Tightwad Chic, Baby!
October 12, 2002 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Tightwad Chic, Baby! The Thrift Revolution Begins! According to today's Observer, prodigality is out and thrift is in. Magazines like Budget Living and Cheap Date are thriving, while good old Tightwad Gazette and Frugal Fun have become modern classics of extreme mean-fisted hedonism. Can Cheapskate Cool, as practiced by Jarvis Cocker and other figureheads of popular culture, be a long way off? Is saving fun? Does it hit capitalism where it hurts or merely reinforce it? Or perhaps (sorry, can't resist!) you yourself have some penny-pinching tips of your own...
posted by MiguelCardoso (34 comments total)
Myself, I try not to eat. That saves money pretty good.

Frugality is an interesting question. Relating to food, is it better to buy cheap food (which is frugal, but perhaps bad for you) or quality food (which is expensive, but tastes better and more nutritious)?

My ex-girlfriend and I argued about that quite a bit. She lived like a pauper so she could splurge on locally-grown, organic food. I ate crap like bologna and mustard on white bread so I could afford things like a car and insurance.

Great collection of links, Miguel.
posted by rocketman at 8:01 PM on October 12, 2002

Thriftstore chic is nothing new here in the US, and I find it rather amusing that people are trying to put a political spin on it.
posted by MrBaliHai at 8:10 PM on October 12, 2002

Looks like I've been trendy for decades.

If only a foul personal odor would become hip, I could start dating again.
posted by dong_resin at 8:28 PM on October 12, 2002

I have found clothes that still had the price tags on at Goodwill. I have decorated my house with objet d'art from yard sales (in the good parts of town, natch). Ah, the thrill of the chase...
As for cheap eats, I recommend the humble bean. But take it slow, or make sure no one stands behind you for several weeks.
posted by konolia at 8:28 PM on October 12, 2002

I'd argue that rocketman's frugality wasn't, really. There is a cheap and healthy middle ground - non-organic fruit and veggies, tofu, beans etc - between eating crap like bologna and white bread (which I love, don't get me wrong) and exorbitant organic produce.

It's quite possible to live well without buying stuff (which leads one into digitally reproducing copyrighted materials for personal use in order to feed one's brain, perhaps), but unfortunately it's very difficult indeed to avoid taxes, which are most people's single largest cash outflow in life. If you can manage to reduce your taxes and wean yourself from buying stuff that isn't essential, you've made some major progress. Also, if you have credit cards, do not under any circumstances carry debt on them. They are evil, and will destroy you if you are anywhere near the edge of being in financial distress.

There are lots of things that (sometimes, depending on circumstance) you can do without. I've only owned a car for about 18 months out of the last 18 years, for example. I haven't had insurance of any kind for about the same length of time, except for the few times when an employer provided health coverage. Despite the fact that I spend much of my waking life in front of a computer, mine is getting old and rickety and I will probably continue to use it until it gives up the ghost...

Once you've really gotten into the frugality thing (which I prefer to think of as 'living below your means'), it's time to start whacking all that lovely excess cash away. I set a monthly goal of saving 50% or more of my net income, and have met it every month (except for the couple of months around the time when I moved from Australia to Korea in 2001) for the last 6 years or so. Sadly, most of those 6 years I wasn't actually making very much money, but c'est la vie, huh?

That's all obvious stuff, probably, but what the heck. My two bits as someone who's lived through feast and famine (but mostly famine).
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:31 PM on October 12, 2002

Also, don't have children! Or if you have them already, put 'em to work in the coal mines...
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:41 PM on October 12, 2002

No shit. My daughter will be the bankruptcy of me.

I love her so much, really. But that's the thing. You have no idea what kids will do to your schedule and your budget. Suddenly, instead of spending some money on the occasional trip to the theater or a pint at the local tavern, you're buying Powerpuff Girls backpacks and Happy Meals.
posted by rocketman at 8:52 PM on October 12, 2002

But you get to play with the toys.
posted by konolia at 9:00 PM on October 12, 2002

In a prison cell in Massachusetts, George Constanza cracks a knowing smile...
posted by UncleFes at 9:03 PM on October 12, 2002

You can substantially reduce the oligosaccharides (Greek for "causes tons o' gas") in beans by covering the beans with a lot of water, bringing them to a boil for a minute or two, stirring in a couple of tablespoons of baking soda, letting them sit overnight, and then draining them and rinsing them well. This has the additional benefit of substantially reducing overall cooking time and, therefore, being thrifty (and creating a semblance of relevance to the topic at hand).
posted by anapestic at 9:12 PM on October 12, 2002

Excellent question Miguel. What an irony that saving money may end up being a sign of rebellion. Everybody is working so hard to try and convince us to spend our money (at some point last year consuming was even consider an act of patriotism) that refusing to spend it may become an anticapitalist stance...

Those magazine editors seem to be missing the point though: do you think that someone who has decided to spend his money as wisely as possible will be willing to pay for a lifestyle magazine? Is that what any kind of rebellion or desire to life a coherent life must end up like? as another lifestyle that can be marketed and packaged for public consumption?...
posted by blogenstock at 9:17 PM on October 12, 2002

Though not a giant fan of Veblen (the sociologist who gave us the notion of 'conspicuous consumption'), I seem to recall he made an interesting point about this whole process. He said that when everyone had adopted conspicuous consumption - when everyone believed in trying to impress one another through material possessions and had the material affluence to pursue it; that the "in-group" of the times (in our day, well-to-do professionals) would seek to differentiate itself from the "out-group" by _inconspicuous_ consumption - choosing tastefully inornate objects that only the 'in-group' would know the value of and that appeared worthless or useless to others, supposedly to show their contempt for the material scrabbling of their "inferiors".
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 9:38 PM on October 12, 2002 [1 favorite]

do you think that someone who has decided to spend his money as wisely as possible will be willing to pay for a lifestyle magazine?

No, but people who don't have the money to spend on a lavish lifestyle might buy it to make their friends think their frugality is intentional.
posted by kindall at 10:22 PM on October 12, 2002

Well, this is a new spin on things.

In the frugality movement of a few years ago, books like Your Money or Your Life and Voluntary Simplicity taught us to figure out the things that we truly valued, and abandon all notions of keeping up with fashion.

Now we're supposed to keep up, but do it on the cheap.

Frankly? Screw fashion. Keeping up with Friends (or this new "simple" style!) is still as much of a sickness as it ever was, no matter how cheaply you do it. This new trend rings hollow; a temporary poultice for a weak economy.

I loved this bit especially:

'People come in and say, "It's great to find real things again."

My question is this: did they really need those things, or is this about marketing simplicity? It certainly sounds like the latter to me.
posted by frykitty at 11:01 PM on October 12, 2002

do you think that someone who has decided to spend his money as wisely as possible will be willing to pay for a lifestyle magazine?

see, this is why i love those bookstores with comfy chairs. i can read the lifestyle magazines that i can't afford [or choose not to spend my money on, depending on my financial situation] but i don't have to actually spend the money.
posted by zorrine at 11:29 PM on October 12, 2002

Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa--

Jarvis Cocker is now considered a figurehead of popular culture?
posted by Karl at 11:38 PM on October 12, 2002

During my years as the requisite "starving student" I saved up some money and invested in a freezer. I made a point of buying certain foods in season or when on sale and freezing them. I could also make certain meals in bulk (lasagna, sheperd's pie, etc.) and freeze smaller meal-size portions for future use.
As some have mentioned, a few good recipes can also help... such as pasta or bean-based ones, as well as one of my favorites -- "Indian Bread" a First Nations recipe that makes a heavy bread similar to bannock. (I'm from the Mi'kmaq First Nation myself.) Cheap to make and great to go with soups, stews and chilie.
There was also a chain of thrift stores that had just opened up at the time I was in college and I used to find some great bargains, some still with price tags on them.
When looking to purchase larger ticket items, there is a seasonal cycle almost all items. Certain types of items regularly go on sale during certain times of the year and you can often get great buys on some relatively luxury items such as electronics or appliances. For example, one of the best times to buy really fancy fabrics is often in January, after the holiday season, because they are trying to get rid of old stock -- same goes for many electronics; wait until after Christmas...
Speaking of the holiday season, you can often save lots of money by giving home-made gifts to your friends and loved ones. No, I'm not talking about tacky crocheted afgans. But if you have a computer, perhaps you could make a custom mix of music for someone -- with a theme that reminds them of good memories or something else special. For an older member of the family, why not scan in an old photo and do a bit of basic retouching to a damaged but treasured photo of a loved one who is no longer alive... Trust me, lots of tears on that one...
My aunt had a special doll collection; so I bought a basic pattern and scrap fabric and made new outfits for them. That was over 15 years ago and she's kept them all. One year, I couldn't afford a big gift for one of my best friend's baby shower, so I went to the dollar store and made a special gift basket of lots of small but handy items to keep in her travel baby bag -- she loved it. So it doesn't have to be expensive, it's the thought that can make the difference.
Nowadays, I am much better off financially, than my old "starving student" days, but my friends and family have always told me that they still love my hand-made or thought-out and thoughtful but inexpensive gifts the best!
posted by Jade Dragon at 12:20 AM on October 13, 2002 [1 favorite]

It really comes down to this question: what is important to you? The rest is implementation. How do you align available resources to best obtain what you are after? It's not an easy question, for my limited brain at least.

I'm not entirely sure, yet, what it is I want... but I know enough to tell that having lots of stuff is rather the opposite direction. Possessions bring responsibility, and what kind of fun is that? I would not think more than twice about getting rid of my furniture, because it's all replaceable. But I have a beautiful antique silver saxophone that I repaired and polished myself; it would be very hard to give it up. So, wherever I go and whatever I do, I somehow have to make sure I have somewhere to put the saxophone. I can't imagine what it would be like if I had, say, a really nice antique living room set. How that would close off options! - no matter what was going on in my life, I'd have to find a place to live that had enough room for all the furniture, which means that I'd have to have income to pay for the rent or mortgage on such a place, and the whole rest of the lifestyle just falls in place from there.

I'm willing to pay extra for good food because it is one of the things that makes me feel like my life is a good place to be. I'm willing to spend money travelling places and experiencing things. I'm even willing to spend extra money to live downtown, so I can see the water and live near everything that's happening. I begrudge money spent on stuff, because every dollar spent on acquiring objects is a dollar I can't spend DOING things. Every additional object in my house is one more thing I have to trip over, move around, clean up, and take care of.

It's an old cliche that none of your stuff matters when you're dead... but really, why wait til you're dead?
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:49 AM on October 13, 2002

Calvert DeForest's Cheap Advice: Best. Investment. Planner. Ever.
posted by Smart Dalek at 11:30 AM on October 13, 2002

I'm suprised how tepid Jarvis came off in that interview. Pulp's album Different Class is one of the few post-punk/Britpop attacks on middle class b.s. and hepster poormouthing.

Oh we weren't supposed to be, we learnt too much at school, now we can't help but think that the future that you've got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.

Speaking as ex-trailer trash who has never owned a home, a car, a new suit, or a substantial piece of furniture, and now gone 10+ years without a credit card or a lease in my own name, I'm not going to share any of my deeply ingrained and highly efficient thrifty tips with y'uns. You can find out how to get cash for your foodstamps on your own. Poverty chic can be co-opted once again, as it is every decade but, as Jarvis says, "we'll use the one thing we've got more of -- that's our minds."
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:43 AM on October 13, 2002

Blogenstock: What an irony that saving money may end up being a sign of rebellion ... refusing to spend it may become an anticapitalist stance...

But saving or investing that excess money fuels capitalism, too. You could donate it to a nonprofit, but then you're creating jobs. You could simply burn it, I suppose, but then you're deflating currency for everyone else...

Bottom line: capitalism is far too smart, agile, and powerful to defeat. It will absorb your rebellion and sell it back to you for twice what you paid originally.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:13 PM on October 13, 2002

By the way, did anyone else find that TheBlowUp article to be the silliest tripe? He chews up everything from Homer to particle physics -- and still somehow manages to misspell "vain."

"Erotic tension," my ass.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:27 PM on October 13, 2002

It's all about carrying no debt. That step alone is good enough to reinforce good (or at least better) spending habits.
posted by jragon at 2:21 PM on October 13, 2002

You people will be the ruin of society. You need to consume, the more conspicously the better. The markets depend on it. Our jobs depend on it. Oh sure, I suppose if you learned to live really cheap you could skip the whole employment thing - but you'll all live in caves! With no power! No gamecubes! No internet! You'll wear animal skins or worse, old clothes bought at garage sales!

Am I the only one who still cares about society? Philistines, the lot of you.
posted by Salmonberry at 3:30 PM on October 13, 2002

I mean conspicuously. Sorry. You had me so riled up I forgot to spellcheck.
posted by Salmonberry at 3:36 PM on October 13, 2002

I have noticed the most interesting trend recently among my peers: they have everything they need, and thus purchases have declined.

Of course, then they clean up their debt, save some money(which is addictive in and of itself), and find they like it. The next thing you know there is a guy in a three year old North Face jacket, getting DVD's from the library to watch on his two year old Sony DVD player with his 3 year old surround sound system piped through 5 year old speakers, driving his 5 year old Jetta, and carrying no credit card or car loan debt, but paying extra on his mortgage every month. Not a recipe for your average consumer led economic recovery, but perhaps a good micro-econ choice for individual consumers.

Anyone else hearing "but I don't need anything" amongst your friends?

Me? I have a daughter in college, I need a beer. Which is lucky, since that's about all I can afford now.
posted by dglynn at 4:01 PM on October 13, 2002

Don't put baking soda in your beans. Messes up the nutritional value.

Go buy beano if you are that desperate.
posted by konolia at 4:21 PM on October 13, 2002

Tightwad Chic, Baby!

The caps took me by surprise. Guess on preview it didn't look right without..?
posted by Shane at 5:20 PM on October 13, 2002

Budget Living---hmm gardening in back yards, buying wine, 401 Ks, $500 bucks on trivial bedroom decoration. Doesnt sound like my working class life. Will this be like Simple Living with its $600 dollar sweaters and $100 dollar ingredients just to whip up a simple dinner of truffle-oiled salmon steaks?
posted by Budge at 6:15 PM on October 13, 2002

I buy everything second hand except some clothes and food. Saves tons of money. Use library for entertainment. Learn to cook from scratch and buy food from local farmers. Move to a rural area---(with a job attached of course) where costs are far lower. Sell ebay to pay your internet bill. Never purchase a car on credit.
posted by Budge at 6:23 PM on October 13, 2002

Also, don't have children! Or if you have them already, put 'em to work in the coal mines...

I have been trying to put mine to work at the coal face, but the eldest is too smart at 16 to be fooled into believing we are going to the zoo, the youngest is too young at 2 to be worth much, the middle one at 4 ditto and the one on the way ....

Lots of poor years ahead financially, but we will be rich in many other ways, so it's worth it.

Isn't it?
posted by dg at 11:54 PM on October 13, 2002

I used to have just enough money to pay my bills (without a car, a phone, any sort of insurance, or television, it's not that hard), eat at nice but cheap diners, hang out downtown, buy clothes I liked (some second-hand, some not) and buy the occasional overpriced writing implement (my particular weakness). Then I got changed from an independent contractor to an employee, the government starting raping my paycheck, and I will probably not be able to make the rent this month.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 8:09 AM on October 14, 2002

How could your taxes go up as an employee, Ish? As a self-employed person myself I know the big killer is paying the 15% FICA taxes, instead of the 7.5% I would be paying as an employee. So, how'd you go from that to getting your paycheck raped? Lose your home office deduction on your income tax? If you feel you are being hosed at an unjustified rate, adjust your dependents, and pay extra in April. I'm just confused how you could pay more taxes as an employee.
posted by dglynn at 10:09 AM on October 14, 2002

do you think that someone who has decided to spend his money as wisely as possible will be willing to pay for a lifestyle magazine?

Yes. I buy Cheap Date because it's snarky, clever, and generally more about fashion than Vogue or Bazaar (which are courted by advertisers and seem to view fashion as something that happens only on runways).

I think people are willing to spend money on things that last a long time. Sometimes you can find treats at the thrift shop. Other times, you're going to spend serious cash on a handknit sweater that will last decades. But it seems that more people my age (24) are sick of the overabundance of cheap crap at Old Navy, Target, H&M, et cetera. It's just too much, and it's throwaway anyway.
posted by acornface at 10:48 AM on October 15, 2002

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