Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Shame of Being Frugal

I've had a number of thoughts rolling around in my head lately. Let me see if I can put them into order:

It started last night when I was going to meet Catie and Shelly for a cocktail to celebrate Shelly's birthday. The location was just a hop, skip and a jump from my apartment - the weather was beautiful - and I am trying to save money, so I decided to walk. But as I went to leave my house, I hesitated. I was still dressed up from work and in high heels, I was carrying Catie's big cookbook (which I had borrowed eons ago) and I had Shelly's gaudily wrapped present* sticking up like some weird sea creature out of my purse. I felt "weird" walking like that. It wouldn't have bothered me if I had been in tennis shoes and jeans, carrying everything in a reusable tote, but as it was I felt awkward. I ignored it and walked on. I couldn't help thinking about it though. Before all this my gut instinct would have been to drive to save myself possible embarrassment.

Then I read an article called Why Do We Get Into Debt. It talks about going into debt as a part of the American culture. It made me think. Americans not only have a drive for instant gratification, but also we have a real sense of shame in not being able to spend money foolishly. It isn't a recent thing either. I've read books by American authors living in Paris in the 20's and being proud of living hand to mouth - or worse. There is something "cool" about being broke and still extravagantly going down to the bar and buying a round. My friend Tommy was telling me that when he was living in Germany he found himself thinking about all the ethnic stereotypes and what they meant. He asked himself, "So what are Americans? What are we good at?" The answer he came up with: Americans are good at being consumers.

But what I wonder about is, are we good at being consumers solely because we like to have things? Or is there a level of shame in being thrifty, in being frugal? Are we afraid of looking less like Henry Miller and more like Grandma Mildred? How often do we make purchases just to look good?

It is something I am going to have to put some serious consideration on. There is a big difference in saving for something you truly want and will get use out of - and doing something because you are ashamed of what people will think if you don't.

*Catie and I went in on Shelly's gift - a gift certificate. I wanted it to look nicer than just some sheet of paper I printed off on my printer so I spent some time wrapping it. I rolled it up and put it in a glass test tube that had held vanilla beans, then wrapped it with blue cellophane and silver ribbon, and as a topper stuck a sage green metallic fake branch on it. It actually came out kind of cool and I was happy with it. I did it all with things I had around the house - recycling the tube and the paper, and the branch was from a display I made awhile back. Total cost of wrapping $0.


passivefamilyincome said...

Nice post. I find your post to be very true for most American's. I think it is a social thing in our country to want to look nice, drive nice cars, and have big expensive homes. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

cdreher said...

This is a huge problem for me.... "keeping up with the Joneses". I don't need new furniture. I don't need a bigger tv. I don't need those fantastic earrings from that new little boutique. Why do I feel so tragically unhip for being smart enough to recognize that?

Dawn said...

Thanks for your comments!!

There are two sides to this I think - though they are both of the same coin. One is the thrill of having all the material goods, and the other is that "uphip" feeling Catie mentions that we get when making wise decisions. What is that? Why do we find self destructiveness cool and practicality boring? I know it is something I need to guard against.