The Silver Lining in Forced Frugality
By David E. Shi
President, Furman University
Small is beautiful again -- or at least it is becoming necessary. Thrift is reviving again, like it or not.
deepening global recession and the mushrooming layoffs, bankruptcies,
and foreclosures have generated a rising wave of austerity and
frugality. A recent government report revealed that Americans have
dramatically reduced their spending in the last nine months. Some
business groups, in fact, are worried that the austerity phenomenon may
very well tip the nation into a depression. It even has some wondering
whether frugality will become the new norm.
The answer is
probably not, at least not on a large scale. Historically, such periods
of pinched frugality don't last very long. Once the economy recovers,
most people revert to traditional patterns of carefree consumption and
cascading debt. The spendthrift pattern of the last decade will probably
Actually, there is an old cycle at work here.
Throughout American history, the tension between accumulating goods and
cultivating goodness has shaped our collective character. Americans over
the years have assumed that nothing succeeds like excess, only to
experience a calamitous fall from grace. Two former U. S. presidents
acknowledged this cyclical pattern when John Adams asked Thomas
Jefferson in 1819, "Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from becoming
effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice and folly?"
question shimmers with relevance. Even before last fall's market
meltdown, there were growing indications that consumers were living on
borrowed time. Too many people were living beyond their means -- and
paying for it --often in unexpected ways. After all, the three
best-selling drugs in America are an ulcer medication, a hypertension
reliever, and a tranquilizer. Life in the fast lane had become a dead
end for many people.
It is in this context, then, that the forced
frugality of recent months may indeed harbor a silver lining. Some
people will decide that simpler, more sustainable modes of living are
preferable to their old habits of careless consumption. They will come
to relish the joy of having enough -- and not needing more.
simpler life may not appeal to the majority of Americans, but it has
always been one of the nation's most renewable civic resources. In times
of economic distress and during major wars or periodic energy crises,
people have tapped the rich reservoir of plain living and high thinking
in the American experience. In this sense the resilient ideal of simpler
living has repeatedly served the moral health of the nation and the
spiritual health of its practitioners.
Why? Simpler living can
often mean more abundant living. The balm of simplicity soothes frazzled
lives. Pressures are reduced and the frenetic pace of life is slowed.
Simpler living also creates a greater sense of self-reliance and more
opportunities for activities of intrinsic worth -- family, faith, civic
and social service, self-culture. To have all we want is said to be
rich; but to be able to do without all that we desire is to enjoy true
A simpler life is anything but simple, however. It is
difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain. "Tis a gift to be
simple," sing the Shakers. It requires both fortitude and imagination to
sustain a commitment to enlightened self-restraint amid our
ever-tempting consumer culture.
Yet simple living, for all its
complexities and difficulties, remains an enticing path to a good life.
In 2009 it can be more than an anachronism, fad, or eccentricity. Living
a simpler life does not mean living a destitute life. Its basic
requirement is not a rural homestead or a faddish preference for L.L.
Bean boots, trail mix, and alfalfa sprouts. Rather it entails a daily
ordering of priorities so as to distinguish between the necessary and
superfluous, the useful and wasteful, the beautiful and vulgar.
the difference between personal trappings and personal traps is the key
to mastering the art of simpler living. In this sense simplicity is
essentially a state of mind rather than a particular standard of living.
Money or possessions or activities don't corrupt our serenity, but the
love of money, the craving of possessions, and the prison of activities
So perhaps the painful recession will provoke at least some
us to reassess our priorities. As Henry David Thoreau emphasized, "Do
not devote your life to nonessentials or the acquisition of unnecessary
In essence, life is a series of choices.
Although often buffeted by forces beyond our control, most of us have
choices: we can keep yearning for more or we can resolve to be content