In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue



Cheap suit. Cheap date. Cheap shot. It's a dirty word, an epithet laden with negative meanings. It is also the story of Lauren Weber's life. As a child, she resented her father for keeping the heat at 50 degrees through the frigid New England winters and rarely using his car's turn signals-to keep them from burning out. But as an adult, when she found herself walking 30 blocks to save $2 on subway fare, she realized she had turned into ...

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In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue

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Cheap suit. Cheap date. Cheap shot. It's a dirty word, an epithet laden with negative meanings. It is also the story of Lauren Weber's life. As a child, she resented her father for keeping the heat at 50 degrees through the frigid New England winters and rarely using his car's turn signals-to keep them from burning out. But as an adult, when she found herself walking 30 blocks to save $2 on subway fare, she realized she had turned into him.

In this lively treatise on the virtues of being cheap, Weber explores provocative questions about Americans' conflicted relationship with consumption and frugality. Why do we ridicule people who save money? Where's the boundary between thrift and miserliness? Is thrift a virtue or a vice during a recession? And was it common sense or obsessive-compulsive disorder that made her father ration the family's toilet paper?

In answering these questions, In Cheap We Trust offers a colorful ride through the history of frugality in the United States. Readers will learn the stories behind Ben Franklin and his famous maxims, Hetty Green (named "the world's greatest miser" by the Guinness Book of Records) and the stereotyping of Jewish and Chinese immigrants as cheap.

Weber also explores contemporary expressions and dilemmas of thrift. From Dumpster-diving to economist John Maynard Keynes's "Paradox of Thrift" to today's recession-driven enthusiasm for frugal living, In Cheap We Trust teases out the meanings of cheapness and examines the wisdom and pleasures of not spending every last penny.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Lauren Weber grew up with a special relationship to cheapness. Every winter, she and her family would suffer through every frigid day with as little heat as her frugal father would spare. At other time, his money-saving measures seemed even more extreme: While driving, he used his turn signals as little as possible "to keep them from burning out." At the time, such economizing seemed strange, even foolish, but as Lauren grew up, she realized that apparently she had inherited her father's cheap gene. By the evidence of this book, she's not alone. In Cheap We Trust documents American's love-hate relationship with penny-pinching ways; from our shameless searches for bargains to our odd stereotyping as poor immigrants as cheap.
Publishers Weekly

Guilt-free consumption has always been a cherished American value, but this book explores its flip side: a historical engagement with thriftiness, starting in the pre-revolutionary days with Benjamin Franklin, championed by reformers Booker T. Washington and Lydia Marie Child, taken to absurd lengths by the 19th-century miserly millionaire Hetty Green, espoused by economist John Maynard Keynes and married to environmental concerns by contemporary conservationists. Journalist Weber's treatise begins with recollecting her father's conservative habits and ramifies into a far-ranging examination of social programs, alternative movements and mainstream institutions including savings banks, home economics, industrial efficiency experts, "freegans," economists and war departments, all of which promote some form of frugality. While failing to provide a satisfying distinction between cheapness and thrift, the author provides a rich canvas from which to consider American ambivalence about saving; she examines how thriftiness became a racist pejorative hurled at Jewish and Asian immigrants. While the rise of consumer culture and advertising undercut individual and social efforts to save, the author also finds structural reasons for our profligacy in growing financial illiteracy, wage stagnation and deregulated financial markets. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
This splendid, timely history and apologia corrects any misplaced nostalgia for a simpler, thriftier age. Business journalist Weber demonstrates that, from the Puritan settlers to today's economic stimulus measures, America has endured continual cycles of thrift and consumption, an endless battle for behavioral dominance between saving and spending. Among expected topics (wars, the Great Depression, industrial advances, and the explosion of consumer credit), she makes interesting forays into the origins of savings banks, the field of home economics, and the checkered history of National Thrift Week. The final third of the book includes a macroeconomic argument for increased savings and a collection of chapters on the voluntary simplicity and freegan movements, the psychology of frugality, and suggestions for learning the art of thrift. While this may seem a bit of a mishmash, the book is thematically consistent and convincing. VERDICT Weber manages, with panache, to combine a socioeconomic historical exploration that is readable and fun for the lay reader and a thoughtful defense of frugality that doesn't succumb to preachiness. For a sobering, supply-side view of the consumerist conundrum, pair this with Ellen Ruppel Shell's differently themed Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington Libs., OH
Kirkus Reviews
Entertaining history of scrimping and saving in America. In her debut, former Newsday reporter Weber makes clear that frugality is not a long-lost virtue of consumer culture. Rather, scaling down has been a cyclical manifestation of hard times: Americans have tightened their belts in periods of war, financial panics and recessions, only to go on spending sprees shortly thereafter. A cheapskate's daughter-her economist father uses teabags a dozen times-Weber advocates a moderate approach of "mindful consumption: considering each purchase, embracing a stricter set of guidelines for winnowing down what I buy . . . thinking about the values that are most important to me, and spending or saving accordingly." Beginning with a consideration of Colonial-era thrift advocates from the Puritans, who legislated against vulgar forms of consumption, to Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged prudent living in The Way to Wealth, the author shows how patriotic self-denial during the War for Independence soon gave way to the frenzy of consumption that has become the American way. Sometimes-preachy advocates for frugality have ranged from Booker T. Washington, who urged the "saving habit," to 19th-century self-help writers like Lydia Maria Child (The American Frugal Housewife, 1832), to the U.S. government, whose slogans touted the virtue of austerity and war-bond buying in both World War I and WWII ("Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, or Do without"). By the 1950s, Americans had abandoned Ben Franklin and other thrifty heroes to embrace credit cards and postwar prosperity. In the current recession, writes Weber, Americans recognize once again that savings matter but are discovering that they have racked uprecord amounts of personal debt. The author also covers the many ways in which some Americans live on the cheap-as a way to reverse ecological damage or to opt out of the consumer culture completely-whether by fixing appliances, foregoing new clothes or even dumpster-diving for food. Her stories about tightwads like a friend's uncle who walked miles to work each day, ate peanuts for lunch and gave away $1 million each year, will force many to reconsider the motives of cheapskates. Welcome reading for a newly frugal world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316030281
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 9/7/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Lauren Weber was formerly a staff reporter at Reuters and Newsday. She has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, American Banker, and other publications. A former resident at Yaddo, Lauren graduated from Wesleyan University and was a Knight-Bagehot fellow, a fellowship that invites 10 business journalists each year to study finance and economics at Columbia's Graduate School of Business.

Lauren grew up with a father whose creative and eccentric ways of saving money included rationing household toilet paper and developing a gas-saving method of driving in which light pedal taps substituted for full braking.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2012


    I enjoyed the book and learned a few things.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2011

    Good message.....BUT....

    Very dry and boring reading.

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