The New Frugality: Will It Last or Languish?

May 27, 2009

One woman cuts her dryer sheets in half, using one sheet for two loads. Another dots a little liquid fabric softener onto a washcloth and tosses that in with her tumbling clothes. Yet another softens her socks and undies with leftover dryer sheets filched from trashcans and empty machines at the Laundromat.

What do these women have in common? They're tightwads, folks who live the frugal life for profit and fun. Each of these savvy savers shared her tip with Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced "decision"), author of the Tightwad Gazette, a former newsletter that has since been compiled into a popular book by the same name.

Published between 1991 and 1996, Dacyczyn's newsletter saw readership swell to more than 100,000 back when the economy was roaring along. Imagine how much interest it might generate today.

In a telephone survey conducted April 20 and 21, more than half of Americans -- 53 percent -- told Gallup pollsters they've been spending less money recently than they spent before the economy tanked. Some 32 percent said they're spending less and plan to make this newfound prudence their "new normal" modus operandi in years to come. Additionally, 27 percent said they're saving more, and they plan to continue their thrifty-come-lately behavior in the future.

Will they? Probably not, according to John Lastovicka, a professor of marketing at the W. P. Carey School of Business and one of the few researchers who's examined the lifestyles of those who scrimp and save. His research indicates that parsimony is a little like dancing. It's something anyone can learn, but some have more talent for it than others. What's more, the truly penny-wise take pleasure in their penny pinching. But, he adds, frugality is a tough road to walk, one he believes will be "difficult to make popular during times of plenty."

Traits of the tightwad

"There are at least two kinds of frugality: voluntary and involuntary," Lastovicka explains. When he did his research in the mid-1990s, the economy was booming. But, some "folks were choosing to be frugal. They enjoyed it. Frugal people like coming up with clever ideas for saving money."

In fact, Lastovicka considers the frugal quite resourceful. For example, he recalls a talk-show guest who admitted he loved The New York Times' crossword puzzle, but wouldn't buy the Times to do it. "He'd go to the library, spend a nickel and photocopy the crossword puzzle. People in the audience were booing when they heard this. You'd have to be a brave person" to face such scorn.

As it turns out, bravery is one of the traits the frugal share. Lastovicka and his team measured susceptibility to interpersonal influence as part of their research. "Frugal people tend to be less influenced by what other people think of them," he says. As an example, he points to an Oprah guest on an "I'm married to a cheapskate" episode who was "oblivious to his wife's embarrassment" when he wore old, patched clothing.

Perhaps this willingness to forego fashion is rooted in the long-term orientation frugal people share. "Frugal people have longer-term consumption goals," Lastovicka notes. "They want to retire in the 40s. Or, they want their kids to go to private schools. Or, they want a cabin in the woods. And, they're pretty determined to finance those dreams. They're not derailed by continually indulging in that $4 Starbucks coffee or that Sunday New York Times."

One thing frugal people don't necessarily use is coupons. "They recognize that coupons try to get you to buy packaged goods, which isn't the cheapest way to go," Lastovicka explains. The frugal are more likely to buy unbranded commodities (like whole chickens) and are less likely to buy branded packaged goods (like frozen chicken nuggets).

Another finding that surprised the researchers is thriftiness doesn't seem to stem from specific religious or cultural backgrounds. "I thought frugality would be segmented somehow by age or ethnicity," he continues. For instance, he expected those who lived through The Great Depression to have a higher percentage of penny watchers, but that isn't the case. However, that finding suggests that those who were likely frugal out of necessity during the 1930's were no more likely to live frugally decades later.

The researchers discovered that some 15 percent of the population seems to have the frugal gene. That figure cuts across races, religions and age groups.

But, even though skinflint behavior doesn't have an ethnic or cultural component, the frugal think it does. Almost everyone who was a self-professed saver told the researchers their penny-watching ways stemmed from their background. According to Lastovicka, he heard plenty of frugal souls give explanations along the lines of, "Oh, you know us ________. We're really tight. And _______ could be Armenians or Blacks or Scotts or you name it."

Since Lastovicka didn't see any evidence to prove that parsimony relates to culture, religion, ethnicity or other factors related to upbringing, he says this tells him "that there will always be people who work at being frugal, regardless of their circumstances."

Why frugality (for most) is fleeting

According to the research, frugality involves restraint in acquisition, as well as conscientious use. By conscientious use, Lastovicka is referring to things like finding unconventional uses for items, such as washing windows with old newspaper instead of paper towels or keeping a shirt for the life of the item, not simply the life of its compliance to fashion dictates of the day.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of work involved in frugality. Rather than buying chicken breasts or wings, the thrifty soul will buy the whole chicken, then cut the bird up. Instead of throwing out dirty plastic storage bags, economical folks wash and reuse them. The penny-prudent are the folks who dilute liquid dish soap to make it last longer or use shoe polish as a wood-refinishing treatment. Yes, these actions save money, but they also take effort.

Plus, frugality has an emotional toll. "There are a lot of negative connotations with it: cheapskate, skinflint, miser. Most of us would like to be nicely regarded, not thought of in a negative way," Lastovicka says.

Saving grace

Despite the effort and potential stigma of a miserly life, Lastovicka notes that there are some significant benefits. Along with extra greenbacks, there's a Green impact. "Frugal people are buying less stuff, so there's less stuff going into landfills. They use bicycles and mass transit more, so they pollute less than the average person," the researcher says.

Lastovicka's study also looked at environmentally impactful habits such as timing showers or keeping thermostats set a little higher in the summer and lower in the winter. Frugal people generally engaged in these behaviors, but not for the ecological payoff. They were trying to reduce their utility bills, not their carbon footprints, although the environmental perks still accrued.

In addition, Lastovicka sees an interpersonal payoff. "If someone is engaging in the frugal lifestyle, he or she is probably interacting with others in the household," he notes. "Instead of going out to movies, frugal people may be home playing cards. Instead of grabbing take-out, a family may work together preparing dinner."

He points out that sociologists have found those who have the happiest lives have good marriages, a web of friends and spiritual outlets. "If you're working two jobs to pay for all your stuff, you don't have time for those things," he adds. Along with building their bank accounts, cheapskates may be building stronger social networks.

At bottom, Lastovicka expresses admiration for the steadfast skinflint. "Frugality is a lost way of life. It's something that needs to be re-learned, because it's something we've largely forgotten," he says.

Plenty of newspapers today say we're relearning this skill -- and doing it quickly. The headline of a recent article in The Wall Street Journal read, "Frugality forged in today's recession has potential to outlast it."

"I doubt it," Lastovicka says. According to him, today's frugality is something people must do, not necessarily something they want to do. "Frugality is a lot of work. Not everyone will enjoy it and stay with it when they no longer have to be frugal."

In the end, the joy of saving is what separates the sincere skinflint from provisional penny pinchers. For the thrifty, saving money is its own reward. They find pleasure in prudence, no matter what other people think of them.

Super scrimper Dacyczyn captured the essence of this socially impervious parsimony in the preface to her Tightwad Gazette compilation: "When Oprah had a show featuring cheapskates, I didn't laugh. I took notes," she wrote.

Bottom Line:

  • News pundits are forecasting an increase in frugal behavior because of the recession. John Lastovicka, a W. P. Carey School professor, doesn't agree that any such short-term changes will result in longer-run differences in consumer behavior.
  • Some 15 percent of the population engages in what Lastovicka calls frugal behavior.
  • Frugal people who engaged in frugality out of choice, and not necessity, enjoy saving money, treat it as a game or hobby, save to achieve some long-term goal and engage in this behavior no matter what others think of them.
  • Frugality is hard work, and Lastovicka doesn't think most will pursue it if they don't need to do so. Once the economy recovers, he expects many of the spend-thrifty to drop their newfound thrift.