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A Smaller Piece of a Better Pie: Embracing "Luxurious Frugality"

It seems apparent that American consumerism must change if the American way of life is to be viable in the long term. We either need to find less environmentally impactful ways of producing and consuming, or we need to simply consume less.

The former tactic will require incredible investment, research, and policy change. The latter, in contrast, requires nothing. So why aren’t we already implementing the easier of the two solutions?
 
For me, it helps to think about my two grandmothers: Grandma Echterling and Grandma Giessman. Both women were shaped by the Great Depression, but that early influence played out differently in their lifelong approaches to consumerism.
 
After the Second World War, Grandma Echterling married a veteran whose father owned a small lumberyard. She and her husband sold the business well before the typical retirement age and became what we call financially independent. Grandma Echterling was now able to afford clubs and cruises, diamonds and doo-dads. She enjoyed all of these things immensely—even innocently. She was living the life of plenty she had not had as a girl. To my sister and me, she was a symbol of materialism, yes, but also of living life to its fullest. The sign in the back window of her Cadillac (a bumper sticker would have been tacky) read: "Good girls go to Heaven. Bad girls go everywhere." Her implicit lesson for us: Pleasure is good; go out and get it.
 
Just a short drive away, Grandma Giessman had married her own veteran—a working man whose wages she spent as little of as possible. While Grandma Echterling lived it up, Grandma Giessman stayed in. She let us drink the water from boiling potatoes (there’s a lot of nutrition there!) and taught us to live without air conditioning (just wear lighter clothes!). She walked us to the grocery store and showed us the shelf with dented, discounted cans. Her consumer lesson to us: waste not, want not.
 
If our country had to choose between the two role models, Grandma Echterling would win hands down. Even amid a historic recession and ominous climate change, ours is a society of excess. Our response to economic and environmental woes here and abroad is to consume even more and to vote for people who promise that we will continue to be able to do so forever. There are, to be sure, some Americans who have a Grandma Giessman lifestyle because they have no choice. There is also a countercultural fringe that chooses a simple life despite having other opportunities. The real issue, though, is how to sell Grandma Giessman’s wisdom to the rest of America. Living simply is not something we want to remain class-based or countercultural; we want it to be downright American.
 
That is why I like New Dream’s attempts to evoke the plenty that can come with simplicity ("More of what matters—and less of what doesn’t"). Grandma Echterling, after all, would only have adopted Grandma Giessman’s lifestyle if she had thought it would increase her happiness; that’s just reality. Both of my grandmothers had practical, human wisdom to share. A workable solution has to honor both.
 
Juliet Schor calls this solution plenitude. I might call it "luxurious frugality": increasing pleasure by partaking judiciously of our country’s wealth. By the rule of luxurious frugality, we would keep smaller but more elegant homes. We would buy cheap cars but nice bikes. We would travel less often, but make it count when we did. If the old American Dream is to get a piece of the pie, a New American Dream needs to be that more people get smaller pieces of a better pie.
 
This is not just about America, either. We know now that our dream has to be one that the whole world can sustainably aspire to. The planet can’t support an India and a China that live like we currently do, yet we can’t keep the world’s rising middle class from aspiring to do just that. Perhaps if we can mix Grandma Echterling into the Green Dream and Grandma Giessman into the American Dream, we can raise our national standard of living to one that could accommodate all humans.
 
Jake Giessman is a teacher in Columbia, Missouri, and a guest blogger for the Center for a New American Dream.

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Comments

Jake I have thought alot about this since you posted it on the American Dream blog. Maybe mainstream would not understand this point of view. But, as a person who was raised in poverty and has lived on a teacher’s salary as an adult, part of me sees the frugality thing as a game played by people who have money but feel guilty about it. As a 35 year old everything I owned I could fit in my small car.I now live in the smallest house and drive the smallest car but it is not a game it is just how life is. Like your grandmother Echterling I believe pleasure is good but does not have to be expensive. But, like Granmother Giessman I can not tolerate waste.
The mainstream may not understand this.
Where I think our society has problems is with many people from your generation of 30 somethings have been raised to expect excess but I think the real problem is how this new generation is raising their own children. I was just with my nieces and nephews at Christmas when their children received so many gifts. Why? One present from parents, one from Santa and one from each grandparent; isn’t that enough? Or high school students that I work with often receive a new car at the age of 16. What are they being set up for? Do they appreciate the things (all made of plastic and overly safe) they have? As a society we may have gone over the excess cliff and maybe most people do not understand frugality or simplicity. But you know people should do what makes them happy. Our ecomomy certainly benefits from people purchasing luxurious items. I have chosen a life out of the mainstream and it has been good.

Posted by Marilyn Toalson at December 31, 2012 at 3:52pm

It is a mistake to demonize wealth; the wealthy grandma who thoroughly enjoyed her wealth is not the “bad” grandma or a bad person. Wealth is to be enjoyed; it is not bad. Many people do really wonderful things with wealth, however much wealth they have from a little to a great deal.

As I see it, the point to the story is not to label wealthy grandma’s fun as bad nor fearful penny penching grandma’s behavior as good, but to say live your life in such a way that you feel good about it. Spend in such a way that feels good to you. A simpler lifestyle can be very satisfying, but I’m sure fearful grandma’s lifestyle was not.

Posted by Sharon Walls at December 12, 2012 at 2:09pm

This is a good story about how to live life abundantly. The problem in our country is that when other people see “bad girl grandma,” they think they should live the same way and so do it on borrowed money. They forget the importance of saving the little money they have to have such a lifestyle. “Bad girl gradma” in the story inherited the money and became wealthy because of her father-in-law’s frugality. She never really learned about the price he paid for her lifestyle.

Posted by Jesus Padilla at December 8, 2012 at 11:29am

I think about this all the time.

It is because I have had the ability to experience excess and the resultant lack of joy it brings that I have been motivated to scale back and choose a life of deliberate simplicity.

Who am I to tell those who have aspired to be able to purchase all the stuff that they’re wrong and irresponsible? And, they’re determined to not hear it anyway…

Posted by Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm at December 5, 2012 at 12:07pm

Jake, thank you so much for your story. I can relate completely, having immigrant parents that lived through a war in which food and any sort of excess was a luxury that couldn’t be afforded. However, to be able to wild any of that luxury now is seen as a comfort. Definitely this process towards simplicity as the new norm will have to be a gradual process for many people. I think it’s easiest to learn such values when you’re growing up, but for those that are already grown up, it’s harder for for them to imagine living life more simply. What helps, though, is to live life simply and be that example for others to point to and consider, especially if you show that a life lived simply is that much more full of the things that DO matter, as you so perfectly stated it.

Posted by Mamie Huang at December 3, 2012 at 3:15pm

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