Over the past few months, the mainstream media has been filled with stories about the New Frugals and the return to thrift. People who once lived beyond their means, financing their lifestyle with debt, have “found religion”. They’ve begun to embrace frugality, and have discovered the joy that can come through spending less.

The new age of thrift
Not everyone is happy about this. The March issue of Redbook contained an article called “The Upside of Living on Less”, which profiled how four women are coping with the recession. The story prompted the following letter to the editor in the May issue:

While I love Redbook, something in your article “The Upside of Living on Less” rubbed me the wrong way. When describing the economic crunch, after rightfully blaming the banks and consumers who were charging more than they should have, the author wrote “Basically, we’d all been spending way more than we could afford.” I don’t appreciate being in the same category as overspenders. I am frugal with every cent, and I use every item to its utmost capacity simply because I don’t believe in waste of any kind. I always will be like that, regardless of the economy. Even though we’re all in this together, not everybody contributed to the country’s financial mess. — Darcy Bailey, Mount Holly NC

I’ve heard similar sentiments from GRS readers — and from my wife. To a degree, I sympathize. None of us wants to pay for the mistakes of others. When people make poor choices, they ought to face the consequences.

Still, I’m happy to see so many people discovering frugality. It’s an opportunity for us to spread the gospel of thrift. I don’t think it’s productive to spend time judging people for their past mistakes. If someone has a sincere desire to change, then I’m happy to help them do so. If these New Frugals possess the zeal of recent converts, perhaps they’ll spread the word to their friends and family, and maybe we will see a fundamental shift in American values. I believe that this country needs more frugality, not less.

Those with long-time habits of thrift should relish the current economic climate. Our smart choices will help us to weather the storm. Meanwhile, we should be glad to share what we know with others. The more people we can welcome to this way of life, the more likely it is to stick, to become a permanent part of our culture.

Gleefully frugal
A recent New York Times article explores this notion. Matt Richtel writes:

Millions of Americans have trimmed expenses because they have had their jobs or hours cut, or fear they will. But a subset of savers are reducing costs not just with purpose, but with relish. These are the gleefully frugal…The gleefully frugal happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses.

One of the “gleefully frugal” profiled in Richtel’s article is GRS-reader Katy Wolk-Stanley, who writes a blog called The Non-Consumer Advocate. Katy’s goal is to help people learn to live on as little income as possible. She follows some familiar frugal practices (like hanging clothes to dry), and she tries to buy nothing new — except for underwear. I asked Katy how she feels about the New Frugals.

“I am seeing a profound increase of interest in frugality, which I welcome with open arms,” she told me. “Very few of us have exercised complete financial responsibility from day one, and sometimes it does take hitting rock bottom before we embrace change. Frugality is not just for the chosen few, but for anyone who wants to take control of their lives. Just because a person has been frugal for years doesn’t mean they’re more deserving of kudos than someone whose frugal journey just started.

Katy made an interesting observation: “I’ve noticed that the mainstays of my frugal life have increased in popularity. The library lines are longer and the thrift stores are consistently busy, but I don’t resent this. I’m happy to share my non-consumer tricks with whoever is looking to ratchet down their lifestyle. Frugality is for everyone.”

She also pointed to a piece over at The Frugal Girl about the “unriveting story” of a woman who was always frugal and never got into debt.

Why thrift matters
Now that we’re about a year into this recession, we’ve had time to see how people are responding. Honestly, I’ve begun to suspect that there won’t be a permanent shift in American values. I wish our culture would embrace frugality and the do-it-yourself economy, but I don’t think it’s going to happen — not on a large scale. But I do expect that some people will change for good, and that many people will at least try their hand at thrifty things like:

  • Growing their own food.
  • Shopping at thrift stores.
  • Building and repairing things.
  • Making food from scratch.
  • Mending clothes.

If enough people do these things, if enough people see the benefits of these changes, if enough people retain a few of these skills once the economy improves, we’ll all be better off. I think frugality and thrift are about more than just saving money. They offer a chance to re-examine our lifestyles.

  • Thrift teaches the value of things.
  • Thrift provides for the future.
  • Thrift allows you to focus time and money on what’s important.
  • Thrift reduces consumption and waste.
  • Thrift imparts a sense of accomplishment.

Thrift matters to me because it is a skill that I can use every day in many ways, big and small, to maximize the value of my money. But it’s not the money that’s important. It’s what the money represents, which is freedom — the freedom to write. This is why thrift matters to me: By being a wise steward of my money, I am able to pursue my dream of writing full-time.

Making frugality personal
In my own life, I’m delighted to see the changes in my friends. Smart personal finance has been a personal passion for me over the past three years, but I try not to evangelize outside the blog. Perhaps I don’t need to.

Last weekend, a group of us gathered for our annual trip to central Oregon. Every year, the women go shopping at the big-name chains: Old Navy, The Gap, etc. This year, however, some of them joined me and Kris for a trip to Goodwill. They had so much fun that they went back to do more shopping the next day!

This is just a small example — and I have others — but I think it’s telling. I applaud people making small changes like this. This is how we learn to be frugal, how we learn to embrace an ethic of thrift. We try one thing. Then we try another. And another. I don’t think that people can maintain habits when they try to go cold turkey. I think that it’s better to make incremental changes to your lifestyle.

How do you feel about the New Frugals and the return to thrift? Do these new converts bug you? Are you glad to see them? Do you think the do-it-yourself economy will last? When things turn around, do you plan to practice the new skills you’ve found? Or are you eager to return to the way things were?

For more on this subject, check out the following articles from mainstream media:

[Thanks to Nancy, who asked me to write about this subject, and who pointed me to the Redbook articles. Goodwill photo by Scurzuzu.]