3/27/2017

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Adventures in Low-Cost Living
by Lauren Weber

When I first started working on this book, I believed that thrift was a dying virtue. That's the conventional wisdom, right? But every time I mentioned the subject to someone new, the invariable reaction was "You should talk to my brother." Or grandmother. Or boss. Or husband. some said, "you should interview me." Thrift--or cheapness, frugality, under-consumption, whatever you want to call it--is everywhere. the ubiquity of thrift has become even more pronounced in the last few years, as a combination of hard times and heightened awareness about the environment has spurred Americans into cutting back and questioning the imperatives of our debt-driven economy.

People all over this unlikely country of ours are practicing and thinking about low--cost living. Why do we so rarely hear about them? The story that's told about the United States, both at home and abroad, is that we're a nation of spend-thrifts, a debtor nation, a credit card nation. In the aggregate, that's absolutely true, and the statistics bear it out. But look a little closer and you find a story that's rarely told. On the margins, often quiet and invisible, are pockets of Americans who are questioning and, to varying and sometimes astonishing degrees, opting out of consumer culture.

Sure, there are fringier radicals who view consumption through an explicitly anti-capitalist, anarchist, vegan, animal rights, or human rights lens. But I'm also talking about ordinary people here. There's no single motivation or demographic that describes individuals who consciously reject the get-and-spend ethos of our era. I've spoken to artists, electricians, activists, engineers, environmentalists, teachers, and people with extremely fluid jobs and careers, all of whom fall into this category of under-consumers. Erik Kriss skis to the grocery store during Albany winters in order to save on gas and step more lightly on the planet. My friend Eve Abrams, a part-time teacher in New Orleans, lives cheaply so she can devote more time to writing and making radio documentaries, her real (and often uncompensated) passions. Adam Dowis, an artist and electrician in New York City, just doesn't feel like he's a part of this consumption-driven society. He does most of his work for trade rather than cash: he'll re-wire a restaurant in exchange for a few months' worth of meals. "I hate spending money, but I also hate anyone else spending money," he says with a laugh. What unites all of these individuals is a willingness to think against the grain of consumer culture, to resist the imperatives of the retail-industrial complex: the idea that buying things can make us happy and can help us define who we are. They're rebelling against an age of mass consumption.

For the most part, these rebels operate in their own atomized spheres, mending their appliances, parboiling and then freezing the surplus spinach from their gardens for foregoing new clothes quietly and privately (exposed only, perhaps, to some ridicule from friends and family). Now and then, they organize into a group, or realize their frugal ways connect them to a larger circle. When reporters started writing articles about Compact, a band of San Franciscans who in 2006 decided not to buy anything new for a year besides food and medicines, thousands of people signed on to the group's Yahoo message board. "There was a lot of, Oh, I had no idea there were other people living this way,'" says Shawn Rosenmoss, one of the Compact's original members.

But there are. There are lots of people living on the cheap and, in small personal acts and grand political gestures, undermining the consumerization of daily life in America. In doing so, they're expressing not just their own preferences and politics but also what I've come to believe is a broader discomfort with the consumer society America has evolved into.

Of course, millions of people live cheaply through no choice of their own. I'm talking about poor people, those who struggle to get by as a fact of life. Many of the under-consumers in this chapter live well below what the Bureau of Labor Statistics would call the poverty line. But they're lucky--most of them come from middle-class backgrounds and have college educations. They're "poor" (economically speaking) by choice. Those who are poor--really poor, with far fewer possibilities for upward mobility and financial security--have a much harder row to hoe than the cheapskates I highlight here.

To learn more about how you can save more of your hard earned money and still live a good life, read:
In Cheap We Trust
The Story Of A Misunderstood American Virtue
by Lauren Weber.

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