In Cheap We Trust: The story of a Misunderstood American Virtue by Lauren Weber. Back Bay Books, October 2010.
I've already mentioned this book once, but I could write an entire series dissecting why this is a fantastic analysis of the American character in relation to money. I realize that that sentence doesn't make it sound very appealing, but it's seriously fascinating. Just taking a cursory view of American history, we shifted from Puritain values of thrift to wartime rationing, to the roaring twenties to the great depression. We always seem to know that we're supposed to be saving, but easy credit gets the best of us each time. When it's all written down like this, it's both horrifying a fascinating how we as a nation keep making the same mistakes in a slightly new way. It certainly re-validates my personal desire to be thrifty and remain that way, but even I have only come to this conclusion after falling victim to the same ideas that always bring us down.
A new appreciation for Home Economics class
Actually, I should amend that to an appreciation for Home Economics class, because it was a joke to me before. In my school, Home Ec was for the lazy, for the kids that were scared of the shop teacher and for the kids that knew taking shop meant doing a little bit of math. We did the lessons in cooking and sewing, but we also had a Mary Kay beauty consultant come in twice, which seriously undermined any actual lessons we were supposed to be learning. Prior to reading this book, I had never even really considered the name Home Economics and what it actually means. Basically, the men went off to earn the money, and it fell to the women to run the home as efficiently as possible. This means knowing how to get a good price on food, how to prepare it, how to sew and mend clothes--basically all of the things that I'm trying to reach myself at age 31 and lamenting that I didn't know before.
My Home Ec class has changed its name to Family and Consumer Sciences, but still didn't really tell the students that even if you're not going to be a housewife, you will still run a house someday. There is a huge opportunity to teach high school students practical skills that they will actually need someday, but that message doesn't seem to get through. If anyone else has had a better Home Ec experience, I'd love to hear it, otherwise, I feel like I might end up lobbying my way into local schools to save today's youth from themselves!
The notion of the good life has been pervasive in our history.
We have always had the ideal of The American Dream, but we've always let the haves dictate history more than the have nots. "Despite the flashy 1920s images of Gatsby et al., many Americans still lived in poverty having missed out of the decade's gains. In 1929 The Brookings Institution reported that 60 percent of Americans lived on less than $2000 per year, barely able to provide for basic necessities, yet they were inundated with images of the good life." (148). Sure history is written by the victors, but why do we always celebrate extravagance and waste more than we do hard work and practicality. It's sexier, I suppose, but again, it's this whole cyclical notion of thinking that becomes really apparent when you just focus on our nation's history with money.
The Tightwad-Spendthrift scale.
Carnegie Mellon did a survey of consumer behavior (which you can take, if you like) that indicated that people who fall into the category of tightwad actually have a physical reaction to spending money i.e. it's not always just cheapness, for these people, it's actually difficult to spend. Likewise, the spendthrifts have a hard time not spending money, even if it's money they don't have. Personally, I've gone through phases of both, and it depends on what I'm buying. Sometimes I wake up knowing I need to buy milk, but just not wanting to. Sometimes I wake up knowing that I don't need a new black cardigan, but it's all I can think about. I go back and forth and I think I fall more into the middle area of unconflicted consumer.
I'm sure we've all seen, just in observing human behavior, that all of us spend in different ways, but it's interesting to learn the though process (or automatic attitude) that goes into buying things.