By Scott Alessi
With the economy continuing to struggle and many Americans faced with mounting debts and uncertain financial futures, people are searching for new ways to stretch their income. As individuals begin to re-evaluate their spending habits, many are discovering the potential benefits of a forgotten American ideal -- the concept of thrift.
Amid the rampant consumerism in modern society and the emphasis on material wealth and possessions, thrift has for some become a foreign or antiquated term. But as many in the credit-card generation are feeling the negative effects of overspending, some experts suggest that thrift may be ready to experience a revival.
The idea of thrift, which generally refers to the wise use of finances and materials, was once considered a lofty ideal in American culture, with proponents including Benjamin Franklin, Clara Barton and Booker T. Washington. David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, told Our Sunday Visitor that the thrift philosophy, inwhich a person could create their own success based on their lifestyle choices, was one of the founding principles of the United States.
"It really became, in a sense, the American creed of how to succeed in this new country," said Blankenhorn, whose study of the subject is collected in the book "Thrift: A Cyclopedia" (Templeton Foundation Press, $34.95). "We were never a particularly thrifty nation in practice, but, certainly, it was taught and held up as a laudable way to live."
Although the word has had different meanings over time, Blankenhorn said that thrift can best be understood as consisting of three main principles: working hard, spending less than you earn and giving back as much as you can. In other words, he explained, living a life of thrift means being a good steward of one's gifts.
"Thrift is really a secular restatement of the Christian idea of stewardship," he said. "The idea is that the things we have are not really our own possessions, but they are gifts, and we are called on to not really use them for selfish purposes but to serve as trustees of what we are given."
In the post-World War II era, thrift began to fall out of favor in the United States. As Americans started to have more expendable income, it became more fashionable to shop instead of save, and buying on credit replaced the idea of saving for large purchases.
As a result, the U.S. household savings rate has tumbled in recent years to the lowest numbers seen since the Great Depression. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States ranks among the lowest of all developed countries in the world in personal savings.
"Over the last 30 years we've had this enormous explosion of consumer spending and the rise of debt as a way of life," Blankenhorn said. "The notion of thrift as wise use was replaced in the popular conversation by consumerism and the idea of 'spend as if there's no tomorrow' to keep the economy going and to have a better life."
But according to Ronald T. Wilcox, author of "Whatever Happened to Thrift?: Why Americans Don't Save and What to Do About It" (Yale University Press, $30), widespread spending over time can do more harm than good. Wilcox told OSV that Americans' spending habits, and consequently their accumulation of large amounts of debt, is a likely cause of the current economic crisis.
"One of the untold stories of materialism is that even the economy itself has trouble dealing with rampant materialism for long periods of time," he said. "Not only is it hurtful to the individual, it is also hurtful to the overall economy in the long run."
Seeing the damage caused to the economy may be the wake-up call that many need to put more money into their savings, Wilcox said, which may open the door for a return to thrift.
"You typically do see increases in savings rates during and after times of uncertainty," he said. "And if it is a deep enough bad time, like the Great Depression, it will affect people and their views of savings for the rest of their lives."
The thrift philosophy also holds another benefit for individuals and families who have found themselves entrenched in debt. Anyone, at any time, can embrace the thrift lifestyle by evaluating their expenditures and making minor adjustments to their spending.
By redirecting funds that are used on unnecessary purchases that yield little return, Blankenhorn said, Americans in any income bracket can begin to build their savings.
"If you are a person of modest means or you're just an average family, you can manage small sums of money a little bit differently," he said. "You can do lots of things that in and of themselves are very small, but it is a way of life that over time is going to make a huge difference."
According to Wilcox, one of the best ways for Americans to alter their spending habits would be to slow down the often-hectic pace at which they live their lives and instead to focus on the things that bring true happiness, such as personal relationships.
"Some of the ways that we really tend to waste money are a result of leading very frenetic lives where we're trying to do so many different things," he said.
By making one's life "less cluttered and less busy," Wilcox said that individuals can find ways to increase their savings. But for Catholics, living a simple, frugal life is not merely a means to economic stability, it is also part of following the Gospel.
Marist Father Thomas Dubay, author of "Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom" (Ignatius Press, $13.95), told OSV that adhering to the teachings of the Gospel can lead to both financial and spiritual prosperity.
"It is not simply that we don't want to put too much on our credit cards. Those are real considerations too, but it is part of a bigger picture," Father Dubay said. "If I am all focused on things like fine clothes, elegant meals in restaurants and driving luxurious cars, then I am not going to be intimate with God because I have chosen to worship something else."
Father Dubay explained that those who truly embrace the Gospel will not be concerned with riches and abundance on earth because they will understand that this life is only a means to reaching the kingdom of heaven. He added that followers of Christ are called to a life of poverty, although the term is often misunderstood.
"It is not laziness, it is not dirtiness, it is not miserliness. These are all objectionable things," Father Dubay explained. "What we mean by Gospel poverty is well-expressed by the word frugality and having a sparing, sharing lifestyle."
Blankenhorn said that thrift's detractors often mislabel it in the same manner.
"Thrift sometimes becomes seen as hoarding or being a tightwad or being cheap," Blankenhorn said. "But the thrift tradition strongly preaches the exact opposite of all those things."
In particular, thrift calls individuals to share their goods with others and to be generous to those who have less, which Father Dubay equated to Christ's commandment of loving one's neighbor. Franciscan Friars of the Renewal Father Benedict J. Groeschel added that thrift is a means of living out the virtue of prudence.
"Prudence is a virtue that teaches us how to use whatever we have, whatever material things are there, in order to lead a good life and to bring good to those who depend on us," Father Groeschel told OSV. "For example, parents trying to lead a good life and provide for their children have to be prudent. They have to not overspend and they've got to be careful with their resources."
He further explained that falling victim to a consumerist lifestyle can take its toll on individuals, families and even parishes, leading to selfishness and greed. In recent times, he said, the success and wealth experienced by many in the United States has resulted in even those who are well-intentioned spending too much on things they do not need.
"I think that Americans were seduced a bit by the excess, superfluous funds," Father Groeschel said. "Now that has tightened up, and I think it will be good for us to readjust. I don't like to see people without resources, but to have too much can be damaging to you."
Living the simple, prudent lifestyle of thrift can also help many Americans realize that material possessions do not lead to happiness. Father Groeschel, who along with the other members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal has taken a strict vow of poverty, said that in his many years of working with the poor he has found that while they may not have as much as others, they experience a sense of freedom that those with overabundant wealth lack.
"One of the things that many Americans don't know is that poor people are often much happier than rich people," Father Groeschel said. "Money brings comfort, but it does not bring happiness."
Those who live a life of thrift tend to form good habits of conscientious spending and wise use of all materials available to them. Some strategies used by thrifty individuals to observe a more frugal lifestyle include:
Do it yourself
From preparing your own meals to growing your own vegetables, making things at home over buying them in stores is often a more cost-effective approach.
Shop for bargains
Although it takes more time and effort, looking for the best deals through reading sales circulars, making price comparisons and clipping coupons can cut down extensively on overall spending.
Let nothing go to waste
Outgrown clothing, unwanted furniture and other unused household items can be resold or donated to charity to both earn some extra money and to help others in need.
Look for opportunities to save
Since it can be difficult to cut down on spending to devote more funds to savings, take advantage of opportunities such as a raise to direct more money to a savings or retirement account without affecting your take-home pay.
Exercise, healthy eating and preventive care may seem costly in the short term, but can lead to big savings on costly medical bills later on.
The environmentalist mentality of "reduce, reuse and recycle" has strong ties to the tradition of thrift. It is also an important part of the teaching of the Church, as in recent years both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have spoken extensively about caring for the earth's resources and being good stewards of the environment.
The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace outlined the importance of environmental stewardship in its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
"The social doctrine of the Church reminds us that the goods of the earth were created by God to be used wisely by all. They must be shared equitably, in accordance with justice and charity. This is essentially a question of preventing the injustice of hoarding resources: greediness, be it individual or collective, is contrary to the order of creation. Modern ecological problems are of a planetary dimension and can be effectively resolved only through international cooperation capable of guaranteeing greater coordination in the use of the earth's resources."
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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