[13 April 2009]
PopMatters General Features Editor
I found this NYT article about the alleged resurgence of thriftiness as an ethic strangely depressing. Isn’t this what I had been hoping for in writing all these screeds against consumerism, that there would be a return to some more sensible set of values once the waste and frivolity of status consumption was revealed to all? I don’t know, maybe; but it’s hard for me to overlook the inanity of this:
The gleefully frugal happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses. The mantra is cut, cut, cut — magazine and cable subscriptions, credit cards, fancy coffee drinks and your own hair.
In San Francisco, Cooper Marcus, 36, has started choosing recipes based on the ingredients on sale at the market. Mr. Marcus canceled the family’s subscription to Netflix, his premium cable package and a wine club membership. He uses a program on his iPhone to find the cheapest gas and drives out of his way to save 50 cents per gallon.
“It seems a little crazy,” he laughs, then adds: “I’m frugal and loving it.”
Clearly, frugality is being regarded as a lifestyle choice, another mode of distinction. People want to be recognized for it rather than making it disapppear into a more compelling mosaic of activities that supply a sense of who we are to the world. The article suggests that those who are happy to be frugal constitute a “movement”, as if they are pioneering some wholly new concept.
Instead, this suggests that consumerism remains at the forefront of how people conceive of themselves, only they are spending less instead of more. Which means less and more have become virtually arbitrary concepts that can be varied in order to add spice to the fashion cycle.
Obviously the predilection for spending less is related to the recession, but the thrust of articles like this is to provide the illusion to consumers that they are in control of things—that frugality should be seen as a free choice that we can be “loving” rather than a conditioned response. Or if it is not a free choice, it is an opportunity, with constraints serving as the nursemaid to creativity. But something is grating to me about the way in which we seem to want to make this creativity an end in itself. Shouldn’t the instinctively frugal sort also be sort of austere, circumspect, guarded? Wouldn’t they be naturally wary of publicity, not “gleeful” and eager to be rubbing the world’s nose in economic hard times?
I think I react strongly to all this because I’m so vulnerable to indulging in that sort of thinking, to wanting to be lauded for frugality as if it were a public demonstration of my wit and resourcefulness, when it is nothing more than preoccupation with shopping and signaling—things I wished I spent less time thinking about outside of writing about them. (Writing about them is probably merely another strategy for trying to purge the unwelcome inclinations.) That’s what seems like real frugality to me—when shopping is taking up less and less of our consciousness. The gleefully frugal are, by that standard, as profligate as ever.