Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Penny 'Saved'

I'm getting increasingly uncomfortable with people's rhetoric about "saving." A friend posted a link about someone who paid down $10,000 of credit card debt in a year by making his morning coffee at home instead of buying from a coffee shop, going from a two-car to a one-car family, "making do" with a pre-paid and more basic phone and plan, etc. Yesterday I was reading a post where a woman was asking about money-earning possibilities from home after where comment after comment recommended (rather unsolicitedly and completely ignoring the fact that she'd already stated how frugally they were living and only wanted to hear about income opportunities) she cut her cable subscription, go from two cars to one, get rid of a land line and/or go down to the basic cell plan, stop eating out, etc. What I want to know is why we consider having a $90 cable package, $80 cell phone plan, (multi-?)weekly restaurant visits, two cars, daily lattes, and the like the norm.

It's not really "saving" money to replace a daily $4 caffeinated beverage of choice with a 12-cent cup brewed at home; it's just not wasting it as egregiously. It's not being super-frugal to cut your cable package from all-inclusive super-deluxe premium package to basic cable + internet. It's really kind of offensive to read money-saving tips from people who assume that everyone is just handing huge sums of money out on a monthly basis to whomever asks for it in exchange for the merest convenience or entertainment. You don't need cable TV (I use a $10-a-month Netflix subscription for movies and free Hulu for the TV I watch; even that's unnecessary and could be cut were my straits direr or if I just decided to stop wasting so much time or kill so many brain cells); you don't need to buy coffee every morning (or, for that matter, drink coffee at all, heresy though that may appear); some people get by perfectly well without owning cars and aren't necessarily pursuing that out of desperation but as part of their regular life (though I do acknowledge that not everyone's current living/working situation makes that possible).

I find it highly ridiculous that either people think they're being frugal by paying slightly less for really pretty cushy and objectively superfluous, unnecessary, or even harmful things or that the average person isn't actually anywhere near that prodigal but thinks everyone else in the entire country is engaging in the utmost of hedonistic consumption. It's not like you get points simply for being below average consumption or that everyone deserves or is guaranteed a certain standard of living (well, yes, philosophically I think they do, but considerably lower than the one under discussion) and anything under that is virtuous abnegation and "doing without."

Of course, when it's money under discussion, income is quite relevant. If you make enough money to be able to afford all the above-listed things, I'm not saying they're inherently bad things to spend money on (though I personally hope to avoid them despite my income), but if you have tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt that you can pay off by cutting out coffee shop drinks and cable, I'd imagine the way you got it is exactly by making those expenditures to begin with. It is definitely, unequivocally not saving money to give up these things, then; it's simply not going (further) into debt, not living beyond your means.

This type of thinking is even worse when it comes to talk of "saving" energy. This NYT article reminded me of my increasing discomfort (though really its take is overall pretty good). It seems like people feel entitled to a certain amount of energy consumption and that the slightest bit of consumption under that activates feelings of deprivation or of virtuous forbearance. It's kind of silly to talk of "saving" water by turning off the tap while you're brushing your teeth (well, for one thing, does anyone actually not do this?) or by turning down/up the thermostat when you're not at home or by having your DVR player have the option to go into deep sleep when its not needed; in fact, you're using water, gas, or electricity to do any of these things and you're just not using/consuming/wasting as much when you turn things off or down.

The default is nothing. The earth didn't contract with us to permit us each X number of tons of carbon emission per year, Y gallons of water per day, or Z gallons of gas per week, and then it will start exacting penalties once those levels are reached. Each of these things we consume harms our environment or climate; the goal is to use as little as possible, not simply less than what's "reasonable" for a person living in a developed nation in modern times. (Money, as I said, is a little different since you do in fact have a certain amount you can spend up to and no further.)

I don't watch TV; I turn my computer off when I'm not using it; I unplug my cell charger when it's not actually charging my phone; I don't let water run when I'm not actively using it; I walk and take public transportation rather than driving; I don't eat resource-intensive beef or overly processed foods; I don't have air conditioning and keep the heater on a timer and still pretty low even when I'm home; I don't replace things like my MP3 player until they break even if they're crappy and better ones exist. I could (and, yeah, pretty much still do) feel holier-than-thou for everything I'm saving and all the good I'm doing; instead (/in addition) I'm horrified by the amount of water required per time I flush the toilet (1.6 gallons in a low-flow toilets; I think it's 3.5 for older ones) and feel bad (when I think about it, yes) for using my computer at all, for not keeping the thermostat still lower, for living in a space that's larger than what I would technically need, for buying things that aren't absolutely necessary for survival (um, it's quite possible to live without owning an MP3 player), for buying food I know has been shipped in from California or Mexico or Kansas or Florida... I mean, I don't obsess over it, and I don't suppose I think people should (mental health is important too), but I do consider it, I am made uncomfortable by it, and I do try to reduce it further where I can. I think rather than activating all our cognitive tricks to assuage whatever guilt we feel for living and consuming the way we do and then congratulating ourselves for not living worse, we should be willing to live with the discomfort, acknowledging that our choices aren't actually the best.

Otherwise we fall prey to the pat-yourself-on-the-back kind of environmentalism that ends up not actually making any improvements but merely keeps things from getting worse. (This is one reason cap and trade has never completely won my support, since rather than requiring cutting as much as possible it picks a level of "acceptable" pollution and lets everyone pollute up to that point. I mean, I still support it, it's obviously better than nothing, and it's likely the only thing that would work without strangling our economic system which people seem to be rather attached to...) I don't know why humanity has to feel like it's doing good all the time. You can feel it's necessary and justifiable to do certain things and still feel it's regrettable that you have to, that that's not the best possible course of action in an ideal world, and want to minimize them as much as possible (see: death penalty, eating meat, cutting social programs in a recession). I do think we have a right to be on this earth and to live flourishing lives, but we have a responsibility to live as lightly as we can and not to excessively harm other things in so doing.


  1. Believe me; it doesn't get any better. I'm going back through my finances and some of the books I think have good info--but even those books go back to "how much do you spend on coffee each week?" Ummm...that would be $O. "How much on a drink and snack at break?" Ummm...$0. I console myself with the knowledge that there really are people who have never thought about this, and perhaps some of them are becoming more responsible. Where are the books for me, though? How does a cheapskate cut expenses? I had a friend say she was going to track expenses and see if she could go a solid week without spending any money...umm...I pretty routinely do this, unless it is a week I need gas or groceries or a utility bill is due. (I'm still waiting for a frugal way to be able to see all the football games I want--live--without cable. That is the biggest place I'm wasting money (right now about the only significant place I can come up with).

  2. Oh, I meant to say that technically people who quit paying $4 a day for coffee AND put that same $4 in a retirement account ARE saving it, whereas before they were wasting it (well, to them that may not have been wasting it, but still). It was money that would have simply vanished but will now serve a future (hopefully frugal) purpose. Of course everyone draws lines in different places. I would never, ever buy a glass of wine at a restaurant, and very, very, very rarely get dessert there. But I will buy (the cheapest way possible) an airline ticket and travel somewhere.

  3. I don't mean to sound like I don't waste money, because I totally do (I do in fact purchase dessert, appetizers, or drinks with dinner in what I assume is a more normal pattern than the none we used to, though still probably below average, and I spend too much money on clothes), but I am aware that I do and that stopping wasting money is how to solve my money problems, not "looking for ways to save" money.

    I don't know, if you have credit card debt, not spending $4 on a coffee and spending on a retirement account instead still doesn't seem like the best idea. (Better than buying the coffee, but still...) Just don't spend it. And then when you're not in debt, put it in savings instead.

  4. But the problem is that for most people, if they "just don't spend it," the money disappears and they still don't have anything to show for it. The point (for most people) is to recognize that you *do* have enough money to put some into savings. The next step for most advisors is to then put yourself on an automatic savings plan so you never see that money (that you now know you don't *need* to live on). I'm sure the majority that follow this advice go back to buying their fancy coffee and somehow pay for it.

    So far what I've found in this run-through of the book I'm reading is that I'm already doing all the "don't spend on this" stuff I I have to spend *more* on adequate insurance (such as disability). Sigh.

  5. urban baby's income thread will make your head spin.

    I think I originally read about it from a daily links email from naked captialism. Anyway, it confirmed my beliefs about people in general.