Are You Born a Cheapskate?

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The experience of living through the Great Recession will forever change the way we spend. It will create a generation of cheapskates. Or so the thinking goes. But will folks who are new to thrift really stick with it? Can the currently frugal-chic environment truly change people into less buy-crazed consumers? Or is being a tightwad—or a spendthrift—genetic, something you’re born with?

A story in New York mag asks the big nature-nurture question regarding the tendency to be a tightwad. Is thrift something that one inherits? Or is it something that you learn?

The story riffs off of the experiences of Lauren Weber, a friend of The Cheapskate Blog who answered my questions about her new book In Cheap We Trust, and who also told us what she splurges on (and what she absolutely does not) in our “What Will a Cheapskate Spend Good Money On” series.

As Weber has stated often, her father was fantastically cheap—even going so far as to use hand signals before turning his car to avoid burning out the bulbs in the vehicle’s headlights. She followed suit as a proudly frugal adult, and is known to quote the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin. But not all of her siblings did the same. Why?

The New York mag story tries to get answers from various psychologists. What many come up with is that thrift is something akin to shyness. It’s a trait, not a virtue. Tightwads feel pain when they spend, and that pain is not necessarily something they’ve learned to feel by experience. That feeling of loss or being a sucker when handing over one’s money to someone else is most likely something that’s inborn.

I’m not sure if I completely buy the theory. No one has been able to study twins separated at birth and test them years later to see if they both clip coupons and reuse aluminum foil, or if both have closets full of belts and shoes they just couldn’t resist. And I’m not sure what it would prove even if they could do such tests.

Regardless, the story (and Weber’s book) is fascinating, must-read stuff for everyone who prides themselves on pinching pennies. The nature-nurture argument could also be used to help spendthrifts justify their constant craving to spend. They were born with that need. It’s a disease.

Side note: To go along with the New York mag story, there’s a survey asking 100 New Yorkers in Washington Square Park about their post-recession spending habits. Out of those 100, 54 reduced the amount they spent at restaurants, and 49 cut back on clothes; 52 buy more store-brand products now. And jeans? Before the recession, they’d spend $47 on pair. Now, they spend about $32. (Still way more than I spend on jeans.) What they spend on haircuts is down from $35 to $23.