I Highly Recommend Joining This Cult
I am slashing my spending and rethinking my bourgeois ways. You should, too.
Let me tell you about the cult I have joined: the cult of thrift. The indoctrination started gently, with a podcast here, a YouTube video there, about minimalism, debt-free living, frugality, decluttering, zero waste.
Then, before I knew it, I was listening to an American evangelical Christian named Dave Ramsey telling me in his Tennessee drawl that “the borrower is slave to the lender” and that I need to get “gazelle intense” and live on “rice and beans, beans and rice” to get out of debt, be “weird” by having a paid-off house.
Now, having chugged the Kool-Aid, I am slashing my spending and rethinking my bourgeois ways.
Bargain grocery shopping has become a sport. I make soups from scratch and serve casseroles made from cheap cuts of meat. Instead of taking the kids to expensive museum exhibitions to learn about nature, we are spending time in nature. Instead of dance classes, we dance. I am buying less wine, and when I do, it is supermarket wine. Dyeing my hair less, and when I do, using supermarket dye.
And while it would be nice to be original, I am not alone. Mr. Ramsey, a radio host and author who has been preaching the gospel of thrift for decades, has been joined in recent years by a number of overlapping movements, born of the internet and growing concern that stressed-out, debt-ridden consumer culture is unsustainable.
Consider the popularity of the minimalism movement. Two of its most high-profile proponents, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, are friends from Ohio who pursued corporate careers before beginning their journey toward the shedding of things in 2009. They have since built very not-minimal careers out of inspiring others to do the same through podcasting, blogging, writing books and making a documentary that is available on Netflix.
Related to this is the decluttering movement, which reached its peak with Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” a global best-seller that led to Ms. Kondo being named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2015.
There is an abundance of related movements that are focused on finances and living debt-free. Australia has its own proponent, Scott Pape, whose book “The Barefoot Investor” has become one of the country’s best-selling books of all time.
These are messages relevant to our times, with reports in August that United States household debt reached a new peak of $13.3 trillion, an increase of $454 billion from the previous year. In Australia, we have some of the highest levels of household debt in the world, and with no sign of a big increase in wages any time soon, many Australians are having to learn to rein in their profligate ways.
In many respects the modern cult of thrift — with its broad coalition of self-help gurus, former tech bros, evangelicals, financial educators and frugal moms — is a technologically led echo of the thrift movement of the early 20th century, with many of the same strengths and shortcomings.
There is plenty to criticize. That it is about the wealthy and pious trying to impose discipline on the less wealthy. That it is too individualistic in its approach, holding individuals responsible for falling into the very traps set by the economic system they live under.
I feel this most keenly when listening to hardworking callers to “The Dave Ramsey Show” who are in credit-card debt because of a lack of health care. And in many, many cases, callers speak of college debt from doing exactly what society told them they were supposed to do to get ahead.
But with these limitations in mind, there is still much to admire about the cult of thrift, especially when the message is directed toward those with good incomes rather than unfairly applied to people living in poverty. There has long been potential for connection across the cultural and political spectrum on this issue — and the benefits of thrift go beyond the benefits to the individual.
Our culture provides too few emotional payoffs for not spending money. All around us there are carefully designed messages telling us to spend. Letters arrive at our homes “inviting” us to apply for credit cards. Instagram offers us images of people with nicer vacations and trendier clothes and more photogenic food, which can make us dissatisfied with our own. So it is nice to know there are some corners of social media where someone will get excited about the idea of not upgrading your car, not using a credit card.
I am thinking here of Facebook groups dedicated to budgeting and saving, and YouTube channels like Fun Cheap or Free, where Jordan Page, a Mormon mom of five, with another baby on the way, gets super excited about sharing her budget grocery hauls. Or the blog and YouTube channel of the Australian financial adviser Canna Campbell, who offers a glamorous vision of a life of minimalism and saving while still carrying a nice purse. When you see other people doing it, not spending feels more like a creative challenge connected to a sense of purpose, rather than deprivation.
And after four months of learning from the thrifty and living more frugally, the unexpected consequence is that it has not just reduced my spending but has also improved my quality of life and satisfaction with life. Less time shopping for new consumer durables to bring into the house means more time enjoying and caring for the things we already have. More time is spent doing rather than acquiring, cutting flowers from the garden rather than buying them from a shop, cooking from scratch rather than ordering takeout.
I am recognizing and appreciate my privilege in being wealthy enough to live well and still save, rather than feel dissatisfied by what a tiny percentage of the global population has that I do not. The experience has not been so much one of going without pleasure as about savoring each moment of pleasure rather than racing on to the next one.
This approach is important, not just for personal satisfaction but also for politics. When professionals on relatively high wages in wealthy countries complain that they cannot get ahead and life is too expensive, they are not speaking in solidarity with the poor — they are actually insulting the poor.
If we want to tackle inequality, those in higher income brackets must understand that they have the power to live within their means, that they have more than enough, not only to support themselves but to give more to others in the form of taxation or philanthropy.
And the same goes for tackling environmental damage. The environment will not be saved by a consumerist mind-set in which the developed world rapidly throws out its consumer products to replace them with brand-new, more-energy-efficient consumer products, as if the environment can be saved by a fleet of shiny new Priuses bought on credit.
I still have a long way to go in reducing my consumption. As my journey continues I plan to seek inspiration from people who have less than me rather than people who have more.