Q&A with “In Cheap We Trust” Author Lauren Weber

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Lauren Weber’s father is cheap. Really cheap. He kept the thermostat at 50 degrees during the winter. When driving, he used hand signals to indicate he was turning to avoid burning out the headlight bulbs. He washed dishes in cold water to keep the hot water bill down. As a child, Lauren hated how cheap her father was. But she grew up into a proudly cheap adult, and her book in support of cheapitude has just been released.

Weber already participated in our “What Will a Cheapskate Spend Good Money On” series, in which she revealed that while her boots cost $350, she makes her own laundry detergent to save money. Now, while discussing her book In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, she addresses issues near and dear to the hearts of many cheapskates. Namely, why is spending money equated with being patriotic? And is wax paper a good (cheaper) substitute for toilet paper?

Cheapskate: I think so much of spending (and overspending) comes down to “keeping up with the Joneses,” which seems like it’s a timeless practice. Has “keeping up with the Joneses” been around forever? And in your research, have any groups been able to successfully avoid such a mentality? If so, how do they do it? I mean, even the Amish have been guilty of the practice, pimping out their carriages with LED lighting and velvet.

Lauren Weber: The phenomenon of “keeping up with the Joneses” is probably as old as the Egyptian pyramids, if not older. After all, how would it look if one pharaoh had 100 gold goblets and the next one only had 90? Like ours, early human societies used possessions as one way of measuring a person’s power and status.

I think human beings and other animals might just be wired for emulation and aspiration, and it requires a certain emotional strength and independence of mind to resist that pressure. According to one of the few psychological studies on frugality, cheapskates tend to be nonconformists and relatively immune that kind of subtle social coercion. My father is one of those people – he has no qualms about going to the supermarket in torn sweatshirts and driving a car that’s rusting out on the bottom. And one of my favorite stories came from a financial planner I interviewed, who told me about a college professor of his, a known tightwad, who often bought clothing at estate sales and would come to class in shirts that were monogrammed with other people’s initials. The students thought it was hilarious, but the professor was basically saying, “I reject the idea that my clothes are a reflection of my worldly success or my value as a human being.” (However, in his somewhat showy rejection of the American consumer ideal, he may have just been trying to communicate a different high-status identity, maybe saying, “I’m superior because I value loftier things than material objects.” Who knows?)

You mention the Amish; the Quakers too were known for an ethic of simplicity that was perhaps more theoretical than real. William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, once declared that “All excess is ill.” But his huge estate on the Delaware River was staffed by servants and slaves, decorated with damask drapes and satin-covered chairs, and even had a vineyard managed by a Frenchman he’d brought to the colony just for that purpose!

There have been many other American social movements founded on ideals of simplicity, austerity and a desire to get off the get-and-spend pinwheel. Thoreau, Emerson and the Transcendentalists professed those ideals in the 1840s; the Voluntary Simplicity movement that sprouted in the cities like Madison and Seattle did much the same thing in the 1980s. On the very extreme edge are freegans, a loose group of anti-capitalist, anarchist, animal rights activists. Their primary goal is to live outside the money economy, without earning or spending any cash. So they squat in buildings rather than rent or own, dumpster-dive for their food, walk or bicycle everywhere they can, turn abandoned city lots into community gardens. One freegan I interviewed, a New Yorker named Adam Weissman, told me that his total expenses come to less than $100 a month, mainly for subway Metrocards and the occasional phone card. But even among freegans, there’s a broad range of adherence to the ideal of a moneyless existence. Some freegans even own houses.

So the truth is, a lot of groups have tried to live outside of mainstream consumer America, but it’s tough to do (and that’s a huge understatement). We’re surrounded by messages to shop and spend and buy; it’s no wonder a lot of communities that try to adopt an adversarial relationship to consumerism can’t always live up to their own ideals.

CS: Why do you think Benjamin Franklin made Poor Richard poor? Was his alter-ego able to get away with saying certain things, or to have a certain interesting perspective because he didn’t have money?

LW: Franklin’s alter ego was humble, poor and a bit dim-witted – in many ways, the exact opposite of his creator (Franklin was vain, brilliant and wealthy enough to retire at the age of 42). Franklin understood that Americans didn’t want to be preached to, that sanctimonious lectures were about the least effective way to get through to people. So I think Franklin made Richard Saunders as relatable and unthreatening as possible. After all, this was the daft but thoughtful Poor Richard who told readers of his almanac one year that, “To oblige thee the more, I have omitted all the bad weather, being thy Friend R.S.”

CS: Where do you think the line is between the good sort of cheap (being prudent and not buying things unnecessarily) and the bad sort of cheap (not paying your share when the group dinner bill comes around)?

LW: This is a tough line to draw. Sure, there’s an ugly side of cheapness, like that dinner-check dodger (for the record, I always pay my share and am a generous tipper, thanks to many summer jobs working as a waitress). I’ve got no tolerance for people who are cheap at others’ expense.

I once heard a story about a couple in East Hampton, the ritzy resort town about two hours east of New York City. Apparently, this well-to-do couple would go out to fancy restaurants toting their own thermos full of cosmopolitans. I’m kind of appalled by that. My feeling is, if you want to save money that badly, either don’t go out to expensive joints in the first place, or have your cocktail at home and then drive (very carefully) to the restaurant. If I were their waitress, I’d be really steamed.

However, this isn’t always such an easy distinction to make. Is my father being good-cheap or bad-cheap when he drives out of his way to get gas for a penny or two less per gallon? Is he being good-cheap or bad-cheap when he obsessively turns off lights in our house? As a rule, he’s extremely ascetic with himself, but generous with others. That’s my favorite kind of cheapness – personal austerity and public generosity.

CS: What are some ways that people spend money (and lots of it) that will never make sense to you?

LW: The one that immediately springs to mind is enormous, energy-guzzling houses (the average new house built in 2003 was 38 percent larger than a house built in 1975, despite having fewer occupants).

That said, I really do understand the desire to have nice things. I’m sure I have habits and indulgences that would make other cheapskates cringe. My winter boots cost $350. I once took a boyfriend out for a $200 sushi dinner, with no regrets. The ways we spend money are personal, eccentric and deeply inconsistent. That’s what makes human beings interesting. I try to keep that in mind whenever I’m tempted to get preachy about other people’s spending.

Also, there’s a difference between spending a lot of money and spending beyond your means. If you’re Bill Gates and you can easily shell out $5,000 for a suit (not that he seems to do that; he usually looks pretty schlubby), then that raises an interesting question: Is “over-spending” simply a practical issue of what a person can afford without going into debt, or are there other considerations at work? I believe we need to put spending decisions in that bigger context – even if Gates can afford to own 12 houses and 60 Armani suits, he’s using more than his share of natural resources, and he’s also raising the bar for other moguls and aspiring moguls. It’s that “keeping up with the Joneses” you mentioned earlier – cycles of competitive spending in which the people at the top set the standard that others aspire to, and it trickles down to ordinary people. In the end, this contributes to an amped-up consumer culture that’s driving Americans into debt and killing our environment.

CS: What are some of the strangest ways you’ve heard of people saving money?

LW: Whenever I told people about my book, they’d offer up great stories from their families. One person told me that his great-aunt Sophie and great-uncle Abe owned a fruit stand during the Depression. They gave up toilet paper and instead used the wax paper squares the fruit came wrapped in. According to another relative, the wax paper didn’t work too well “but your tuchus never smelled so good!” (Tuchus is Yiddish slang for derriere.)

My friend Erik uses the milk left over in his kids’ cereal bowls to lighten and sweeten his morning coffee. He also puts a jug underneath the faucet when he’s waiting for the water to heat up for his shower, and then he uses the cold water for his plants and his dog’s water bowl.

Back in the 1970s, when postage was cheap and phone calls were expensive, my cousin Paul left an answering-machine message for my father. Three days later, Paul received a postcard in the mail from my father. Instead of calling back, my dad had just written a short note and figured that would suffice.

My friend Kiki’s family used to go to Cape Cod every summer for a week. But her father was really cheap, and he didn’t want the kids to use towels on the beach, because then they’d have to go to the Laundromat to wash them. So Kiki and her siblings had to air-dry after getting out of the ocean. That story really stuck with me – her family would splurge on a week by the beach, but then stress out about getting the towels dirty. At first, that story seems crazy. But I really do understand it. The vacation was probably a stretch for Kiki’s parents, but they made it work (psychologically and financially) by being nutty about the little expenses.

I could go on…. There are so many stories.

CS: In recent years especially, the idea is presented that it is good, even patriotic to spend money. After 9/11, that’s what citizens were told to do. This would mean that the flip side (not spending money) is bad and unpatriotic. Thoughts?

LW: Americans have really internalized that message. And it started long before 9/11; after World War II, economists and politicians promoted the idea that consumer spending would save the American economy from another depression. And we ate it up. A story in Brides magazine in the early 1950s told young women that “what you buy and how you buy is very vital in your new life – and to our whole American way of living.” This was the post-war gospel.

But clearly, we’re out of balance. If there’s anything our current recession should tell us, it’s that an economy built on debt is not sustainable. In the end, the house of cards always falls down.

CS: Do you think that the day will come when cheapness won’t be something that the average person is ashamed of? Will we get to the point that people will be bragging about how cheap they are?

LW: Doesn’t everyone have a friend who says, “I got these hand-tooled leather cowboy boots for only $5 at a yard sale”? A lot of people boast about their bargains or their cheapskate habits. Many brave souls tried to one-up me while I was writing the book, but my story about how my father uses hand signals instead of his car’s turning signals almost always takes the cake.

We are in a moment right now when cheap is chic, thanks to the recession. I think this will prove to be a flash in the pan, though. As soon as the economy recovers, Americans will cheerfully re-set their consumer appetites a notch or two higher than before. History shows that forced retrenchment rarely has a lasting effect. So I expect to see Hummers and $5,000 handbags making a comeback in a couple of years.

But I hope those people who are cheap won’t be afraid to come out and proclaim it for all to hear. Say it loud, say it proud: We re-use tin foil! We drive 15-year-old cars! Our socks come from thrift stores! We’re cheap!