When Did Frugality Cease Being a Virtue?

24 03 2008

When Did Frugality Cease Being a Virtue in Our Society?  Really no matter how far you look back in history Frugality has always been a virtue.

 “He who gathers money little by little makes it grow” – Proverbs 13:11

Here the bible calls upon us to save where we can, even a little bit helps, and by doing so we can watch it grow. 

 “For age and want, save while you may; no morning sun lasts the whole day” – Benjamin Franklin

 Here, one of the greatest American’s to ever live writes that you need to have an emergency fund.  You can spend on your wants all day when times are good, but if you don’t save for a rainy day you’ll be in trouble later on.  Benjamin Franklin is documented in many occasions preaching the virtues of frugality, in Advice To A Young Tradesman, Benjamin Franklin writes:

“In short, the Way to Wealth, if you desire it, is as plain as the Way to Market. It depends chiefly on two Words, INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY; i. e. Waste neither Time nor Money, but make the best Use of both. He that gets all he can honestly, and saves all he gets (necessary Expences excepted) will certainly become RICH.”

More recently, some of our most brilliant minds preached and lived frugally.  Henry David Thoreau lived frugally and documented it in Walden Pond.  He removed himself from the pressures of society so he could clear his mind.

Warren Buffet, one of the best businessmen in the US, says, “If a business is worth a dollar, and I can buy it for 40 cents, something good may happen to me.”  In other words, look for bargains and buy low, that’s the way he has made over 30 billion dollars! 

As you can see frugality is in our history, but society has pushed back.  In most of the world if you don’t try and haggle with a salesman, you are considered stupid by the locals.  On the otherhand, when I haggle in America, people will look at me awkwardly and get confused.  

The surrounding world tells us that image is everything and that splurging makes us feel good. 

I prompted my dad with this question the other night, and I received a great response to why frugality is no longer considered a virtue.  This response allows you to connect all the dots.

It stems from the Great Depression.  The people who lived through the depression have known what it is like to be cash strapped, and to get the most out of every penny.   They know what it really means to have a “rainy day,” and they understand that, as Ben Franklin put it, “no morning sun lasts the whole day.”  The people that survived the Great Depression grew up knowing and understanding how important it is to save, but they also never wanted their children to go without like they had to do.

As a result, after the economy settled, there were great new inventions, and the wealthy began putting a TV in their living room.  Because one wanted to go without, the less wealthy followed.  However, no one wanted to drain their savings to purchase a TV, or Washing Machine, or Dryer, so payment plans began. 

Why drain all your savings when you can pay a cheap monthly payment?  What was there to understand?  For $30/ month, you could get what you couldn’t let your family go without, and at such a fair price!

Pretty soon, a ‘fair price’ became just the ‘price’ of an item, and haggling wasn’t needed because you could easily afford the monthly payment.  This increase in credit, made less people need to grasp the concept of frugality.

This is why I believe a generation grew up without learning to haggle or understand frugality.  And somewhere along the way, the term frugal got mixed up with the word “cheap.”

The United States is in the process of coming back around and understanding the perils of credit, and re-learning the virtue of frugality.  Right now, the US has a negative savings rate, and this will be hard to change, but I believe we are headed in the right direction.  A “frugal” search on Google will net you over 7.3 million hits, which is a sign that at least the internet community is getting it.  Hopefully our society is in the midst of realizing the error in our ideals, and will be working hard to get out of debt to become and continue to be financially free.