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Conspicuous non-consumption

By Melvin Maddocks / March 19, 1981



Ben Franklin should be with us today -- shrewd specs on the end of the nose, and that sunny smile wrapping itself about all those proverbs, like: "A penny saved is a penny earned."

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in the '80's we ex-wastrels of the '70's are in the mood for a whole copybook full of thrifty advice.

Suddenly the Age of Conspicuous Consumption has given way to the Age of Conspicuous Non-consumption.

We buy our car no longer for style or acceleration but according to how many miles it gets to the gallon -- and an extra tow mgp may easily swing our vote. The shelves of our stores are stocked with meat-stretchers and meat-substitutes, which we are not ashamed to purchase with discount coupons. We have become regular Einsteins at computing how much we save by jiggling down the thermostat from 68 degrees to 65.

Poor Richard's master passion has become ours: "Beware of little Expenses: A small Leak will sink a Great Ship."

Every newspaper, magazine, and TV station in the country is running a series on how to plug those leaks with a hundred money-saving ideas

We are advised to change our snobbish attitude about hand-me-downs. One now calls used clothes second-hand chic. They get sold in suburbs, featuring $200, 000 homes, at boutiques with cute names like Encore! and Second Time Around.

You want faded jeans? We'll give you really faded jeans.

And for furniture, Morgan Memorial threatens to become a designer name.

There are thousand marvelous strategies for paring down the budget -- every man his own David Stockman -- and no economy is too small too practice. It is suggested, for instance, that we immediately screw in a 75-watt bulb wherever a 100-watt bulb now resides. If we burn the light 12 hours a day, the 75-watt bulb will save us $1.20 a month, or four cents a day.

As the author of this tip puts it, "Pennies add up to nickels, nickels add up to dimes." Poor Richard couldn't have said it better.

Of course you could just turn off that light now and then, couldn't you?

Our chief complaint against the new breed of Poor Richards is that they have discovered so many ways to plug the leaks they sometimes contradict each other. For example, the wise shopping expert tells us to obtain a freezer so that we can buy food bargains in volume. Makes sense. But meanwhile, just across the ledger, the advocate of the turned-off switch is informing us that a freezer is one of the biggest guzzlers of electricity in the home.

Dilemmas! Dilemmas! What, pray, is the balance of payments between turning up the electric blanket and turning down the thermostat? Do you plug a leak by shopping at those low-rent warehouses on the outskirts of town? Or do you open up a bigger leak at $1.50 a gallon, just getting there and back?

You need a pocket calculator to figure out all the differences -- if your Poor Richard code permits electronic gadgets.

Another problem is that quite a few money-saving ideas involve what may be called rich man's frugality -- tightening the alligator belt, so to speak. Thus only the comparatively rich can afford to buy wood stoves to save themselves money. In fact, only the comparatively rich can afford to buy wood.

As we see it, the danger in the Age of Conspicuous Non-Consumption is the same as it was in the Age of Conspicuous Consumption. You could spend all your time, obsessed with trivial decisions about "life-style." It would just be reverse materialism.

We're all for simplicity. But the purpose of simplicity is to relieve the mind and heart of petty cares. Nothing is gained if one gives the same time and attention to one's hairshirt that one used to give to one's sealskin.

It was Poor Richard (also known as Ben Franklin) who said: "Penny wise, pound foolish" -- not to mention, "T ime is money."