake… But I have to wonder why you’d claim that, since those people seem to claim otherwise. Perhaps you’re trying to claim that those people are not truly frugal, but again, I don’t see you citing evidence…

    One serious error you’re making is claiming that people paying down debt and saving money is going to crush our economy. I have to agree that many economists are saying that, but you seem to extrapolate from that to conclude that this will _cause_ the economy to tank, rather than being (optimistically) part of the necessary repairs to our economy, or (realistically) just part of the consequences of the crash. Worse still, what you’re saying there sounds like one-size-fits-all economic advice — since you’re blaming anyone who saves money for any “death spiral” our economy performs, you imply that avoiding saving would be a good action.


  • By hickchick, April 13, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

    My personal favorite was the stay-at-home mom that was economizing by doing her own laundry, cooking and yardwork instead of paying someone to do it for her. I’m sure she cut back her cable bill by dropping Showtime (not HBO though, she just loves Big Love).

  • By Tristan | The New Man Of Action, April 14, 2009 @ 7:48 am

    I understand where this is coming from. Every blog that offers advice seems to say be frugal. And, in theory, it does make sense. Take action, reduce your spending.

    It’s when it verges on the ridiculous such as your examples where people think they are being frugal that it all falls down.

    I think being frugal is all about reducing unnecessary spending and finding ways to save in a positive and healthy way. As you correctly point out, when it becomes about image rather than empowerment, it’s time to take a good look at yourself.


  • By dawn, April 15, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    I found this to be a very strange post…criticizing people you believe are more affluent for trying to save a few bucks? It’s like a reverse form of snobbery,saying that only the truly poor are entitled to pinch pennies.

    People should be encouraged to be thrifty, because while it hurts our economy in the short-term, it’s better for individual finances to live within our means, and it’s also generally good for the environment, while rampant consumerism is unsustainable.

    You can’t say it’s all about image for them because you don’t know what’s going on inside their heads. Stop being so judgmental.

  • By Matt, June 7, 2010 @ 1:19 am

    I think the point here, as it relates to personal finance, is that the recession has not changed our spending habits at all. I think he agrees frugality is a virtue and that everyone can find something to cut from their budget…this is just a fad. Unfortunately, those who really do need to save and invest are not going to really change their habits (cite iphone example) and credit card abuse will simply continue. This is because we have gotten used to the perks and haven’t truly figured out how to do with less.

  • By Marsha Killington, Colonial Heights VA, May 14, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

    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.

    Because the savings rate can’t go below zero.

  • By Sun, November 21, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    I find this post to be self serving and way judgemental. And I honestly believe that no matter what the author says, (s)he have never been truly poor, or gone hungry. I’ve done both. Get over yourself.

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