Several months ago I began to suspect that a new acquaintance had some unusual ideas about money. Her Facebook posts and conversation starters revolved around living a frugal lifestyle and her approach, at least at the time, seemed quite novel. The Great Recession has certainly forced all of us to reevaluate our spending behaviors and tighten up our proverbial belts a few notches. In fact, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) conducted a poll in January that shows many of us are experiencing “frugal fatigue.” Cunningham, an NFCC spokesperson, says that “…66 percent (of respondents), indicated they were tired of pinching pennies… ,” but, “(t)he interesting finding is that more than 20 percent… had implemented financial lifestyle changes that they found to be positive and intended to keep them in place" ("Majority of Americans Have Frugal Fatigue”). I could not find any estimates about how many Americans have adopted extreme frugality, but the 20 percent of respondents in the NFCC’s poll that believe they will continue their frugal ways suggests the number may be very high indeed. At any rate, my new friend talked about her frugality with the same fervor as a religious convert. The only other person I knew who could rhapsodize so joyfully about reused plastic baggies and thrift store finds was my maternal grandmother. I was intrigued and inspired to research this co-culture, or perhaps counterculture, of extreme frugality.
A Brief History
Frugality was once a defining characteristic of early American culture, part of the Puritan value system, but since then it has fallen in and out of favor. The colonists and their pioneering cultural progeny were frugal by necessity and enculturation; wasteful behavior was detrimental to survival and, worse yet, sinful. In times of economic prosperity, however, frugality was largely forgotten. The culture of consumerism reigned in the Roaring Twenties and the two decades after WWII; however, history consistently proves that periods of opulence are usually followed by sharp economic downturns.
I found that America’s frugal culture is roughly divided into two groups: the cohort of senior citizens who survived the Great Depression and their grandchildren, young Americans either just beginning their adult lives or still raising their families. The generation between these two, the Baby Boomers, are less likely to practice extreme frugality merely for the purpose of conserving financial resources, but those who do often fall into the green-and-frugal category. The Boomers I observed had a strong aversion to thrift because they associated it with their parents’ values and a certain “peasant mentality.” Frugal senior citizens are thrifty out of habit. They remember the bad old days when everything was tight and do not ever want to repeat the experience. The younger generation is thrifty by necessity. I found that most people in this age group have a financial goal – buying a house,...