book review: in cheap we trust
Growing up, Lauren Weber rationed shower time, wore extra sweaters indoors to fend off the chill of her faintly heated house, and was driven around town with her father using hand signals during turns to extend the life of the car’s lights. Weber’s family was neither poor nor eco-conscious ahead of its time. Her family was, to put it bluntly, cheap.
Weber’s In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, inspired by her own (under)spending habits and childhood of scrimping at the behest of her “maniacally cheap” father, traces the pendulum swing between frugality and conspicuous consumption through American history.
Weber’s book was recently discussed at the People of the Book Club, where participants read and discuss fiction and nonfiction works with a theme of justice. For the AJWS and AVODAH staff, alumni, and other members of the Pursue: Action for a Just World community who attend, it is an opportunity to relate to one another beyond work or for formal settings where they otherwise interact, sharing personal reflections on literary texts. The formation of the book club was inspired by the Jewish tradition of grappling with text and with other people, in an expanded notion of hevruta study: learning with others, rather than alone, expands the discovery of new insights. All discussions are led by a knowledgeable facilitator, and this conversation was no exception: Weber herself joined the group.
Cheapness as a justice issue brought up for participants everything from the striking economic inequities in the US today to personal struggles with displays of wealth in their own communities. “I wish there was more of a movement in Judaism to live within your means,” one participant expressed.
On the other hand, an item discussed in the book that resonated with the participants was the stereotype of Jews as cheap. Whole sections on religious approaches to frugality—from Jesus’ teachings of simplicity to the Buddhist emphasis on not concerning oneself deeply with worldly things—had been cut from the book prior to publication. Yet Weber, who is Jewish, noted that this chapter on the Jewish stereotype—which also applies to another successful minority group, Chinese Americans—had been the most compelling part of the book to write. “What’s most interesting to me is my shame around Jews and money,” she commented. This sentiment may resonate with those concerned with potential anti-Semitic criticisms of Jews’ behavior around money, particularly in the era of Bernie Madoff.
Yet for the many Jews who are poor, being cheap is not a choice. “We get $2 checks in the mail,” said AJWS staff member Lauren Miller, 32, who vouched for the generosity of Jewish donors to philanthropic causes at all income levels.
Starting with the Puritans and Benjamin Franklin, Weber trains her sharp historical eye on the internal struggles with wealth that have defined US culture over the centuries. In wartime, it is traditionally a moral imperative to save money and materials; in peacetime, those who do not buy, buy, buy can be considered personally responsible for the stagnation of the nation’s economy, not to mention unpatriotic.
In addition, Americans’ saving rates have plunged drastically over the years, especially among the middle and working classes, leaving people even more vulnerable to financial turmoil. No wonder the tension between spending and saving remains for many today, especially in the wake of recent recessions.
More than a matter of managing personal finances, ideas for taking steps toward a thriftier lifestyle may be the motivation and means for responding to an increasingly inequitable, materialistic way of living. In a culture that emphasizes the thrills of personal consumption, the rising notoriety of the freegans—who scavenge food from cast-offs of overproduction—accentuates the environmental unsustainability of current production and consumption rates.
Weber explained to the group that she hopes the book will influence conversations about our economy and cause people to rethink consumption. She hopes her readers will ask, “What is a meaningful life?”
“I’m not opposed to spending,” she said, “but it’s about doing so thoughtfully and carefully, thinking about short-term wants versus long-term goals.”