Several years back, most readers probably wouldn’t have given a wooden nickel for a book about thrift. But in today's challenging economic environment, Lauren Weber's In Cheap We Trust makes for a most interesting read.

Weber, herself a notorious cheapo and the daughter of the “ultimate cheapskate,’’ gives us a rare look at frugality in America, through historical perspective, provocative questions and great stories about thrifty people.

“This book is a reconsideration of cheapness. It asks why we malign and make fun of people who save money,” Weber tells us in her introduction. “After all, when we as a nation and as individuals are so dangerously over-leveraged, when we’ve watched our global financial system teeter and then tumble because of greed and ill considered spending, when all of us could use a little more parsimony in our daily lives, why is it an insult to be called ‘cheap?’ “

Frugality can definitely be born out of necessity but there are other factors that figure in too—patriotic wartime thrift (“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without’’), the morality movement in which frugality was a virtue because it proved one’s immunity to the temptations of the world, the simplicity movement (think Thoreau) and more recently the environmental movement (eco-cheap) of recycling and generally using/buying less stuff.

And of course, Weber duly notes that you can’t discount the importance of the thrill of the hunt for treasures at bargain prices: “Everyone, even the rich, maybe even especially the rich—loves a bargain.’’

In a book like this, you would expect references to famous frugal people such as Benjamin Franklin and Cotton Mather, but there are also fun stories about ultra-thrifty people—like the author’s father, who forbade the family from turning the thermostat above 50 degrees, and opted to use hand signals out the window of his car instead of the turning lights; Hetty Green, the early 20th-century millionaire who was a “moneybags who lived like a pauper’’; a group of folks who recently embarked on a year-long embargo on buying new stuff; a doctor who uses surgical forceps to hang up his tea bags so he can reuse them two or three times; and Weber herself—who admits to dumpster diving, giving up her car and relying on public transportation and her bike, making her own laundry detergent and “mostly’’ giving up haircuts.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on “Cheapskate Psychology’’ where Weber talks about overspending, underspending, self control and whether people can learn to be frugal or whether it is a trait imprinted on the psyche early in life. She writes: “I often think there’s just something different about the way cheapskates think. . . . But as frugality rolls back into fashion, a lot of books promise that it’s trainable.’’

To that end, the author gives her readers resources in the form of books and Web sites for cheapos. “In the end, I hope that shopping less means that we can make conscious, ethical choices about who we consume when we do spend money,’’ she writes.

Weber, who was a staff reporter at Reuters and Newsday and has written for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, gives us perhaps more than many would want to know about the subject of frugality in this book—but hey, isn’t that what being cheap is all about—getting more than you bargained for?

Mary Hance writes a frugal consumer column called “Ms. Cheap” for the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean and is the author of three books, including 99 Things to Save Money in Your Household Budget, due out later this month from Turner Publishing.

 

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