A major theme of the New Frugality is that our love affair with consumer debt is over. More than half a century of people saving less and less and borrowing more and more is over. The consumer debt bubble has burst. Profligacy is out. Thrift is in.
There are plenty of reasons for the transformation. Banks have learned the hard way that consumers are a riskier credit than their traditional models suggested. Regulators are going to keep a close eye on bank lending practices. Households now know how vulnerable they are to financial setbacks, from medical illness to layoffs. Millions of Americans live on a financial high-wire every day, from the clerk making minimum wage at a big box retailer to the blue collar truck driver whose hours have been drastically reduced to the former manager printing out new business cards announcing that he’s now an independent business consultant.
Worst off are the unemployed. The latest numbers reinforce the message that the pressure to save more and borrow less isn’t about to let up anytime soon. The unemployment rate is at 10% and the number of unemployed people is 15.3 million. The government’s broadest measure of unemployment and under-employment combined is at 17.3%. With figures like these how many workers with a job will feel comfortable in 2010 walking into their boss’ office in and saying, “give me a 10% raise or else I’ll quit.”
The most likely answer will be, “We’ll miss you, but goodbye.”
Yet the New Frugality is far from a message of doom and gloom—far from it. The reason is that the change in our everyday money habits will also reflect living better. The shift in our outlook on debt and savings will endure even when the good times roll again—and they will someday.
Think back on some of the conversations you’ve had with family, friends, and colleagues during the Great Recession. A common thread of discussion was how much we realized that we treasured memorable experiences over buying stuff. We saw the value in a home-cooked meal, an over-50 hockey game on a frozen pond, and a 30 mile bike ride with thousands of strangers to raise money for a cause. More striking still, we all learned that being green and being frugal reinforce one another.
The personal economics of sustainability will make the transition toward financial conservatism practical and enjoyable and long-lasting. Sustainability has moved from society’s tributaries into the mainstream of daily life. The core argument of the New Frugality is that the sustainability message of conservative consumerism and the habit of creating a financial margin of safety will feed off, reinforce and draw energy from each other.
What I hope to accomplish with this blog is start a conversation about being frugal and being conscious of sustainability. I’ll be meeting all kinds of folks with good ideas on both in the coming year. I’ll post their insights and yours. This will be a fun journey.