Living Like it's 1899, What does 'Sacrifice' Mean?

Newsweek has some prescriptions to save us all. We should live like it’s 1899 instead of 2009. Don’t use a dryer for your clothes, chop your own wood for heating fuel, buy a black and white TV because it’s “just as good,” and don’t get the Internet or cable TV. Sheese, talk about a kill-joy!

Of course, the piece by Steve Tuttle isn’t all stone-ageie, new-ageiness. Some of the points Tuttle makes are sensible enough — not buying what you can’t afford being the most salient. But, Tuttle’s harkening back to his parent’s depression era scrimping is a bit much and makes a mockery of the sensible suggestions he does make.

Naturally, a Newsweek piece isn’t complete unless it has some gratuitous (and in this case off base) Obamaisms as homage to the brilliance of The One. In this case, Tuttle invokes Obama’s exhortation for us all to engage in a little “personal sacrifice.”

President Obama talks a lot about personal sacrifice, and we all need to look for ways to cut costs these days. Maybe he ought to consider Bill and Joyce Tuttle as the nation’s first thrift czars, because when it comes to pinching pennies and saving for the future, my parents are extreme.

Obama might “talk” a lot about “personal sacrifice” but he sure as heck doesn’t seem to live it. With weekly parties, turning his Oval Office heater up to the 70s, over use of flights on Marine One, high class, expensive schools for the kiddies, and the like, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of “sacrificing” going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days.

Tuttle goes on to outline some of the frugality that his parents have traditionally engaged in. Of course, not everything they did made them seem like Scroogeian cheapskates, but much of what they do in their home in rural Virginia is not possible for many Americans. Not many residents of New York City or Chicago can chop their own wood for heating fuel, for instance.

Tuttle is right that living beyond one’s means is a bad idea. It was during the Great Depression and it is now, depression or no. We all need to be a bit more realistic about our personal finances. However, there is a fine line between living within one’s means and foolishly sacrificing modernity. Tuttle’s family crosses that line repeatedly into that territory of being penny wise and dollar foolish.

Let’s examine, for instance, this no clothes dryer business. Some folks feel that air drying clothing outside brings a freshness that can’t otherwise be gained in a mechanical dryer, but true or no, the washer, dryer and vacuum cleaner is nothing to eschew. In fact, it is rather foolish to do so. These modern conveniences are responsible for the liberation of homemakers the world over, after all. These mechanical tools are not luxuries, but time saving devices that add to the quality of life. Doing without them is no mark of good sense, but a silly exercise in pointless self-denial.

Additionally, excising the purchase of these things from one’s life also negatively affects the economy. Traditionally lumped in with “big ticket items” these things are the stuff of economic growth. Is Tuttle saying we should further damage the economy and the many hundreds of thousands of jobs that selling washers, dryers and vacuum cleaners brings this country? I should hope not.

Again, the idea of being frugal and not wasteful is a good one. But, this is a wildly different day than the 1940s, 50s, even the 60s. As a percentage of our income, many of the items that Tuttle wistfully imagines we should do without really don’t measure up to yesterday’s necessary sacrifices.

In 1961 my parents bought a Zenith 300 Space Command TV in a giant cabinet. The thing was about 6 feet long, weighed 300 pounds, and was like a real piece of furniture. It cost them $300 and they regretted it the second they put it on time payments. In those days, you see, they were lucky to be making $5,000 a year so $300 was a ton of cash. On the other hand, a TV today at $300 (a 14 inch color flat screen for instance) is only a few days salary to the average American. The same can be said of all the “big ticket items” for the most part. The prices of these items today are not as painful to us as they were in days past because technology has made these items incredibly cheap.

Since Tuttle based his whole piece on his own life’s story, I’ll relate one more of my own. My grandparents (and I love their memory dearly) were scrimpers and savers of depression era stock, as well. But, when my grandfather passed and my grandmother decided to close up house and move in with my Mom, the family went to their home to clear out 60 years of memories. In the basement they found hundreds of grocery items, some in cans decades old. Stale boxes of unopened cereal, ages old frozen meats full of freezer burn, bagged items that were no longer useful. All this had to be thrown out when they sold the house. Sure they used coupons and benefited from buy-one-get-one-free sales. But it all went to waste in the end. It was pointless scrimping and saving, wasteful stockpiling for fear of running out.

This is a perfect example of penny wise and dollar foolish. So, sacrificing all luxuries today is an exercise in silliness. We can all do with less getting only what we need, I’m sure, but we should be careful not to idealize frugality to the point where we are casting ourselves back into the dark ages. Modernity and technology should not be eschewed for some hoary sense of “sacrifice.” In these tough times we need common sense and good advice, not nostalgia that has little bearing on today’s problems.