The Unexpected Consequences of Frugality


Last weekend’s International Herald Tribune (the New York Times international edition) interviewed Berkeley economic historian Jan de Vries on what seems to be a growing trend: DIY culture. In the midst of an economic downturn, people are increasingly reluctant to pay for services that they can perform themselves. Of course, this affects the massive service sector of our economy.

‘”They have had less time and higher money income, and they have been spending a lot of that money income on services they once provided themselves.”

‘Still, he noted, even before the U.S. recession began, some families had already begun to cite moral reasons for reverting to domestic self-sufficiency, to those good old days when families grew their own food and burped their own babies.

‘”Families have been creating a discussion over the past decade about value-driven concerns that are now being reinforced by forces in the economy,” he said. As a result of this confluence of moral and financial incentives, “The way households function 20 years from now will probably be sort of surprising to us.”

‘After decades of spendthrift subcontracting, many consumers now say they view such specialist services as indulgences rather than necessities.’

de Vries’ Industrious Revolution looks at consumer culture, right down to basic household decisions, and how these affect the economy as a whole.

I find some of these considerations especially interesting. I’m no DIYer in the vein of Make Magazine, but at the household level, there’s a lot that I do that essentially takes money out of the economy, sometimes sending it in unexpected directions:

  • Cooking almost every night
  • Brewing my own beer
  • Cutting my own hair
  • Brewing espresso on a (good) home machine
  • Cleaning with vinegar and baking soda
  • Baking bread
  • Biking to work for a big chunk of the year (even when not living in NYC)
  • Buying all my food at a volunteer-run co-op

I’m sure we could all come up with a list of things that we do to “save money,” (household economics in practice) but our considerations of the larger economy don’t usually enter the consideration.

Places my money doesn’t go/goes instead:

  • Restaurants (special occasions only)/Farmers
  • Breweries, bars, distributors/Home brew supply stores, water & gas utility companies
  • Barbers/The $14 investment in clippers
  • Cafés/Espresso Machine suppliers, coffee roasters
  • Cleaning supply producers
  • Bakeries/Flour mill
  • Car makers, the MTA/Bike Stores
  • Grocery stores/Farmers

Now this is just my list. A lot of you who have other skills could probably list a bunch more. Got a garden? Build your own furniture? Can you re-finish your own floors? What are the signs of a healthy economy, and who benefits most? What happens if a chunk of the population goes, to an extent, “off the grid?”

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