Saturday, April 25, 2009

the social cost of financial responsibility

Lately I've been reading Amy Dacyczyn's The Complete Tightwad Gazette, which is a compendium (nearly a thousand pages) of advice on saving money. The suggestions range from obvious to extreme, but I find it generally useful. For example, she points out (and expounds upon the fact, pp.42-43) that there are three ways to save money on something; you can buy it cheaper, make it last longer, or use it less. Another example is this tidy and useful summary of the principles (her word) of frugality, from an article on pp. 64-66:

1) Record Spending
2) Regardless of your income, do not spend everything you earn
3) Use creativity and thrift to improve the quality of life, rather than spending more money
4) Avoid convenience foods and instead prepare from scratch
5) Buy in bulk
6) All family members should develop hobbies that save money, rather than ones that are non-productive or cost money*
7) Whenever possible reuse materials you already have rather than buying new at shops
8) Don't try to keep up with the Joneses; instead live within your means

She elaborates on each of these throughout the book, and as far as I can tell she's covered all the major bases except two--try to avoid rent, and don't let anything (rebates, vegetables, surprisingly many other things) go bad on you. So far so good, no?

Now that you have the general gist of the book, we can move on to the hard part. What is the right thing to do about social spending?

You're aware of the situation, I'm sure; old friends who you haven't seen in years or new ones you're very interested in knowing suggest a dinner out. If you've been resigned to overspending, this may come in stride, but if--like me--you're on a strong frugal streak, it presents a dilemma.

Ultimately thrift should be about being aware of how you expend your resources, and using that awareness to direct them to the things you value most. Generally I believe very strongly in behaving--insofar as such a thing is possible--as if things are less important than people. I really love dining out, but at times when my money can be put to really, really, really rewarding use elsewhere, social comfort is about the only thing that can compel me to do it.

Dacyczyn would call this "Keeping up with the Jonses." In fact, the quote (from an 1833 manual called The American Frugal Housewife) she uses to illustrate "Keeping up with the Jonses" is this:

"To associate with influential and genteel people with an appearance of equality unquestionably has its advantages, but like other external advantages, these may have their proper price, and may be bought too dearly. Self denial, in proportion to the narrowness of your income, will eventually become the happiest and most respectable course for you and yours."

The problem is, it's not a simple matter of individualistically renouncing consumerism or giving up ostentation. Social spending is about making other people comfortable, or about holding a certain position--and not necessarily a dominant one--in the social sphere, a sphere that is just as much about relationships as about consumption. If you don't have a place to entertain, it's the cost of creating a comfortable space in which to connect with people. As someone who never pays more than 10$ for an outfit and balks at a 5$ garlic press (which I'd use constantly), a hundred dollars or more a month on gifts and other social spending often seems an eminently worthwhile use of funds.

It is likely, of course, that the friends in question are not much more "influential and genteel" than myself, but merely have different priorities, or are less aware of their resource use. . . and this brings me to my main conclusion; I think it would be nice to foster a culture where social spending is not so obligatory. Let's encourage the use (and existence) of public social spaces and events, and bring back picnicking and home cooking. After all, the less time we spend on earning money to spend time with each other, the more time we have to spend with each other.

*I actually disagree with this one--what is money for, if not life? Just make sure what you do is worth it to you.