Review: In Cheap We Trust

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In CHEAP We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American VirtueIn CHEAP We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue was a book I began loving from the first pages.  Lauren Weber is singing my song when she discusses why those who are responsible with their resources are called “cheap,” “tight,” “stingy,” etc.

“We feel a peculiar pleasure in judging what other people do with their money … The censure we heap on others for their expenditures is so intense that it calls to mind Freud’s theories about projection … Teasing (others) for being cheap seems to neutralize some of the confusion or shame  critics feel about their own relationships with money, and perhaps helps them validate their own choices.  I’d call that a cheap shot.”  Preach it, sister!

I’ve often wondered, as someone accused of being “cheap” (by my own relatives, no less!), why it’s thought of as a negative to be a wise steward of the resources allotted to me. Yet, others who spend more than they can afford to are lauded as “generous.”  Something about this always seemed “off.”

Weber traces the roots of frugality in America, and I was intrigued to learn that many of our forefathers had frugality in mind as one of America’s founding virtues:  “Observing the colonists’ appetite for imported luxuries and modern conveniences, they despaired that the Revolution had failed.”

The book is filled with quotes I love:

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly …. This is my symphony.”  ~William Henry Channing

Just when Weber veers close to telling me more than I wanted to know about thrift in early American, I run across a gem like this:  a schoolbook from the late 1800’s – early 1900’s called Gateway to Independence featured monthly lessons on thrift, illustrated by cartoon elves called “Thrifties,” accompanied by verses like

The Thrifties all know how to work;

They earn in many ways,

And a part of what they earn is saved

For they know that banking pays.

I want a little set of Thrifties!  What a cool idea for Happy Meal toys, huh?  (Oops, maybe that’s defeating the purpose …)

I also learned that thrift was formerly an especially prized attribute for women, as an 1875 book quotes: If the woman who has a household to manage be innocent of addition and multiplication; and if she fail to keep a record of her income and expenditure, she will, before long, find herself in great trouble … The most worthless unit in a family is an ill-managing wife, or an indolent woman of any sort. I have to say, that’s quite true.  Looks like the Proverbs 31 woman had it right all along.

The book does tend to bog down in details, and although I think Weber truly tries to be even-handed, my conservative eye was caught by passages extolling Jimmy Carter’s supposed efforts to make our country more frugal, and others tsk-tsking “the deficits left behind by the Bush administration.”  Uh oh; here we go again.

She mentions all the stimulatin’ passed by Obama and only states that “financing these projects is a thorny issue.”  Yeah, yeah – I know how it works.  Deficits run up by Republicans are just bad, while those run up by Democrats require thoughtful monologues.  Some things just never change!

In summary:   I enjoyed the first part of the book, slogged through the middle (although there were some interesting bits), and found myself annoyed by the end’s liberal turn.  Read it and see what you think …

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