Once upon a time in America thrift was a popular and celebrated character ideal. Parents exhorted thrift to their children; teachers taught it in schools; religious leaders commended it to their congregations; charitable institutions prescribed it to the poor and downtrodden; public officials extolled its virtue in promoting the general welfare; even advertisers paid obeisance to it in the hawking of sundry wares and goods. Once upon a time in America, thrift constituted part of a tripartite national ideal of industrious, diligent, and frugal citizens. It was, to be sure, an ideal to which Americans frequently failed to live up to—honoring it as often in the breach as in reality—but few questioned its practical advisability or doubted its virtue.
Today, few Americans are fluent in the vernacular of thrift. As if following the fate of certain aboriginal languages, its native speakers are dying off, and the culture, customs, and social context in which thrift once made sense seem to be passing from living memory. Not surprisingly, few Americans under the age of thirty can define thrift, let alone explain why it matters—for most, its comprehensible mainly as a label for second-hand (or “vintage”) clothing. Thrift still retains some semblance of meaning for Americans over forty, at least for those who can remember the eccentricities of their parents and grandparents, who, marked by the scarcities of the Great Depression and Second World War, practiced forms of parsimony that were increasingly out of step with the mass consumption of post-war prosperity. In the ears of the contemporary world, the idiom of thrift registers as a relic from a bygone age, similar to words like chastity and temperance. By most empirical measures, the practice of thrift is going the way of powdered wigs and dueling.
Seen in this light, any attempt to pose thrift as one of the “big questions” of our moment immediately confronts the twin problems of incomprehension and seeming obsolescence. The fact that we have to ask why thrift matters at all reveals the extent to which it has lost its conceptual grip on our imaginations.
This loss of imaginative grip may be serious and widespread enough, in fact, that standard methods of addressing the question of thrift’s value risk deepening the confusion. Moral philosophers can debate the “virtue” of thrift or its lack thereof; economists can debate the so-called “paradox of thrift” and praise the miracle of compound interest; historians can debate whether Americans were ever as thrifty as some would claim or argue over whether thrift was one of the secret ingredients responsible for American prosperity. As important as these debates surely are, they all presuppose that we know what thrift is and that it has a fixed, agreed upon, and active meaning. It does not.
To see why and how thrift matters for our time, then, it is necessary to begin by asking what thrift means—and by extension, what it has meant to previous generations of Americans. Approaching it culturally will reveal how impoverished our understandings of thrift have become and how beneficial a recovery of that understanding can be. We live at a moment when practices of restraint, habits of delayed gratification, and conventions of wise use and prudent investment have never been more critical to individual and collective well-being, but never more in question. We live at a time when the lack of publicly compelling frameworks for thinking about the greater dependencies that tie private and public goods together have never been more harmful to our present or to our posterity. In short, just when Americans stand in urgent need of its cultural powers, they have lost touch with the one word that once gave those powers a name and an idiom. Historically, thrift was the keystone in the cultural architecture that traditionally supported and sustained the full range of such powers. This is why thrift matters and why it is essential we reacquaint ourselves with its legacy. This is the promise of thrift.
Thrift and Thriving in American History
Thrift’s cultural powers derive from its distinctive etymology. Thrift originally referred to the condition of thriving, and throughout its history, thriving has been the subtext of thrift. It is in this connection that we glimpse thrift’s true value and imaginative potential, for it moves thrift beyond the instrumentalities of “more or less” and raises fundamental questions about the ends of economic life: more or less of what and for what purpose? In short, thrift brings us face-to-face with the most fundamental economic question for any society: what does it mean and take to thrive?
Culturally speaking, all societies must provide some provisional set of answers to this question. However partial or contested they may be in practice, such answers give expression to some idealized vision of what human thriving looks like, just as they exhort a community to embrace particular practices and habits that are believed essential for achieving that ideal vision of thriving. Over time, these answers gather the force of custom, morality, and even law, and as they do they become recognizable as distinctive economic ethics. Thrift can only make sense, therefore, when it is seen as an expression of those larger cultural constellations of beliefs, habits, practices, and supporting institutions that animate and support it. Crucially, the content and constitution of such constellations are never static, but change dramatically over time, and the meaning of thrift with them.
For example, in the economic ethic of the American Puritans, thriving was centered ultimately in the soul, which motivated members of the New England township to pursue pious management of time and talents and to accumulate wealth as a spiritual calling, not just for individuals, but for the whole community. Nevertheless, without thrift in the soul, there could be no thriving in either this life or the next. For the Victorians, however, the picture shifted from an all-encompassing but thoroughly spiritualized condition of thriving to one focused on material well-being and individual frugality. This was the birth of classic thrift epitomized by Benjamin Franklin’s famous maxims “time is money” and “a penny saved is a penny earned.” In the Victorian era, thriving was primarily located in individual and family life as a reflection of financial security, middle-class respectability, and diligent philanthropy. In time, the Victorian picture of thrift and thriving would be supplanted by yet newer visions—by the rise of Progressivism in the early twentieth century, by mass consumption in the post-world war era, and so on.
In our own time, a new and comparatively more radical ethical sensibility emerged, which both challenged and embraced aspects of former economic ethics. This sensibility is epitomized by a distinct character type: the proper subjects of “free markets” are “free-agents”—individuals who are oriented to material security, but also to self-actualizing through work, consumption, and social commitment. On the positive side, this ethic combines a vision of expressive consumption with a work ethic that privileges authenticity, self-cultivation, mobility, and autonomy as much as industrious time management. Yet like all such ethics before it, what we might call the Free-Agent Ethic has its downsides: even in good economic times many Americans are unable to meet the demands or enjoy the privileges of free agency. Such agency is empowering, even exhilarating, if you are one of the meritocratic professionals who can move securely from one job to another in the global economy, but distressing, often painful if you are not.
Not surprisingly, the Free-Agent Ethic has inspired a diverse array of protests, and in some cases, alternative, even reactionary economic ethics—from the Eco-thrift of environmentalists, to the simple life ethic promoted by certain religious groups, to the civic republican ethic of communitarians, to the social justice concerns of the Occupy Wall St. movement. These are divergent and internally diverse movements, but taken as a whole they represent a growing and widespread concern that what it means and takes to thrive in the era of free agency is proving unsustainable—especially when confronting the asymmetrical risks of global markets and disruptive consequences of technological change. (Indeed, if there is a leading contender for thrift’s replacement as a public language and ethic of future-oriented restraint and wise use today it is the idiom of sustainability.)
Virtue of Necessity or Necessary Virtue?
Throughout all of these periods, it needs to be said, the practice of scrimping and saving existed as a perennial virtue of necessity whenever times got hard. So it is and has ever been for humans since time out of mind. Given the long human acquaintance with scarcity, however, it is easy to see how Americans came to extol thrift explicitly as a distinct virtue just when they began to confront the moral ambiguities of living in a world of material abundance. With so much to be profligate about, parsimony became, if only for a time, a necessary counter to the temptations of reckless vice. While it cannot be developed sufficiently here, no single factor has impacted the fortunes of thrift more than the shift from the material conditions of scarcity to those of abundance. Our evolving conception and experience of abundance has been the persistent, if largely latent backdrop to the evolving prospects of thrift—first as a mostly unarticulated means of survival in epochs of material want and dearth, then as a highly articulated virtue of personal and public responsibility in an era of increasing affluence, and more recently, as a seemingly outmoded character ideal.
Thrift has therefore counted as both a matter of practicality and a virtue in American history. Given its seeming obsolescence today, however, any call for a recovery of “thrift” (in either sense of the word) will likely fall on uncomprehending ears. Even when it does not, reviving the virtue of thrift classically understood as individual frugality will be insufficient in addressing the scope and scale of the challenges we face in the present moment. An adequate response to runaway debt, growing social inequality, severe market turbulence, mounting environmental risk, and extreme political polarization will require the full range of thrift’s cultural powers beyond individual frugality. Tapping into these powers begins by reacquainting ourselves with the animating source of those powers found in the connection between thrift and thriving.
Further, this necessary process of rediscovery comes not by privileging any single previous economic ethic but drawing from the best of all of them. We have much to learn, for instance, from the Puritan Ethic’s concern with the common good and with ends that transcend private material (even worldly) well-being and the Victorian Ethic’s emphasis on individual responsibility, delayed gratification, and benevolence. We can learn from the Progressive Ethic’s concern with virtuous consumption and managerial efficiency alongside the championing of mutual obligation, social justice and civic virtue. We can learn even from the Free-Agent Ethic’s celebration of self-expression, autonomy and mobility. We will also need to take heed of the array of alternative ethics that have emerged in reaction to the deficiencies of free agency.
However, rediscovering the connection to thriving is only the first step in rekindling thrift’s cultural powers. Unless it is accompanied by an institutional framework that supports new ways of conceiving and practicing economic life—the generation of a new moral order—talk of thrift and thriving will likely lapse into platitude, or worse, shrill moralism. Until the hard work of conceptual, ethical, and institutional reconstruction begins, the promise of thrift will remain only a promissory note we hold unpaid against an otherwise severely mortgaged future. Still, the promise of thrift rightly understood is real and offers conceptual and ethical resources for renewing a common language by which we can talk together in the face of our many dilemmas and political disagreements about the nature of a prosperous, just, sustainable, and humane economy.
- Before reading this essay, did thrift matter to you, and if so, how? Who would you have said was a better exemplar of thrift, Ben Franklin or Scrooge?
- What would it take to make thrift popular again as a virtue? Would this be adequate in addressing the challenges (and opportunities) of our present socio-economic circumstances?
- Do we need to rescue the term, “thrift”, or just the social practices it once named–e.g., habits of wise use, practices of delayed gratification, conventions of conserving care, and so on?
- How do we create the social and institutional conditions in which the best of what thrift has meant throughout American history might once again find expression as a realistically compelling and potentially unifying social ethic?
To reiterate my answer to the question of why thrift matters, my claim is that thrift can be, and has been historically, both a practice of necessity and a virtue.
It is hard to see, however, what acknowledging that rather bland fact does to help us in the present.
In fact, I think asking the question in terms of how thrift matters—as a practice of necessity or as a virtue—risks distracting us from the more fundamental point of why it matters at all. At a moment when the word “thrift” has clearly lost its hold on our imaginations and on our material practices, the salient point is that Americans need to be reminded about the full range of thrift’s cultural powers, of which forced scrimping or the valorization of saving represent a severely reduced sample. As important, Americans need to be shown that for even these partial notions of thrift to be effective (and potentially culture shaping), they have to be connected to something beyond their own instrumentality. For the powers of thrift to work, they need to be energized by the ends to which they provide the means. Thrift is a package deal. Thrift matters finally when it is connected to a vitalizing notion of thriving and supported by the wider cultural and institutional context. Only when these dimensions are taken into account will thrift genuinely figure as one of the Big Questions of our time.
As it stands, the stated presumption of the question is that thrift matters mainly as a synonym for frugality, that is, for prudent savings and careful spending. The desire to revive this “classic” but restricted notion of thrift is understandable and certainly to be encouraged. We Americans would be clearly better off if we lived more fully within our means, individually and collectively. Of course, many make the case more forcefully, even ominously: The bill for our now generations-long lack of frugality will catch up with us eventually–may very well be upon us now–and frugality will once again become a virtue forced on us by necessity.
And yet, until it does, simply preaching the virtue of “thrift” will continue to fall flat, if not largely on deaf ears. This is not to say that Americans don’t recognize the importance of prudent savings or careful spending. A booming personal money management industry, trading in helpful consumer tips and advice, not to mention offering a vast array of on-line resources for sound financial management, is evidence enough that we still believe in the ideals of pennywise thrift. Consider the celebration of do-it-yourself parsimony in the writings and talks of popular finance guru Suze Orman, or in the best selling advice literature epitomized by The Millionaire Next Door.
But the stubborn fact remains: Americans are saving less than ever in practice. It is not for lack of believing in the classic ideals of frugality but in the motivation and ability of Americans to practice it consistently. There is a lot to say about the cultural and structural conditions that have brought us to this point—more than I can say with any brevity or concision. The simple issue is that our inherited view of thrift as frugality is too truncated in meaning and too disconnected from any supporting culture, customs, or social context to make it effective in the face of present challenges. It is hard to imagine how even a national revival of the practice of thrift by individual Americans would, by itself, be equal to the scale and scope of the pressures and dislocations we face at present. One needs only to contend briefly with the massive creative destruction currently being wrought by the combined forces of globalization, information, and automation to see that we confront a set of cultural and structural realities that exceed the power of our faintly inherited and badly curtailed notion of thrift to address sufficiently.
So what do we do? Do we consign thrift to the dustbin of history? Do we give up on frugality because it is insufficient by itself? Is this analysis a recipe for resignation?
I am arguing for three things as a starting point for reflection and action. These three provide a conceptual point of departure for the real and difficult work of renewal that needs to take place.
First, we need to revive the full range of what I have called thrift’s cultural powers. To paint in the broadest of strokes, these powers include (a) several varieties of personal restraint, from delayed gratification to temperance to saving for a rainy day (frugality is but one species). Animating and directing these types of restraint are (b) practices of stewardship, wise use, and preserving care. Behind each of these powers, in turn, stand (c) an array of contextualizing concerns, most prominently personal improvement, sociability, and mutual aid. Under optimal conditions, these combined cultural powers of thrift raise us above mere material survival and make possible all the ennobling and dignifying pursuits that make us fully human and life worth living. How do we revive this complete picture of thrift? The place to begin is the recovery of thrift’s mostly unknown, but surprisingly rich history. (See Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present, Oxford, 2011)
Second, for the cultural powers of thrift to work, they have to be connected to an animating power source. This is to return to thrift’s innate connection to the underlying concept of thriving. This connection is often neglected by the most ardent champions of thrift, who valorize the instrumentality of thrift as a virtue. But the real virtue of thrift is activated only when its practice (i.e., cultural powers) are connected to, and thus find their meaning and inspiration in, a robust and compelling vision of thriving.
How do we begin to recover this connection between thrift and thriving? How do we adjudicate between competing visions of thriving in a time of raging political polarization and far-reaching moral disagreement? In a pluralistic society, it has to begin as a dialogue at many levels of our society around the question: what does it mean and take to thrive? Here we might also consider what visions of thriving are on hand and whether they we find them adequate? The possible venues for such conversations are numerous, including neighborhood associations, places of worship, town and city councils, professional associations, community organizations, local cooperatives, families, affinity groups and so on.
Third, out of this discussion about what it means and takes to thrive, and with a full picture of the cultural powers of thrift in view, we need to begin the tough work of generating new languages, practices and institutions. Here we move even more fully out of the realm of cultural analysis to the concrete practices of citizenship–to the civic art of thriving. The connection between thrift and thriving has to be supported by complimentary norms and institutional arrangements we work for in common. Individual self-interest alone clearly has not been enough to generate a consistent commitment to thrift, especially when the larger cultural and institutional context almost universally works against it. We cannot hope to change the behavior of the system one thrifty person at a time. As the Puritans and the Progressives alike understood, thrift, like all our ideals, is a community affair.
These are three trailheads for the quest of restoring the ethos of thrift to its fullest expression. Clearly, there’s plenty to be done in the endeavor. We are, in fact, just beginning.
Two New Big Questions
- Sustainability—is it the new thrift?
- What does it mean and take to thrive and how do we assess or measure it?