Living cheaply as American value

The Takeaway

This story was originally covered by PRI’s The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

What would Ben Franklin say about the opulence in today’s reality TV shows like “My Super Sweet 16” “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” or “Bridalplasty”? The Takeaway asks: “Is it still an American value to save?” For Lauren Weber, author of “In Cheap We Trust,” shopping for deals is as American as it gets.

The American relationship with spending is a conflicted one. Weber explains, “we have a kind of warring impulse. You know, on the one hand we admire simple living, simplicity, frugality…. On the other hand, we also tend to admire extravagance, over-the-top excess. So, I think you see these warring impulses throughout American history, not just within American culture, but often within individuals themselves.” The evolution of the country’s economy has a lot to do with these contradictory values.

At the turn of the 20th century, Benjamin Franklin’s adage “a penny saved is a penny earned,” meant patriotism. Saving, in the form of putting money in banks and bonds, was a way to invest in the country. Weber says, “the YMCA started something called National Thrift Week in 1917, also encouraging people to buy bonds to support World War I.” By 1966, when Thrift Week was retired, a lot had changed.

The impetus for the new American perspective on spending was World War II. Weber explains:

World War II was not only a military effort. It was also an enormous economic stimulus, and it’s basically what helped pull the US out of the depression. As the war was winding down, politicians and economists became very concerned — without the stimulus of war spending, what was going to drive the economy forward? And there was kind of a consensus that consumer spending would be the new fuel that would move the American economy, continue to raise our GDP, give people jobs, etc.

Although thrift may have been outshone by a desire for more, the American value of saving continues on. Weber points out how inventive Americans can be when they save; as a child, she observed her father using hand-signals to avoid wearing out the car’s turn signal bulbs. He even tried to ration toilet paper in the family home. That kind of effort may make financial sense, but it won’t show up on shows like “My Super Sweet 16.”

“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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