included sexy-sounding events such as Have a Bank Account
Day and Pay Bills Promptly Day.
National Thrift Week had a long run—until 1966. That
year, it so happens, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled
“What’s Good for the Economy….” An excerpt: “For 62 fat
months, prosperity has fed itself because Americans have
spent, lent, borrowed and invested with confidence. They
have felt correctly that jobs, production, profits and paychecks would continue to go up and up.” Meanwhile, household debt as a percentage of disposable income had nearly
doubled since 1950, from roughly 35 percent to nearly 70
percent. Thrift Week had been replaced by a newer national
mandate for success and happiness: Spend more than you can
afford, and our economy will boom.
Fast-forward to today, with personal bankruptcies and
home foreclosures near all-time highs. The average U.S.
household owes about $7,500 in credit-card debt. Almost half
of workers live paycheck to paycheck. Sometime in the 1990s,
says Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor, Ph.D.,
consumers went into overdrive, egged on by easy credit and
real-estate values on steroids.
According to Schor, author of The Overspent American:
Why We Want What We Don’t Need, keeping up with the
dies at 81.
exploits: Her son,
Ned, lost a leg
due to her
to treat a child-
The Jack Benny
show debuts on
NBC radio. In
a 1948 skit a
money or your life!”
After a long pause,
Benny replies, “I’m
thinking it over!”
Joneses suddenly wasn’t enough anymore. Now we had to
surpass them, to live, as Robin Leach would say, the lifestyles
of the rich and famous.
How long ago that now seems.
A FAMILIAR LINE I TEM in the budgets of the thrift mavens I met is
zero. They spend nothing, or close to it, on fast food, clothing, or the latest whatsit. “Like a lot of moms,” says Welmoed
Sisson of Gaithersburg, Maryland, “I love shopping with my
daughter, but it’s just to laugh about how much stuff people
buy that’s totally unnecessary, not to buy things ourselves. It
took me a while to explain to our kids that if a company needs
to advertise all over the place, it’s something that people
really don’t need. But eventually they got it.” Confirmation
came when her daughter scored a thrift-store find: an elegant
black dress for $12.50 that she wore to her senior prom.
Sisson and her husband, Bob, both in their early 50s, display the zeal of converts. Bob quit a high-level corporate job
a decade ago. Together the couple started a home-inspection
business and now typically earn around $80,000 a year. Three
years ago they moved from an 8,000-square-foot home to one
about a third that size.
“Moving made us realize how much we owned that wasn’t
being used and wasn’t necessary,” says Welmoed. “When
you look at how much most of us have compared with world
standards, it’s almost embarrassing.”
One of the joys the Sissons discovered as they downsized
their lifestyle was each other’s company. “We started eating
nearly all of our dinners here at home, as a family, and—I’m
not exaggerating—sitting around the table for a good hour
after the meal was finished, just talking about our days,” says
Welmoed. “We started sharing so much more as a family.”
FOR MANY CHEAPSKATES the formula is simple: spending less
money creates more time. “The relentless pressure to buy
more crap makes things like sleep, free time, and relationships the real luxuries these days,” says Jacquie Phelan, 55,
a professional mountain biker I met in Fairfax, California,
outside the rustic home she proudly calls the Taj Mahovel.
The only way most people can afford simple pleasures, she
adds, is to “spend less, not earn more.”
SAM WALTON OPENS
WALTON’S 5 & 10 IN BEN TON-VILLE, ARKANSAS, FUTURE
HOME OF WAL-MART, THE
WORLD’S LARGEST DISCOUNT
Bargain-priced at around
$2,000, the Volkswagen
Beetle surpasses Henry
Ford’s Model T as the
most-produced car in