An Absence of Frugality

September 10, 2010
Jeff Brown, MD

Even in this era of economic hardship, the term "frugality" is rarely used. Nor do you hear much of its cousin, "thrifty." Perhaps the reason is because we haven't suffered long enough -- it's only when scarcity prevails over generations that thrift becomes part of the culture.

Isn't it strange that even in this era of recession and widespread unemployment that the now-quaint term "frugality" is rarely heard? Nor have we heard a peep from its cousin, "thrifty." We do hear about people cutting back, saving more and reducing debt, but not the kind of behavior that is implicit in the word "frugal."

Maybe that's implicit in its connotation of extended want leading to a justification of making a moral virtue out of the economic necessity of finding dignity in privation. As we've seen from history and literature, the road to moral virtue in financial affairs may lead to obsession and eventually self destruction. Ebenezer Scrooge comes to mind, though his sole redeeming virtue ended up being his belated conversion to consumerism -- though all in the name of Christmas, good deeds and benevolence.

Where you’d be hard-pressed to find frugality is in the business press. Forbes magazine’s Book of Business Quotations carries nary a mention of it (or thrift either). I had to scrape to come up with a quote from John Maynard Keynes -- he of the currently fashionable view that the way out of recession is through increased government spending. "Thrift is the handmaiden and nurse of enterprise," Keynes said. Maybe that's just a way of saying that if you are undercapitalized when starting a business, you have to be careful about where you spend your pennies.

It’s also strange that we ignore frugality and thrift in times of hardship, for they lie at the junction of economic reality and the reasonable management of it. It simply makes sense to more carefully husband resources in a time of increased scarcity. It is only when scarcity prevails over generations that thrift becomes part of the culture.

The American writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer gave us one of his insights when he said that excesses are essentially gestures, as if we see ourselves as but actors on a stage. (And a tip o' the hat to Mr. Shakespeare for that, too.) But what, then, should we make of ourselves when we are forced to slow, or stop, making gestures of financial flamboyance due to economic strain?

That's where "frugal" and " thrifty" become appropriate -- even if we are not much happy about it. It feels like a face-saving rationalization to say that we have swapped our financial profligacy for the moral high ground.

The other half of the self-justifying turn to frugality and thriftiness is the implication that too much of what went on before was "waste." (You know, waste not, want not.) But as French philosopher Blaise Pascal pointed out, in economics, what constitutes a loss is always relative. If you've no benchmark, you've no basis for comparison.

And then we have to remember the time-honored ant and grasshopper from Aesop’s Fables. You might say that in the end neither character was right -- and yet both were right. You can't live just for today with safety, nor can you deny living for today just to provide for an imaginary (and sometimes denied) future. Maybe it's best to plan for tomorrow, but live for today.

It is how to strike this balance, morally, philosophically, financially and practically, that occupies so much of our discourse. And the war in our heads that has the metaphorical devil and the angel on opposite shoulders arguing over the next, and best, course of action in our lives.

Oh, and when you get that figured out, will you explain it to me? I'll be the one in the garden, sitting upon a plinth with my chin upon my fist, ala “The Thinking Man.” Maybe we should just settle for being grateful that most of the time our worst problem is something like managing our shrinking Medicare reimbursements. Gratitude can be a great aid to frugality.