Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Frugal Consumer" is an Oxymoron

Consciously Frugal recently did a "spreading the word" post about a company looking for thrifty families to feature on a new reality TV show. First of all, I want to be totally clear that I don't mean this as a knock on Aldra, because I think she totally ROCKS. I also think that as far as reality TV goes I'd much rather see a show on thrifty families than the sort of ridiculousness that generally makes it onto the airwaves.

But... aside from the fact that I can think of nothing more antithetical to the entire concept of "simple living" than subjecting oneself to the horrors of reality television, there's something about it that's really bothering me. Here's the pitch from the company:
Is your family the thriftiest in America? Do you refuse to pay full price? Are you always on the lookout for the best deals?

Calling all coupon experts, yard sale fanatics, thrift store wizards and super savers for a brand new show on a major network! This show will be the chance to put your skills to the test in a fun competition and prove once and for all that you and your family are the ultimate bargain hunters!
To be perfectly honest, just reading this blurb makes me shudder. Now I realize that they're trying to be cute and catchy, and that they also need to craft a program that will have some hope of appealing to the average American, but the whole idea that frugal living is somehow accomplished through "thrifty shopping" seriously makes me crazy.

This message is by no means unique to the producers of this show... in fact it seems that ever since the country entered the "great recession" we've been bombarded with articles, feature stories and human interest pieces about people who are finding ways to buy the "American dream" with less money. The message is that if you just learn how to shop better, you can "have it all" while paying less.

But here's the thing. The problem is not that people don't know how to shop properly, and it's not that the proverbial American dream is too expensive. The problem is that the American dream as it's currently understood is really a nightmare foisted upon us by a society which treats its people as consumers rather than citizens.

I would posit that if you want to live frugally, you don't need to cut coupons, find deals or hunt for bargains... what you need to do is stop buying things! We don't need to find ways to "get more for less" what we need to do is "get less" in the first place!

Now, obviously even the most frugal of the frugal will need to acquire a few objects from time to time, but seriously folks... how much stuff do we need?
Consumables excluded, I probably only buy about a dozen or so "things" per year... and that includes everything - clothing, garden tools, kitchen toys, home improvement items, gifts, cat stuff... everything. When I decide to buy something, I do try to get it as inexpensively as possible, but the truth is that the savings achieved by "thrifty shopping" is really negligible compared to the savings achieved by never "going shopping" in the first place.

And as far as "consumables" are concerned, my theory is that with very few exceptions, any product that has enough of a marketing budget behind it to be able to print coupons, is not something you need to be buying in the first place.
Here's the thing. There's just no way to shop ourselves out of the mess that our society is in. It doesn't matter how cheaply you're able to buy things, the very act of buying things in the first place sets us up for problems. We buy more things, we need more room for our stuff, plus we worry that people will break in and steal our belongings. So we get bigger houses in "nicer" neighborhoods, and then we need more time, energy and money to maintain and pay for them. And don't even get me started on "keeping up appearances." The whole process just puts us on a treadmill that becomes very difficult to get out of.
I guess what I'm saying is this. What we really need in this society is not cheaper stuff, or better deals, what we need is a complete paradigm shift.

Colin Beavan (AKA No Impact Man) gave a talk a while back about this topic. He was speaking about sustainability not frugal living, but it's all pretty much the same as far as I'm concerned, and he really hit the nail on the head.

What do you think?


  1. Amen! Reminds me of the NPR "On Belief" that I caught part of on Sunday. It was Independence Day-themed, and the guest talked about how we misunderstand the concept of "freedom."

    We go around talking about how great it is to have freedom, when in reality, our consumer culture tethers us to tons of "things," and unpleasant ways of life so that we can attain these things. Corporations and media all too easily dictate our lives and make a joke out of the concept of freedom.


    But yeah, you're totally right. I couldn't agree more. Did that stop me from posting it? No.

    Here's my rationalization--I think for most folks, the segue into getting off the consumer wheel of misery starts at learing to shop frugally/consciouslly/differently. I honestly don't think most people can separate their identities from shopping. I have seen folks have meltdowns over the idea of reduced consumption. But they are more open to shopping differently. Me thinks looking at shopping differently is a gateway drug to Life After Shopping.

    I love this line of yours: "...American dream as it's currently understood is really a nightmare foisted upon us by a society which treats its people as consumers rather than citizens." I would argue that folks see themselves as consumers because we live in a corporate state. There are no citizens in a corporate state! Only consumers. We will have to take our power back by relearning the fine art of being citizens. Most folks think being a good American means going to the mall.

    Also? Melissa? PREACH. "Corporations and media all too easily dictate our lives and make a joke out of the concept of freedom."

    I guess at the end of the day, I'm getting old and that makes me more willing to find some middle ground. To meet people where they are so that I have some chance of reaching them and showing another way. Yanno, LIKE JESUS. ahahahahha

  3. Nice post! I agree with you!


    Um, I totally hear that in Cartman's voice, from Southpark.

    And thanks for that 15-minute video. Love it!

    Also, it made me crave some sun chips. Is that bad?


  4. Jay & Rachel - Thank you so much for bolstering my ego!

    Melissa - OMG Yes! I'm gonna go to the NPR site and see if I can find the piece so I can listen to it myself.

    CF - What?!? Meeting people where they are?!? How despicably reasonable of you! Seriously, you nailed it with the corporate state bit.

    AJ - Can't stop cracking up picturing Cartman saying those words... now you've made me crave some Southpark. Is that bad?

  5. Dudes, I will have you know that I used to do the "Cartman voice" before I had ever seen an episode of Southpark. It was my demanding voice. Maybe all fat kids sound the same? 'Cuz lawd knows no matter how old I get, I am forever a fat kid.

    Anyhoo, once I started watching Southpark, I could no longer do the voice. WTH?

  6. The blurb also made me throw up a little in my mouth. (Probably because I watched my dad's hoarding tendencies escalate with yard sale finds, freebies, and deals on things he didn't need in the first place.) I'm with you on the need to rethink our priorities -- shopping should certainly not be one of them.

    I definitely buy more than a dozen things a year, but I feel like the number goes down a little more every year.

  7. Hey ECL, your comments and then CF's response gives me pause to contemplate consumerism + my latest "obsession": Zero Waste. As I've followed the ZWH forum, I have gotten rather dismayed, (gut level) at times as we all discuss "where to buy____". I enthusiastically participate of course. And I KNOW the ultimate goal is a onetime purchase, instead of, for example, the [free] plastic produce bags, etc. But still, buy, buy, buy! CF, your comments kind of clarify the issue, though,as these purchases are really on the path towards ZW, and thus non-consumerism. I would expect there to be a huge drop off in questions/advice, as we all get 'into the grove", so all is good :-) ??

  8. Jennifer - I think my Mom's hoarding and my subsequent struggle with clutter absolutely colors my views on this subject. Yard sales make my want to run away in horror. I've also found that the older I get the easier it is to buy less. Probably because I already have just about everything I need.

    Jay - I can totally relate to the buying things to have less waste dilemma. In fact, recently I've been on a mission to stop using plastic bags in my kitchen. To be clear, I haven't acquired any plastic bags in years (when I can help it) but I've been washing and re-using the same ones for over 10 years now. But the truth is that I really HATE the damned things. I hate washing them, I hate them drying all over the kitchen, I hate them piling up on the counter because I avoid washing them, I hate trying to decide when it's time to retire one to the recycling... I just HATE them.

    So last month I but the bullet and bought a handful of Pyrex containers at the thrift store... all with lids. It was a total PITA (pain in the ass) to re-arrange the kitchen cabinets so they all had a home, but I have resisted the urge to use plastic bags since I got them and it's SOOO much easier. Perhaps I'll write a post about it soon.

    I guess that's my long-winded way of saying that not all acquiring of things is bad... especially when a one-time purchase gets you off of one of the many hamster wheels that can entrap us. For me the key is to carefully consider whether the thing I'm contemplating buying will really, truly help, or whether it's just a good excuse to buy something. I generally make myself think about it for at least a month before I take the plunge. If it still sounds like a good idea after the excitement of wanting it has gone away, then it probably is.

  9. Point well taken! Plastic Bags: argh!!!!!

    Just for fun check out the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition (of Star Trek "fame"), see particularly #6:


  10. Ha! Quark is smiling down on you my friend. I think my favorite is number 76: Every once in a while, declare peace. It confuses the hell out of your enemies.

  11. Love it, ECL. Being part of the Elder Class, I remember TV in the beginning. Yes, there were sponsors & commercials, but there were fewer and they were different. It frosts my butt that people actually make 6 figure salaries for "writing" the crap that passes for commercials these days. And, it's nothing but propaganda programming, turning us into automaton buying machines. NEW, IMPROVED seems to work on the masses.

    The only good thing about this recession is that people are actually buying less. I have a feeling - regardless of whether the recession EVER ends or not - that less consumption will stick with a decent percentage of the population. Much like the frugality of WWII stuck with my parents' generation. It's us - the Baby Boomers - who swallowed the buy - buy - buy propaganda of TV and passed it on to our children and developing countries. The corporate beasts are insatiable and they will travel far & wide to find an audience willing to believe their lies and buy their crap (not only their sales pitch but the crap they sell and pass off as must have products).

  12. Jay, the zero waste lifestyle fascinates me. I want to do it, but then I look at how much effing trash I produce and it feels impossible. Le sigh.

    Connie, I love the term "Elder Class." Fabulous!

  13. Connie - I think it would be utterly and totally amazing if frugality actually "stuck" with at least a small percentage of the population this time.

    I share your feelings about advertising these days. I actually don't have a problem with the kind of advertising that just informs people about a product or service that they might need, it's the "manufactured-need-you'd-better'buy-this-stupid-thing-or-else-you're-a-worthless-human-being" type of marketing that really bugs me.

  14. As usual, well said ECL! Classic examples are all the bizarre prescription meds you just gotta get your Doc to give you--never mind the litany of side effects!

    I concur with Connie, EXCEPT I clearly remember (watch TVLAND some time) There was, as now, a lot of product placement especially on variety shows, where the host would pitch a product -usually cigarettes right during the show.
    The scary thing now is how subtle product placement can be, like the augmented vroom-vroom, tire squealing, amazing maneuverability of the car driven by the heroes in Hawaii Five-0 (TMI 'bout my viewing tastes, probably).
    Anyhow, I'm so glad at least cigarette ads are banned!

    BTW, My kids actually had, included in a "Social Living" class (required, 9th Grade), a whole section on being a "smart" consumer, aka "beware of advertising"
    (figured out how to get just my name in the profile-yippee)

  15. My rant re: commercials and just how STUPID - STUPID - STUPID they are now. The Dairy Queen (DQ), GEICO & Allstate "Mayhem" commercials make me want to run screaming through the streets. People are paid ridiculously high salaries (that could feed a family of 12 for 5 years) for writing (?) this crap.

    Jay, I'm with you on "call your doctor & ask for this new pill", which will cause your stomach to rupture, your teeth & hair to fall out, but will make you happy anyway. They want to drug and Disneyfy all of us.


  16. great post-right on!

  17. I was actually considering purchasing a treadmill before I read this. Only 12 things a year? You are my hero. Excellent post. Will be linking it to my Toss Of The Week today!

  18. Jay & Connie - I'm totally laughing about the drug commercials. Half the time I can't even tell which symptoms the drugs are supposed to address... guess it doesn't really matter, they just want us all medicated. Personally, I think that in the vast majority of cases we would do better if doctors just prescribed some fresh vegetables, long walks and reasonable amounts of sleep!

    Sara - Glad you like my lunatic ravings...

    Cristina - OK, now I'm never one to try to talk someone into buying something, but if owning a treadmill would allow you to cut out a monthly expense like a gym membership, then it might be a worthwhile investment. That being said, it's the kind of thing that could easily fall into the "it seemed like such a good idea at the time" category.

    If it were me, I'd hold off for at least a month or two and see how you feel about it then. If you do decide to get one, I have observed that the road to the thrift store, like the road to hell, is paved with good intentions... especially where exercise equipment is concerned, so you could probably pick one up pretty cheaply.

  19. hah! Treadmill = clothes hanger. At least at my parents' home :-))

  20. It doesn't need to be said again really... but well said! This is something I feel very strongly about, because just as much as a lot of people need constant stimulation to get away from themselves at times, it seems that some people just have an addiction to instant gratification of buying "new things", the latest and greatest.
    I myself used to do that until I realized a few years ago that this was silly. Now i'm working on giving away my stuff to friends so I can downsize to a good level of necessity. It'll make it much easier to move!

  21. Liss - "people need constant stimulation to get away from themselves" Wow, you said a mouthful there! I personally believe that the whole "not being able to face ourselves" thing is really at the heart of the vast majority of our personal and societal problems. Unfortunately, self avoidance seems to be built into the fabric of our society. Even after years and years of working on it, I still find it a struggle at times.

  22. You know what I think about all of that - AMEN SISTER!

  23. Such a brilliant post! You've struck a chord here obviously the comments were many! I will be reblogging this In the next few days.
    I totally agree we need to just buy less. It's not easy to turn around what has been ingrained in us for our whole lives but I'm slowly doing it so it's possible. It's great to read and hear things like this to give the little extra nudges along the way.
    Thank you x

    1. Awwww, thanks so much for your kind words. I admit that even after all these years it's pretty easy to fall into the trap of thinking I can just buy my way out of various problems. But inevitably buying more things only leads to more problems... I just have to keep reminding myself of this fact.

  24. I've seen a tv "expert" in savings list cable as a necessity. That blew my mind.

    1. Wait... let me guess... this "expert" was on a cable TV show! :-)


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