What’s the difference between cheap and thrifty? What makes society waiver between embracing thrift and frugality and shunning it in preference for luxury and avarice? In her book, In Cheap We Trust: The story of a misunderstood American value, author Lauren Weber discusses these and many other questions as she examines the historical relationship we have with being cheap and thrifty.
Starting back with Benjamin Franklin and his sayings, examining the imposition of cheapness on Jews and Chinese (presumably in an attempt to negate their economic competition), and ending with dumpster diving and hoarding, Weber delves into the psychology of thrift. She asks questions about what causes it, what accelerates it, what it does to us, and how we view our world as a result of it.
I really loved reading this book and I’m sure that readers of The Wisdom Journal will as well! Some of my favorite sections were those written about Benjamin Franklin, who penned so many of our thrifty and frugal sayings. Weber mentions a voyage that Ben Franklin took, noting how he had taken care of all his business prior to sailing. On the voyage, he found himself somewhat bored but still managed to write, examine how the Gulf Stream worked, and notice how the grease dumped overboard behaved on the surface of the sea (remember that this trip took FOUR weeks).
Even after Franklin had published many of his thrift sayings, the book notes that:
[His] essay stood out at the time, with its encouragement of industriousness and thrift, as a piece of uncommonly good sense. But the truest words in the whole sermon might we be the ones at the end, poking fun at the simple fact that, even though people usually know what’s good for them, they rarely act on that information. Franklin knew this quite well: you can tell people to work hard and save their money, but when the markets open, all that good advice drains away like so many shillings in a torn pocket.
It’s a real problem, one I struggle with everyday — doing what I KNOW I should be doing and fighting the urge to be lazy, concerned primarily with my own personal comfort.
Part of our problem with accepting thrift as a way of life stems from the shear abundance available to us. Never before had any people, so steeped in industriousness and frugality as a result of the Puritan and Quaker roots, been faced with opportunities such as those offered by America.
Weber later examines her own history with frugality. Her father would set the thermostat at fifty degrees and, though she resented him for it, later found herself drawn toward frugality like a moth to a flame, walking, for example, thirty blocks to avoid a two dollar subway fare. Indeed, the apple never falls too far from the tree!
This book is a treasure trove of the history of frugality and thrift and would make a fantastic resource for anyone interested in it.
If you would like to win my advanced reading copy (the book will be available in September), simply leave a comment on this post. I’ll select one winner via a random number generator and mail the book to you (I pay the postage). The drawing will be held September 4th. Remember, an advance copy has no page numbers in the table of contents and may actually be altered in its final version!