In Cheap We Trust

A cheapskate herself, Lauren Weber considers how and why Americans spend.

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Here we are again: Even as the recession groans onward, box stores and boutiques alike are attempting to pry dollars from our clenched, fearful fists. This year, Black Friday came a few Fridays early, proving that holiday hype can not only extend a “season,” but wring extra hours out of the day, something we used to think was fixed by, say, Earth’s orbit around the sun.

But money – or commerce, as Lauren Weber might put it – can make the impossible possible. Or so we think. Weber’s first book, In Cheap We Trust, is a treatise on Americans’ proclivity to spend. It’s a habit she has spent her life avoiding: Raised by a cheapskate father who used tea bags 12 times and never turned the heat in their New England home higher than 50 degrees, Weber inherited his frugal outlook on life. As an adult, she’s made her own laundry detergent, acquired new clothes by swapping or through occasional trips to Goodwill, and, at one point, pulled 20 percent of the food she ate in a week out of dumpsters.

That’s not, she knows, how most of us want to live – nor, she concedes, did she, after the two years she spent living off a modest book advance. But there is a lesson in that kind of denial, and therein lies Weber’s book.

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In its early chapters, the book is descriptive, tracing our ideas about spending and saving through time. Later chapters about the recent financial crisis or ecoliving tend to be slightly more pedantic. Overall, the book moves like a fugue whose themes cycle back on themselves: War begets hoarding, and peace begets spending. It’s a song older than the thrift stamps of World War I, or the Consumer’s Victory Pledge of World War II. When Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin extolled frugality as a virtue, they were thinking of the future republic – so ennobled, thrift would “hold men’s ambitions in check and keep them honest” – but they were also reacting to the deprivations of fighting the Revolutionary War.

If the story of American spending and saving is a fugue, Weber’s book also urges us to consider who’s in front of the orchestra conducting. Her argument – at first subtle, and, as we near the recent economic crisis, increasingly blunt – is that spending, or not, is also, and always, political. As she traces our financial proclivities through time, Weber’s book is as much a social history of the United States as it is an interrogation of our misunderstood virtue. A loosening of the collective purse strings ends up freeing women from the oppressive daily grind of home economy; no more pretending earwax is Chapstick or making your own soap. When the consumer economy shifted, so did women’s attention – from what they had to make to get by, to what they could afford to buy. Suddenly women were double-entry bookkeepers, chief executives of the home – and, as we know, eventually outside it.

Weber’s book is full of delicious stories, like an idiosyncratic female millionaire who never spent more than a few pennies of her fortune, even at the height of Victorian-era indulgence. The best nuggets in the book, though, are those surprises that speak to a collective reality. As Americans debated how to deal with growing poverty in the early 20th century, one response was the “pauper auction” (Weber doesn’t say in how many towns or with what degree of frequency these auctions happened). The indebted individual was auctioned like a slave to the family who placed the lowest bid: The family “got another mouth to feed but also an extra pair of hands to put to work” and the town paid off the pauper’s debts. At the other end of the spectrum is a Midwestern millionaire’s “poverty social.” His guests showed up in rags and ate scraps off uncomfortable wooden benches; it was, as a journalist recorded it, a hit. The anecdotes reveal as much about shifting American sociology as they do about the more narrow question of how we feel about thrift.

But the drone of Weber’s fugue remains steady: The American conversation about and relationship to money hasn’t changed much in the last 200 or more years. One prominent early-19th-century figure wrote that charity encourages the poor “to rely on gratuitous and undeserved assistance” and thereby “destroys their sense of dignity and self-respect, degrades them ... and reduces them to ... daily dependence.” Sounds a lot like an argument we heard during the welfare debates of the 1990s.

Just before the Great Depression, Weber writes, consumer debt nearly doubled as the new world of advertisements coaxed Americans into believing they could afford the kind of economic excess that had come to feel like the American dream. And throughout history, Weber finds examples of Americans told that to be a good citizen means to be a good consumer, that to spend is to save the economy.

Weber’s not arguing for a spending freeze, but what she does want is the very thing her book proves we’re not so good at: a little moderation. “This is what I worry about,” she writes, “for myself and for the future of a pleasure-seeking culture like ours: that too much indulgence dulls our appreciation for those treats, those luxuries that punctuate the routines and boredoms of ordinary life.”

She knows our ordinary lives don’t include making our own laundry detergent or dumpster diving, but maybe we could each afford – literally and figuratively – a few more trips to Goodwill.

Jina Moore is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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