The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “In Cheap We Trust”

Lauren Weber, a journalist and lifelong cheapskate, first envisioned In Cheap We Trust as an investigation into how Americans strayed so far from thrift, that virtue supposedly so integral to our national identity. She discovered that the financially prudent American is mostly a myth. In almost every generation someone-from Benjamin Franklin to Thoreau to that guy who wrote Into the Wild -has proclaimed the virtues of the simple life, but in reality, most of us tend toward frugality only when we have to, mainly during wars and downturns, and a public rhetoric emerges to support it.

In between, we buy more than ever, and plenty of rhetoric has supported that, too. Politicians and business interests consciously orchestrated the shopping spree of the ‘50s to keep the United States from slipping into another depression after World War II. As that obnoxious multigenerational laundry ad they play during Mad Men makes clear, the American housewife was their primary target .

Just as often as we’ve praised the fiscally prudent, Weber says, we’ve derided the cheap as ungenerous and anti-American-see the role it has played in derogatory stereotypes of Jewish and Chinese immigrants. No wonder Americans are so anxious about our spending and what other people think of it, even in times of plenty. A 2006 pre-recession study Weber cites in the book found that thinking about a big-ticket purchase produced a synaptic frenzy in the part of the brain that registers pain.

In Cheap We Trust is a defense of thrift, but a sincere, inquisitive one. Weber believes that sustainable economic strength lies in achieving a higher savings rate and not being, for instance, $585 billion in debt to the Chinese. But she also rejects the reliance on low-price disposable retail that Ellen Ruppel Shell critiqued this summer in Cheap ( DoubleX excerpted Shell’s chapter on outlet malls here ) that is bad for the environment and feeds our penchant for instant gratification. Most of all, Weber sets out to prove that a frugal lifestyle is possible. To prove it she goes dumpster diving with the pacifist anarchist Freegans and interviews individuals who live on very little, not for political reasons but because it makes them happier. With admirably little sentimentality, Weber argues that frugality brings freedom. I bought it, guilt-free.