On Being Cheap

There's a a great episode in Seinfeld where Elaine describes George as "very careful with money" as a polite way of calling him cheap. This greatly offends George. There's still a social stigma to being cheap, but there shouldn't be.

(from Flickr user zingersb)

It ultimately boils down to this dilemma: you should typically spend no more money than what you have, but if you don't earn a lot of money, what do you do?

If you don't earn a lot of money, there are more-or-less two roads you can follow.

Road #1: be careful how you spend money, scope out deals, buy everything on sale, use coupons, buy stuff used, don't buy things you don't need, etc. In other word: be cheap.
Road #2: run up debt.

The other day someone told me that cheap people aren't any fun. The reason: sometimes people want to go out on a Saturday night and have a fancy dinner or throw a credit card at the bartender and not worry about it. Cheap people aren't likely to go for something like this. Even so, that doesn't mean cheap people never go out. They might go out during the week instead of the weekend to take advantage of good deals. Of course, as I've written before, that's socially faux pas as well.

Somehow, society has gotten this dilemma backward. There is a social stigma to road #1 but road #2 is completely normal, acceptable even. Maybe it has to do with the fact that being cheap is visible to everyone around you, but heaps of debt can be effectively hidden? You can be completely in debt but put on a big production that makes you look like a high-roller. If you're cheap, you just look cheap.


    On June 28, 2010 Jenn said...

    Very intriguing blog. Some ways to further the discussion may include:

    1) How to avoid (and why) excessive consumerism

    2) Where to buy used items when they are needed

    3) Why is excessive consumerism so present in our society?

    4)How it is hurting our environment

    5) What to do with items when they are no longer in working order

    6) Reducing waste

    On August 01, 2010 Bryan Willman said...

    Of course, in a society where the percentage of the population required to produce essential goods (food, shelter, etc.) is small,

    And the percentage of the population who must make a living providing non-essnetial goods and services is large,

    Being cheap is kind of anti-economic and anti-social. Think of all the bartenders and makers of crappy one use clothing you want to disemploy?

    (I'm serious.)

    This doesn't reduce the issues of waste, environmental burden, etc. But keeping society and the economy going will always be the defining goal of the society itself.