Consumer Spending Retort

Borrow-and-spend isn’t sustainable, says “Ultimate Cheapskate” Jeff Yeager.

Ultimate Cheapskate Jeff Ye
Jeff Yeager, author of “The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches.” Photo courtesy of Jeff Yeager.

Gosh, I feel just awful about it. I didn’t mean to destroy the U.S. economy and trigger a worldwide recession. In fact, I feel so guilty, maybe I should pick up the tab for the economic stimulus package. Come to think of it, as a U.S. taxpayer, I guess I am.

All I was trying to do, though, was to lead a simpler life, spend a little less money, live lighter on the planet, and not work quite as hard. But darn it if those of us who subscribe to the simple living movement didn’t end up causing this economic implosion. What’s worse, we haven’t accepted the error of our ways. We’re still living in the same reckless manner and—to add insult to injury—using the current economic crisis as an opportunity to encourage others to join us. Have we no shame?

I’ve noticed that as the months drag on and the economic slowdown continues, the blame is definitely shifting away from those responsible at the outset, and now consumers are being fingered as the culprits for this whole mess. The message is that we need to spend our way back to prosperity. 

Well, as you can probably guess, I’m not willing to accept as gospel the idea that we can consume our way to never-ending prosperity. I’m not willing to accept that living beyond our means, on borrowed money, is the way to fix the problem, especially since that kind of behavior created the problem in the first place. And most of all, I’m not willing to accept the idea that we need to spend all of our time earning money so we can buy things we don’t need (and probably don’t even want), simply to keep the system going.

It’s clear that there will always be some level of commerce; there will always be a demand for goods and services. The question is the size of the demand and the amount of that commerce. It’s also clear that “prosperity” is a relative term; what’s “rich” for one person (or nation), is “poor” to another. I’ve been criticized for proposing supposedly radical lifestyle changes, like giving up cable TV (heresy, I know). I have a difficult time appreciating the pushback I get from some people on an issue like that, given that a third of the people in the world are literally starving to death and half the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day.

While I’m not opposed to economic growth, I believe that the earth has a carrying capacity, and I wonder whether economic growth will always be possible in light of its limitations. I believe the World Wildlife Fund when it says: If everyone on the planet consumed at the levels we do here in the U.S., it would take three planet earths to provide the resources necessary to sustain that level of consumption. I also wonder sometimes what a world without economic growth or, maybe more accurately, a world with a sustainable economy, would be like. I think it would be better in some ways, even though I’m sure it would be different.

At any rate, as a proud cheapskate, I’m heartened to hear the talk in the media these days about economizing. But almost inevitably, that discussion boils down to, “How to get more, but pay less.” I wish there was more discussion of the idea that “less is often more.” We should be worrying less about what we can afford and instead be asking “Do we really need it?” And “If we don’t buy it, how will our lives be affected? Will it be a net positive or a net negative?”

Gandhi once said, “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Maybe that will be the lesson we’ll take forward from these challenging times. At least I hope so.

Jeff Yeager is the author of “The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Guide to True Riches” (Broadway). He was profiled in Failure magazine (“His Poor Wife”) in March 2008.