REMEMBER JACK BENNY? CHEAPNESS WAS HIS shtick; on his radio and television shows he occasionally made hilarious subterranean visits to his money, which was protected by locks, alligators, and an ancient security guard who, from the look of him, had last seen action at the Second Battle of Bull Run. "Your money or your life" to the rest of us, is Hobson's choice; to Benny, it was an existential crisis.
Ah, those were the days--a halcyon time when, the Depression still a fresh memory, Americans enjoyed both affluence and restraint. Willy Loman's refrigerator payments notwithstanding, consumer indebtedness at midcentury now looks like a mere flyspeck, at least from the towering mountain of debt atop which we sit.
We have managed since Benny's heyday to get a little carded away. Alan Greenspan and the Chinese gave us too much credit, unfettered bankers chose greed over sobriety, and consumers snapped up McMansions financed by loans they could never repay. In 1980, American household debt stood at what must have seemed the enormous sum of $1.4 trillion. Last year the figure was 10 times as large, only 24 percent of us were debt free, and more than half of college students carded at least four credit cards. Is it any wonder there were more than a million consumer bankruptcy filings last year? Or that the nation's banking system came close to collapse? The result of all this excess is a people hung-over from its recent intoxication with spending and flabbergasted by the bill from the wine merchant.
So thrift, supposedly, is back, implying, as the dietionary tells us, "using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully." (The word's etymological connection to "thrive" may come as a shock to some big spenders, but not to the truly thrifty.) Personally, I'm not certain that the resurrection of thrift--heralded on the covers of Time and BusinessWeek, among other places--is anything more than temporary. But as a lifelong cheapskate, I'm grateful that at least thrift no longer carries quite the musty and ungenerous connotations it once did. If we skinflints are the last ones to step out of the closet, it only means we can appreciate all the more heartily how nice it is to escape the smell of mothballs.
I'm talking here about real thrift, which for the most part involves not spending money. It's not to be confused with the smug species of faux thrift that's been in vogue for a while. You see it in shelter magazines and newspaper home sections, where rich people boast of furnishing their multimillion-dollar homes with zany castoffs and repurposed industrial objets. Or how about the children of one Joan Asher? The Wall Street Journal reports that after three had inpatient nose jobs-attended by a private nurse each time-the fourth had to stiffer through an outpatient procedure after which she was nursed at home by morn.
Real thrift, the skeptical, calculating kind that can make a difference between being solvent and not, is not a matter of cut-rate rhinoplasty. The quotidian penny-pinching I'm talking about used to have a bad name indeed, in much the same way as "spinster" and "cardigan," as we know very well from Jack Benny. Like his preening insistence that he was always 39--or that he was an accomplished violinist--Benny's pretend niggardliness was funny but also geriatric, unsexy, and possibly even emasculating. Men do in fact make passes at women who wear glasses, but do women melt for men who hoard gelt?
Evolutionary biologists, who seem to know everything about everything, suggest otherwise. The males of many species, including our own, evolved to attract females by means of costly displays--for example, the tail of the peacock, which he drags around to demonstrate his vitality to peahens. Lacking such plumage, human males resort to exotic European automobiles, pricey dinners, vulgar wristwatches, and other forms of showiness. (Human females are supposed to be seeking signs in such ostentation that a mate will spend on them and their offspring. …