Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: Whatever Happened to Thrift

When I spotted "thrift" in the title of this slim little volume I snatched it off the shelves of my local Library. Whatever Happened to Thrift: Why Americans Don't Save and What to Do About It is a 2008 publication from Yale University Press that addresses a few of the topics near and dear to the Greenie heart. I think that this book does have direct applications to understanding the push to consume, and how to restore thrift as a trait to be rewarded and prized in our society.

Wilcox makes several statements that resounded with me about the implications of not saving enough in our personal and household funds. Quite simply, the less we save as people we less we have to give to charity, to donate to new technology and research, and it proves a profound impact on individual support of the arts. Most importantly, it affects out ability to cope with the "expected unexpected" of job loss, economic downturn, or sudden life shifts the likes of which we are seeing. We've seen less of household savings through the years, and the numbers seem to grow tremendously larger among lower income families and those that are borderline poor by U.S. standards.

Wilcox begins to address the "whys" of our lack of savings in his second chapter. Wilcox shoots down two theories that are common in the world of finger pointing. Credit cards are frequently cited as supplying easy credit and causing people to go into debt. Though the free flow of credit is certainly a symptom, he directs our point of view back to the uncomfortable fact that we ourselves are more of the instigating factor.

I liked his discussion of "consumption information" and "consumption cues" that we pick up from other people around us. However he makes a point I absolutely never thought of or realized. That "something happens with this kind of casual empiricism, when we gather information about what we think is appropriate for us based on conversations with others and our observations of their consumption. We do tend to recall the consumption choices that we like and forget the others more readily. When we see something that pleases us, we take notice and this translates into stronger memories. Over time our view of what is normal among our reference group shifts to something that is not entirely representative of actual consumption; our memory is biased and constructs a sort of idealized typical." (page 26)

What this says to me is that people look at other people and think that their level of acquisitions is the norm and want to respond accordingly, but fail to see the complete picture. Did the Jones family have to give up good food to drive their fancy car? Did the Smiths sell out on education to buy designer? Wilcox prods us to look at a deeper picture with our economic choices so that we can view situations with a holistic viewpoint. See the big picture, what our choices provide us and what they limit us to do.

Wilcox provides further information on the psychology of money, our viewpoints of thrift and thoughts on the politics of savings. Financial literacy was a term that I related to.......are we literate? How can we be the one of the wealthiest nations on earth (hello all you APLS) yet have one of the lowest rates of savings? Wilcox has further ideas on household savings and how to reinvent thrift as a prized quality for your household.

I was initially attracted to this book because of the title. Thrift feeds right into Greenie thoughts to me, kind of a use-it-up and wear-it-out philosophy. He made several good points on financial savings, and how it ties into our overall view of ourselves and our future.

I guess at this point I'm further along with the recognition of a renewed need for thrift, and how we've bastardized it to an extent in our consumer society. This book didn't rock my world, but it was a nice read on a topic that I think we can all look further into as we analyze how to best use our resources. Wilcox provides more of a framework for understanding some of the simple psychology of money and savings, and how we can begin to reinvent thrift in our lives and households.

For folks just getting going with more of an economic analysis of their future it is a nice approachable read that doesn't really cast a judgement, but does offer insight on the social, political, and economic outcomes for our excessive ways. I'd rate it as a 3 out of 5 stars for Green readers.


Green Bean said...

Interesting review. Our need to consume really is at the root of so many of our economic and enviornmental problems. Thanks for sharing.

Kale for Sale said...

Thanks Shannon. Not a book I would likely pick up but I enjoyed your review. It makes me wonder if we as citizens are mirroring our government in terms of debt or if it's the other way around.

Going Crunchy said...

I probably wouldn't have picked it up, except the "thrift" really caught my eye. I think a "thrifty" outlook really feeds into the reduce, reuse, and recycle outlook. Eh, probably a little more dry then I would like for a review......but Zen Heart is coming next!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your review. I have to agree that we ourselves are more of an instigating factor in getting into debt, after all one either applied or accepted a credit card. Thanks Shannon.