Thrift is often dismissed as the sort of Julie Andrews of virtues: familiar and comfortable, but hardly scintillating. Not so. Done right, deliberating how you spend has a hidden voluptuousness. Thrift allows you to appraise the world anew. It's about perusing life's possibilities, then homing in on the ones that make you happiest. Raised in a family of tightwads, I've known this for a while, but more people, it seems, are discovering it during these hard economic times. If you're trying to keep up with the Joneses, it's the Joneses who ultimately choose the kitchen or car you're going to buy. Thrift allows you to go explore the wilds of your own desires. For many of us, the current rediscovery of what my British friends call "mending and making do" feels more liberating than the go-go years ever did.
As the daughter of two Depression-era babies, I am hardwired for thrift. I grew up in a household run on economic principles as strict as Maoist China's. Spending on travel, theater tickets, and higher education was virtuous; spending on heating, good wine, or clothes was morally dubious. We measured our cars in decades, driving a 1965 Comet adorned with "Peace Now" stickers well into Jimmy Carter's administration. Our weekly trips to the local farmers' market always happened at dusk, for my father had figured out that when the sun began to dip, the vegetable prices did, too. And yet my father's bizarre money-saving measures weren't just about tightfistedness but a careful calibration of what was important in this life. If a summer in Europe meant winters of wearing frayed sweaters and eating drumsticks, he reasoned, so be it. If walking on antique Persian carpets meant sitting on a sprung and lumpy sofa, that was a price worth paying.
Now raising a family during a recession, I'm carrying on the tradition. I often work from home, but I won't turn on the heat during the day, figuring the chill keeps me alert. (Granted, sometimes the house gets so cold that I repair to the local café, often blowing a week's heating bill on cakes and cappuccino. Did I say that my economies were logical? I didn't.) My husband and I live with our two daughters in a fifth-floor walk-up. But climbing 92 stairs to get to our apartment means we can afford to live in a city we love—saving on gym bills as we do. Our dryer has been broken for years. We'll replace it, someday. Till then, we're drying our clothes on radiators, and have invested the money we save responsibly: on a week in the South of France.
Finite means, and deciding how to spend them, has a delicious tension that infinite means can't supply. If the lamp's genie had granted Aladdin limitless wishes instead of just three, where would the fun be in that? The link between thrift and being fully engaged with life's possibilities was recently noted by Barbra Streisand, of all people. Back before she got famous, she had to stretch her $45 clerk's salary all week. "Those were amazing times," she told a talk-show host, "when you have your future ahead of you, and the challenges of making that $45 last, and appreciating every penny."
"Thrift connects you, not just to people but to processes"
To learn this for myself, I needed a brief fling with profligacy. For a few years in my early 30s, without children or a mortgage, I spent freely. Working all hours in New York, I'd flop into yellow cabs and restaurants as regularly as I did my own bed. Work was challenging, but how I spent my paycheck was simple: I'd see, I'd like, I'd buy. I still have the Max Mara coat I bought back then, off the peg, and its endurance means my mother's right: Good goods last.
But even when it made sound economic sense, big spending never matched the thrill of thrift. Ultimately, it felt spiritually chintzy, a parsimony of the heart, lacking, as it does, the energy and imagination that thrift requires. The kick I get from my Nicole Farhi coat is quadrupled, knowing I found it at a secondhand shop for less than a quarter of its retail price. The half-price massages I get from a friend—"rent" for our living room doubling once weekly for her aromatherapy practice—feel far more delicious than any day-spa treatment.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not knocking luxury per se, just the weightless, uncalibrated kind. The spas, like the cabs and restaurants I spent on during my personal boom years, were lovely—if a little lonely. Spending lots is so often about splendid isolation, whether you're buying the right to be the only woman in the marketing department with an Hermès bag, or the hushed solitude of a cab ride uptown. My current haunts aren't spas or cabs but the library, the bus, and the jumble sale. To borrow a book rather than buy it, to share a ride uptown with strangers—both save money, to be sure. But their by-product is a community born of common needs. In a big city, sharing books and rides can make you feel more a part of the world than being "friended" by any number of Facebook buddies. Back during my big-spending years, I remember my babysitter Tanya telling me how she was redecorating her house. A guy she knew from the neighborhood was helping sand the floors; a neighbor was sewing the curtains. Working little and earning less, she used a barter economy and friends to fashion a gorgeous house. (Hazy on the details, I fantasized that it was just like the barn-raising scene in Witness, complete with Harrison Ford.) Me, with my college degrees, and a social circle of other white-collar types? I was stuck with the coldness of the cash nexus, and the Yellow Pages.
Thrift connects you, not just to people but to processes. It makes you less passive, more alert—to more than your bank statements. There's a weird pleasure, for example, in breaking up the bones of a chicken to make stock, greasy and clumsy as it is. Of course, it's a miracle—a glorious one, on busy nights—to phone for takeout and have dinner appear, deus ex machina. But there's a quieter magic in transforming Sunday's roast into Monday's sandwiches, then boiling it down to Tuesday's soup, and in turn stretching it into Wednesday's risotto base. Thrift is about that seminal life lesson, as basic as a cook's stock. It's about making the best of what you've got.
Carla Power is at work on a book about the Muslim women's rights movement.
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