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The Rise of the Nouveau Frugalese Or, Why Those Cups of Coffee Won’t Amount to a Hill of Beans [8 June, 2009]

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My friend P. used to work at a local independent bookstore.  She loved her work, but it didn’t really pay much and she eventually left for a better-paying job.1

This isn’t about the bookstore, or about her second job, but P.’s persistent lack of funds and the day she accidentally found herself at an Avon-run breast cancer seminar.  You know the kind I mean: someone from Avon shows up with a video about donating to breast cancer research.  P. hadn’t been expecting an Avon representative, since the event had been billed as an informal fundraiser at a colleague’s house.  For about half an hour, the captive group watched as the video droned on about how donating to the pink ribbon campaign would contribute to breast cancer research.  As far as P.  could tell, it revealed little about any actual breast cancer research and was really more about feeling good about donating.

P.  sipped the single cup of coffee she’d bought at Starbucks on the way and waited for the video to end.  The lights came back on and the Avon representative talked about how to donate to the cause.  She used Starbucks as an example, in a way we’re all familiar with: “Think about the Starbucks coffee all of you consume daily.  Do the math!  If every one of you gave up that daily second cup of Starbucks, why, that’s $200 a month!  And that’s all we’re really asking you to give up for this cause: a cup of coffee a day!”

As P. put it to me afterwards, this bit of logic was the last straw: “I’d considered giving, maybe, $20 and here was this woman wanting $200?  And, damn it, I didn’t have a lot to make myself happy with, so I was damned if I was going to give up my second cup of Starbucks!”  P. turned the tables on Avon and the women around her by demanding to know why someone like her, already making very little, should be expected to give up the relatively large sum of $200 to a multi-million dollar corporation.  I wasn’t there to hear her speak, but based on what I know of P., I know that her critique must have involved the hypocrisy of large corporations and a stinging analysis of the economic infrastructure that kept wages, especially those of female workers at independent bookstores, at an abysmally low level.

Her ire at being asked to give up a second cup of coffee reminds me of the all-pervasive discourse of frugality.  It seems just a few short years ago when we were being encouraged to buy nothing but the best in Plasma television sets, regardless of whether we could get them to stay on our walls or of the quality of the image.  Today, every morning show features a daily section on cutting corners, making meals for 6 under $10, and hunting for coupons.  I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing, and the mainstream press’s discourse tends to ignore the fact that some of us, like, ahem, writers here at Queercents, have been writing about living frugally before it became fashionable everywhere else.  And, of course, a lot of us have been frugal for a while – we just called it being poor.  Or, to be more proper, since we deny the existence of the poor in the United States, we called it being part of the “struggling middle class.”2

But I’m intrigued by a new twist on frugality that’s been emerging recently.  Today, frugality is not just a necessity for the poor but an accessory for the rich.  The rich are different from you and me: they have more money.3 And now, the logic goes, you can, by eschewing that extra cup of coffee, become, if not like them, at least part of a new and separate category, the nouveau frugalese.

Take, for instance, this possibly apocryphal story about a millionaire named Anton in New York City, who borrowed $5000 for a trip from a bank and left his Ferrari as a security on the loan.  The reason? On his return, he paid back the $5000 plus $15 interest.  The former was obviously easy to repay, and the latter turned out to be the cheapest rate for parking his car while away on his trip.  The web abounds with such tales of rich people’s frugality.  Warren Buffett, we’re told, lives in the same house he bought decades ago and eschews toys (cars and planes, that is).  That’s not in itself a bad thing, unless you sorta like having a lot of houses (given my inability to keep one place straight, I remain mystified by those who own many).

My issue here is with the way in which frugality vis-a-vis the rich becomes a way to pretend that frugality is all it takes to become rich.  Think of the ubiquitous Suze Orman, wagging her finger and reminding us all of our foolish ways – she practically invented the a-coffee-a-day-keeps-the-wealth-away rationale.  But Warren Buffet and the mysterious Anton didn’t make their money being frugal.  They made it by doing stuff with stocks and shares and bonds that the rest of us mere mortals can only simulate as we play around with our 401-ks and worry about the market.

And besides, who says that saving $200 actually leads to much in the long term? In all this a-cup-a-day-adds-up-to-thousands-a-year talk, we’re ignoring the fact that, at least in the United States, saving in a bank doesn’t do you much good, given the piffling interest rates you earn.  Unlike, say Japan, or much of Europe.  When we’re told to be frugal, we’re also told to be the perfect neoliberals and invest in our future by buying up stocks and shares as part of the privatized model of economic sustenance that we’ve all bought into, no pun intended.  In other words, the habit of frugality is not really about saving, and saving and frugality don’t guarantee us any comfort in our retirement if we haven’t spent a lot of money and time pondering about – or paying people to ponder about – our investments.  All this frugality means nothing in a society where 50 million live without health care, and where a single stroke or accident could wipe out all your savings and investments — making your frugality amount to naught.

My friend J. may have put it best when she said: ” I don’t need frugality; I need a job, and health care, and rent money.”

And then, of course, there is the sheer pleasure of indulgence, denied by frugality.  There are the dark thoughts that come at night, as I write this article, thoughts that put my status as a possible, someday member of the nouveau frugalese in jeopardy.  It’s late, and I crave ice cream.  Given my fondness for only the best kind, with no additives and only the finest ingredients (ah, the sad fate of the poor with good taste), I’m torn.  Should I spend $6 of the $80 I have in the bank (nearly 5%) on ice cream, justifying it with a late-night walk to the grocery store?  Or should I chomp on a lesser and, I suppose, healthier, Fuji apple, $2.99 for a bag of 8, and turn to bed smug in the knowledge that I’ve saved money and an artery or two?

You tell me.

1Parts of the anecdote in this piece may be fictionalised/composites of different events and conversations.  Readers, especially those who might know the identity of P., are cautioned not to believe, for instance, that she actually said, ” I was damned…”

2See The Growing Clout of the Nouveau Poor, by Barbara Ehrenreich

3This is a condensed version of a possibly apocryphal conversation between Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway that’s cited quite often as such.  See, for instance, the opening chapter of Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

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