The basic argument of this book is that America has a paradoxical relationship with the idea of “thrift.” On the one hand, we villainize poor people as those who can’t control their budgets, idolize the millionaires like Warren Buffet who live in normal houses. On the other hand, “cheapskate” is dirty word.
Beneath this larger argument is a thesis about consumerism that becomes clear as Weber recounts the history of “thrift” in American public consciousness. She believes that being cheap is fundamentally opposed to consumerism. The consumerist philosophy is that we have a responsibility as Americans to buy, buy, buy. Being cheap is the responsibility to keep, fix, do without.
She also insists that being “cheap” isn’t actually about money at all (whereas consumerism is). It’s about waste. Her book is full of examples of “cheap” people who donated huge sums to charities. As a self-identified cheapskate, daughter of a religious cheapskate, this is a topic near and dear to her heart.
And, of course, books like this have to have their prescription. She believes that America needs to become cheaper. We throw out too much, we use to much energy, we are too careless. And it will ultimately destroy our souls and our planet. Sure, being cheap during a depressed economic period will lengthen that period. But spending to stimulate the economy is just creating a bubble.
It’s a good book, with lots of interesting information. What bothers me is what feels like an artificial separation Weber makes between being “cheap” and being poor. Weber mentions in passing several times that her idea of cheap is voluntary. This is a history of people choosing to be cheap. There’s no mention in here of the hoarding habits of those who grew up during the Great Depression, or of the self-made men and women who can’t let go of practices born from poverty. The modern day militant thrift people are not scraping together every last dime to feed their children. They live in communes. Mothers on welfare aren’t going on “trash tours” in New York, picking barely damaged lettuce and day-old bagels out of luxury supermarket chains. Suburban housewives are.
Weber is consciously excluding these people and their experience of what it means to be “cheap.” It’s outside her purview. But how, truthfully, can you separate having to live on less from wanting to live on less in our cultural consciousness?