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Treasuring Thrift: 'In Cheap We Trust'

Journalist Lauren Weber knows a little something about being cheap. When she was growing up, her father refused to set the heat above 50 degrees during the winter in New England.

He turned out the lights, even if someone had left a room for just a moment. And for a little while he even tried to ration the family's use of toilet paper. Seriously.

Rather than traumatize Weber, all that — and more — made her the perfect person to explore the roots of frugality in the United States.

She's documented that study in her new book, In Cheap We Trust.

"When I started working on the book," says Weber, "a friend of mine suggested I call it 'Thrift: A Short History of a Dying Virtue,' but the more I did reporting on it, the more every person I talked to would say, 'Oh, you've got to interview my father, my brother, my wife, or you should interview me.'"

That's when Weber realized being cheap isn't dead or even dying; it's just been hiding underground for quite a while. Think of it as the frugal silent majority that Weber hopes will surface again soon.

America's Cheap Roots

Some trace the roots of frugality in this country to the Puritans. And it was an important part of the Puritan ideology. But Weber believes it was a virtue dictated during the American Revolution by the likes of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Not only was it good for the soul, it was good for the American economy.

I like to say that thrift was a virtue Americans couldn't wait to relinquish.

"They believed this was the way the United States could be less dependent on Europe for all of its trade and all of its goods," says Weber. "The patriots believed that if Americans could be industrious, work hard and save their money, that would provide them the capital to then till a new field or open a new workshop or hire more apprentices. We would be able to cut off more trade with Britain and become more self-sufficient here."

And Weber believed it was a strategy that worked. But, she adds, frugality never was the most popular ideal. "I like to say that thrift was a virtue Americans couldn't wait to relinquish. That's as true in the period right after the revolution as it was in the period in the 1950s when credit cards were brought into being."

When Cheap Went Out of Style

If you want to pinpoint the moment when being cheap went out of style, look no further than the end of World War II. American economists, manufacturers and politicians were worried the post-war nation would fall into a deep recession. The Great Depression was still a fresh memory after all, and the war had amounted to the largest government stimulus program the country had seen at that time.

So what could keep the postwar economy afloat? The American consumer.

"So right before the war ended there was a lot of talk about how Americans needed to buy more washing machines, buy cars, get prepared for the consumer economy that was coming and Americans really took that to heart," Weber says.

And, she says, pop culture offers proof:

"It's not ironic that Scrooge McDuck, the famous miserly uncle of Donald Duck, emerged in 1947. And Jack Benny's famous cheapskate character on radio and TV came in the late '40s and early '50s. Thrift went from being a national virtue to being kind of a punch line."

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