MONEY

The new frugality

You can learn a lot about life in recession-era America by hanging out in the aisles of Wal-Mart. “Wal-Mart managers are often the first people to sense a recession is coming because they’ll notice an increase in items discarded near cash registers, a signal that anxious shoppers are reconsidering purchases,” a recent Newsweek story observes; shoppers are also more likely to be carrying lists these days, a sign that they’re trying to cut down on impulsive spending.

But it’s not just what people don’t buy that changes in a recession. In Wal-Mart, at least, they’ve seen a strange upsurge in sales of, of all things, $5 toilet seats. Apparently “unemployment and cocooning are leading people to put more wear on their home bathrooms, and they’re choosing [Wal-Mart's] $5 seats over pricier ones at Home Depot.”

As someone who spent a good portion of his early adult life dead broke — hey, grad school will do that to you — I know all about frugality. Making lists, avoiding impulse buys, shopping at discounters like Wal-Mart or Target — that all makes good sense, recession or no. But it’s one thing to shop smart, and another thing to make a fetish of frugality.

That’s why I tend to get so depressed reading misguided “frugal” advice in newspapers and on the web. Sure, I like a money-saving tip as much as the next guy, but I don’t like wallowing in self-abnegation. It’s one thing to scrimp on decorations for a party at home. But does it really do anyone any good to host a “frugal-living party,” as Chicago’s Daily Herald recently suggested?

“Instead of latex balloons, reuse tissue paper you have saved from previous holidays,” the article suggests, “Tissue paper can be made into giant flowers that can be suspended from the ceiling with monofilament. Since they are up and out of the way, they can be reused for future parties.” Even better: “Clean up can be a part of the party. Mix up homemade cleaners, and demonstrate how well they work.”

Yeah, sorry, I don’t think I can come that night. I’ve got a new toilet seat I need to test out.

There have even been attempts to make political capital out of the new frugality. Take Sean Hannity’s recent critique of President Obama’s choice of condiments on a recent excursion to a local hamburger joint. The President requested some “spicy mustard … or dijon mustard, or something like that,” which Hannity took as a demand for Grey Poupon. You know, the evil French mustard preferred overwhelmingly by rich geezers in limos.

Now, it would have been on thing if Obama had scarfed down a $1000 “Golden Opulence” Ice Cream Sundae (with 23k gold leaf) at New York’s Serendipity or even a $55 Mac and Cheese (with truffles ) at the Waverly Inn. (Yes, both of those dishes, and both of those prices, are real.) But … Grey Poupon on a $7 hamburger?

Grey Poupon costs $4 a jar, not $400. It’s made in Connecticut, not France. Heck, you can even buy it at Wal-Mart. Pick some up the next time you’re shopping for toilet seats.

–David Futrelle

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