Forgotten Virtue: Thrift
“Thrift,” said the Roman philosopher Seneca, “comes too late when you find it at the bottom of your purse.” The truth behind that age-old adage is painfully obvious to millions of Americans today.
In Tough Times, Americans Rediscover a Forgotten Virtue
Reeling from high gas prices, home foreclosures and plans for a taxpayer-financed $700-billion bailout of faltering financial institutions, many of us are chafing at the thrift that has been thrust upon us. The prospect of paying someone else’s debts is particularly irksome for Americans who did nothing to contribute to the mortgage crisis that has convulsed our economy.
And although some voters feel reassured by the chicken-in-every-pot promises made by politicians trolling for votes during an economic downturn, many of us do not relish the prospect of watching Uncle Sam play Santa Claus with our hard-earned money.
Painful and exasperating as these belt-tightening times may be, there is a silver lining to our current economic anxiety: Conspicuous consumption may be one of its casualties. After years of embracing the bigger-is-better credo, consumers now seem to be leaning toward a less-is-more philosophy.
What’s trendy has changed. Hummers and McMansions are out. Hybrids and home-cooked meals are in. Second-hand shops and discount stores across America are enjoying a surge in sales, while casinos in Las Vegas — an American Mecca of materialistic excess — are reporting a drop in gambling revenues.
It’s become hip to be thrifty and cool to conserve. Consider the sea-change in our auto preferences, which I witnessed firsthand while car shopping with my husband over the weekend. After retiring his rusted-out, gas-guzzling Ford Explorer a few years ago and replacing it with a sober, sensible Toyota Camry, I had harbored hopes of buying a slightly splashier car next time around — something with more horsepower, more legroom, more pizzazz.
Instead, we’re looking at gawky hybrids and economy cars even smaller than my 14-year-old Toyota Corolla. We’re dreaming about great gas mileage instead of leather seats and sunroofs. And we’re finding, to our dismay, that car dealers are on to our kind. In a reversal from just a few years ago, SUVs and bulkier sedans now boast rock-bottom prices, and gas-sipping compacts that were a steal a few years ago now fetch big bucks.
America’s new thriftiness trend extends beyond buying choices. A new U.S. Census Bureau report released this week found that the number of parents, siblings and other relatives who live with adult heads of households grew 42 percent from 2000 to 2007. The greatest growth — 67 percent — came in the number of parents living with adult children. That’s surely not an ideal arrangement for some parents, but in tight economic times, you do what you have to do. You lean on family.
Today’s trend toward conserving and pooling resources reflects not only financial pressures but also the uneasiness Americans have felt for years about our buy-now/pay-later lifestyle. In a 2004 poll commissioned by In Character magazine, 79 percent of respondents said Americans are less thrifty than they were 50 years ago, 80 percent agreed that “there is a real problem with our ‘throw-away’ society” and 77 percent said we spend too much.
If we had our druthers, most of us would choose never-ending upswings over economic slumps. But there is a certain satisfaction in making our dollars stretch further and sharing our resources with relatives, neighbors and friends. Lean times force us to recognize our dependence on family, faith and life’s simpler joys in a way that salad days do not. And a life driven by the quest for meaning, rather than by a quest for more stuff, surely is a worthy goal, even if it takes financial straits to make us recognize that.
By Colleen Carroll Campbell
Colleen Carroll Campbell. “In Tough Times, Americans Rediscover a Forgotten Virtue.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (September 25, 2008).
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, print and broadcast journalist and former presidential speechwriter. Her website is here.