“Austere Times? Perfect.” by Matt Richtel, New York Times

Austere Times? Perfect.
AUSTERE TIMES? PERFECT.
By MATT RICHTEL

The New York Times
Published: April 10, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

“I’m enjoying this,” said Becky Martin, 52, who has cut up her 10 credit cards, borrows movies from the library instead of renting them, and grows her own fruits and vegetables — even though her family is comfortable.

Ms. Martin is a real estate investor, her husband is a plastic surgeon, and their home sits on the 12th hole of a Cincinnati country club.

“It’s a chance to pass along the frugal lifestyle that my mother gave to me,” she says, noting that her sensibilities seem to be rubbing off not just on her sons, but also on her husband. “We’re on the same page financially for the first time in years, and it’s fabulous.”

Americans’ spending is down and their personal savings are up — sharply. The savings rate in the United States, which had fallen steadily since the early 1980s, dropped to less than 1 percent in August of 2008. It has since spiked to 5 percent.

“It’s huge,” said Martha Olney, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in the Great Depression, consumerism and indebtedness. The rapid reversal is even more remarkable, she said, because in recessions consumers usually save less money. Not this time. “It implies a re-emergence of thrift as a value,” she said.

The gleefully frugal happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses. The mantra is cut, cut, cut — magazine and cable subscriptions, credit cards, fancy coffee drinks and your own hair.

In San Francisco, Cooper Marcus, 36, has started choosing recipes based on the ingredients on sale at the market. Mr. Marcus canceled the family’s subscription to Netflix, his premium cable package and a wine club membership. He uses a program on his iPhone to find the cheapest gas and drives out of his way to save 50 cents per gallon.

“It seems a little crazy,” he laughs, then adds: “I’m frugal and loving it.”

Kellee Sikes, 37, a consultant in Kirkwood, Mo., no longer uses paper napkins. Ms. Sikes uses organic cloth ones until they get threadbare and then uses them as cleaning rags. When they are no longer useful, she puts them in the in-ground waste composter in the backyard. She plans to start burying her dogs’ feces there, which saves on the cost of sending refuse to a landfill.

“I recently heard a phrase: ‘Never waste a crisis,’ ” Ms. Sikes said. “I love it. This is a chance for us to re-examine what’s important.”

Indeed, the recession has given penny pinchers — once closeted in a society that valued what one had, not what one saved — license to speak up.

“There is no joy in other people suffering, but this validates the choices I’ve made,” said Vicki Robin, author of “Your Money or Your Life,” a guide to saving money that was a best seller in the 1990s and was re-released last year.

Currently, there are dozens of Web sites and blogs devoted to celebrating conspicuous cutting, like Dollar Stretcher (www.stretcher.com), All Things Frugal (allthingsfrugal.com), Frugal Mom (www.frugalmom.net), and on and on. The Web site meetup.com, which helps people of like interests gather offline, lists 57 “frugal living” groups around the country, including eight formed in February and nine in March.

One part of the gleefully frugal movement, frugalistas — frugal fashionistas who refuse to sacrifice style — may have been popularized in Britain before crossing the Atlantic. But Americans have taken it on as their own.

A Virginia group, the Frugal and Fabulous Moms, tells prospective members: “If you are a coupon-clipping, deal-seeking, stylish and fabulous mom that loves a great deal, then this group is for you!”

A San Francisco group met one Sunday last month for an exercise in fashion frugality: a clothing swap. About 80 women exchanged clothing, shoes and accessories and they are planning another event for April 20 where they hope to have 400 participants.

“When a woman gets a compliment on a dress she got at a swap or the Salvation Army, she feels almost proud,” said Suzanne Agasi, organizer of the event and operator of the Web site clothingswaps.com. People at the event “feel like they’ve scored,” she said.

“My behavior has become less strange and more of a resource,” said Katy Wolk-Stanley, 41, a nurse in Portland, Ore. A practicing penny-pincher for the last decade, she is now spreading her gospel. Last May, she started a blog with tips and tactics for cutting back called The Non-Consumer Advocate.

She knows whereof she blogs. She darns socks, dries clothes on a line she recently hung inside her house (even though it takes a few days for the clothes to dry inside), washes and reuses plastic bags and takes used clothes and furniture people leave on the street — like the slightly torn Garnet Hill duvet cover she found recently.

“It was wet, and covered with dog hair,” she said. “I washed it really well a couple of times and mended it.” Her quest for money-saving ideas “is very energizing,” she says. “You see opportunities everywhere.”

Ms. Wolk-Stanley says she is not cheap. She’s sensible. Why spend on new things when there are viable alternatives? And she contends she does not judge others.

“If everyone followed this advice, it would be catastrophic to the economy,” she said.

Indeed, economists call it the Paradox of Thrift. While saving is desirable, if everyone does it then consumption falls, businesses fail and the economy grinds to a halt. Professor Olney, from Berkeley, said that the increased rate of savings would most likely slow down the pace of recovery but she also said that a higher savings rate was not inconsistent with a strong economy; from the 1950s to the early 1980s, the savings rate hovered around 9 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Although the children of the Great Depression raised the spendthrift baby boom generation, Ms. Martin, from Ohio, echoes other penny pinchers in hoping that the recession spawns a new generation of frugality. Already, her 14-year-old son has picked up her lead. “He is not beyond stopping and pulling things out from someone’s trash,” she said. He found one sectional sofa left on the sidewalk that he resold on the Internet for $200.

“I’m very proud of him.”

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  • Any fool can spend money. It takes intelligence, creativity and bravery to get what you want at the price you can reasonably afford.
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