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In Cheap We Trust

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

By Jina Moore / December 28, 2009

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.

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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.

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.


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