This is a guest post by Lori Blatzheim, a writer living in Chanhassen, Minnesota. For more information about National Thrift Week, visit NewThrift.org.
If there was a coat of arms for my family, it would display a golden lion standing on his back legs on a field of dark olive green. He would be clutching bags of gold coins in his front paws and, emblazoned across his chest would be three words: God, Family, and Thrift.
Thrift? Yes, that much maligned and oft misunderstood value.
A forthcoming study by the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values shows that many Americans associate thrift with penny-pinching and money-hoarding. In the nationally representative sample, 54% of respondents believe that being generous is the opposite of being thrifty, and 48% of respondents think that if Americans became more thrifty, it would either hurt the economy or wouldn’t make much difference.
Try telling that to my family.
Thrift as a Family Value
My grandfather Thor came to America amidst a background of gray sky and gray sea, in a ship tossed by waves with swells of white and blown by the wind. With limited funds, he took a train to Wisconsin to meet a distant uncle before saving enough to get to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he married Inga, the nurse he fell in love with in Norway and followed to the United States. Together they worked hard planting and harvesting, making rag rugs on the loom that Thor built, and saving much of the money they earned.
Children kept arriving and eventually numbered nine. After learning English, Thor went to work for a major newspaper in St. Paul. He worked hard to improve sales of the paper and he eventually became Circulation Manager. Meanwhile, Inga was at home, cleaning and combing wool before spinning it into yarn, which was used to make sweaters and mittens in traditional Norwegian design. Older children were taught to help out, and all the children learned to earn, save, and spend wisely. Because of Thor and Inga’s thrift, during the Depression they were able to take in relatives in trouble and foster children with no support.
Far from hurting their economic well-being, thrift is the value that enabled my grandparents to enter the American middle class. And now, after nearly fifty years of neglect, Americans are once again celebrating thrift.
National Thrift Week
A once-vibrant social movement from 1916-1966, National Thrift Week is back, starting in Philadelphia and poised to go viral across America with its message that “thrift is the friend of sustainable prosperity, broad economic opportunity, beautiful neighborhoods, and a healthy planet.”
Last month, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter officially proclaimed Thrift Week, and 80 representatives from community organizations, businesses, churches, schools, and banks came together at the “Philadelphia Thrift Leaders Roundtable.” A Philadelphia credit union and charter school are renewing an old Thrift Week tradition by inviting students to open school savings accounts.
The mayor of Philadelphia kicks off Thrift Week.
As the organizer of the only “Thrift Club” in the country, I find that many Americans aren’t even familiar with the word “thrift.” When I extend an invitation to a Thrift Club meeting at the Chanhassen Public Library, I’m met with a politely blank stare and the question, “What’s a Thrift Club?” My daughter, a librarian, suggested that I change the name to the “Simple Living Club,” which is a chic idea nowadays, and could describe the variety of topics our club discusses — from home gardening and food preservation to achieving “greener” homes to having low-cost, meaningful weddings to financial planning and volunteerism.
But the word “thrift” can’t be replaced. For one thing, the root of the word “thrift” is “thrive,” and “to thrive” perfectly captures what the thrift ethic is about. While many people erroneously associate thrift with being miserly, cheap, or stingy, look up “thrift” in the dictionary and you’ll see that it is more accurately described as prosperity, thriving, healthy and vigorous growth, careful management (especially of money), and gainful employment. Thrift is not simply a money saving strategy — it’s a broad term that encompasses the wise use of all resources: health, time, money, and environment included. Thrift is a way of life, an ethic, a philosophy that enables ordinary people like Thor and Inga to be generous and to live the good life.
The Apostle of Thrift
Ben Franklin’s life is the perfect example. Known as the “Apostle of Thrift,” Franklin penned numerous proverbs about “industry and frugality.” However, because he wasted no time or money in his early life, he retired early, donated his money to create libraries and fire departments, and attended plays and ate fine French food while acting as a public servant in France.
John Adams, who also served in France, accused Franklin of hypocrisy, but as social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead points out in Franklin’s Thrift: the Lost History of an American Virtue, Franklin was just enjoying the fruits of his thrift.
Rather than inhibiting people, thrift can help contemporary Americans achieve the prosperity that their ancestors came to find. As our leaders seek answers on how to build a more sustainable economy, they would do well to be guided by that venerable word “thrift” — an idea both old and new.