In the past few years in the United States and other developed societies, there has been a noticeable anti-consumerist counter-culture, or frugality movement. Some of it is also tied to early retirement or dropping out of the rat race or various forms of minimalism. While such persons had in the past stayed largely under the radar or were viewed as anomalies or crackpots, mainstream media sources have begun to report on them relatively favorably and more people are choosing such lifestyles or simply “coming out of the woodwork”. Some of the most popular standard bearers on the interwebs include Pete Adeney , a/k/a “Mr. Money Mustache”, the Frugalwoods family, the Go Curry Cracker team, Jacob Lund Fisker of “Early Retirement Extreme”, Jake Desyllas of “The Voluntary Life”, the “Root of Good” family and The Mad Fientist. They have spawned a plethora of websites and social media groups.
The sources and lineage of this movement are many. Some adherents are motivated by classic works such as The Autobiography of Ben Franklin or Thoreau’s Walden. Others point to works from the 1960s and 1970s such as Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher, and How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne, or more recent works such as Vagabonding by Ralph Potts. Root philosophies or beliefs include the major religions, stoicism, objectivism, and beliefs rooted in survivalism and avoiding ecological, financial or other disasters.
This is set against the prevailing archaic-sacred cultural structures of celebrity and consumerism, which were discussed in this post. The frugality movement tends to bring together people of disparate philosophies who have the commonality of being against these dominant cultures.
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Let’s look at the frugality counter-culture through the three Lenses of Wisdom.
Looking at it through the Prospecting Lens, we see that for most people, the genesis of their decision to adopt these lifestyles is a conscious rejection of the dominant culture – in other words, it is System 2 thinking.
From Your Money or Your Life:
“How do you find a new road map for money? It requires thinking in new ways, managing your life as an integrated whole and identifying old assumptions.
Thinking in New Ways. For all our brainpower, we humans are creatures of habit, often unwilling to let go of old patterns of behavior. The following story illustrates this:
One day a young girl watched her mother prepare a ham for baking. At one point the daughter asked, “Mom, why did you cut off both ends of the ham?”
“Well, because my mother always did,” said the mother.
“But why?” “I don’t know—let’s go ask Grandma.”
So they went to Grandma’s and asked her, “Grandma, when you prepared the ham for baking, you always cut off both ends—why did you do that?”
“My mother always did it,” said Grandma. “But why?” “I don’t know—let’s go ask Great-grandma.” So off they went to Great-grandma’s.
“Great-grandma, when you prepared the ham for baking, you always cut off both ends—why did you do that?”
“Well,” Great-grandma said, “the pan was too small.”
Just as we can get caught in outmoded habit-patterns passed down through generations, we can also get trapped by our habitual thinking just as much as—and just as erroneously as—people who maintained until recently that the earth was visibly and verifiably flat. We also get stuck in unconscious and invisible boxes that limit our ability to think in new ways.”
Your Money or Your Life clearly asks the reader to put down the heuristics of System 1 so that more rational, conscious decisions can be made.
In How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, the author identifies a series of traps that most people fall into unconsciously at one time or another:
“Traps are assumptions that are accepted without challenge. As long as they go unchallenged, they can keep you enslaved. That’s why it’s important that we challenge them in the following pages. I think you’ll find that most of them have no more substance than ancient clichés such as “The world is flat.”
If you’re not free now, it’s very likely that you’ve accepted some of these traps. And you probably haven’t known of a number of alternatives that could get you out of your restrictions without the pain and effort you might have assumed would be necessary.
As we look at these traps and alternatives, I hope you’ll become aware of the unlimited number of avenues open to you. You possess a tremendous amount of control over your situation — control that’s disregarded when you focus attention upon the people who seem to stand in your way.”
The traps are, by and large, the System 1 heuristics of the Prospecting Lens. The author asks the reader to think outside the heuristics about what he or she really wants and how it might be achieved.
Does this mean that adherents to this counter-culture behave as “Spock-like” creatures? Far from it. In fact, although once dispersed throughout the dominant culture, these individuals have been able to connect more and more often through the internet and have formed their own social groups, both virtual and IRL, where they are subject to some of the System 1 heuristics, such as Liking, Social Proof and the Halo effect. Yet on a relative scale to the dominant culture, these are clearly System 2 thinkers. Many respect each other but frequently “agree to disagree” about many things besides frugality and anti-consumerism.
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Let's now look at it through the Mimetic Lens. Most of the adherents of the frugality counterculture make it a point to try not to desire the objects of desire of others. Yet many often reveal that this is sometimes difficult. A number of the posts in the social groups are queries to the group as to how to avoid desires and how to balance them with other goals of financial independence, travel or other future plans. The counter-culture rallies around stories of self-discipline and realization of goals.
True, it is the case that some frugality adherents engage in competitive one-upsmanship, as in any groups of like-minded individuals, and they do copy each other willingly and swap tricks of the trade freely and often. But mostly they discuss successes and failures in dealing with friends and relatives who subscribe to the dominant consumerist culture.
The attitude is described in this post by Mr. Money Mustache from 2012:
“Frugality is, quite obviously, the new Fanciness. The only reason to maintain a non-frugal lifestyle in the face of all this evidence, is if you’re too stubborn and stupid to accept it. Will you continue to fight against frugality, to show the world how stubborn and stupid you are? Or will you wise the hell right up right now and start showing your better side?
The only thing that has been missing for the rich world’s Fancy Frugal people, has been a support community. When you’re smarter than 99% of your neighbors in a way that intimidates them, you’ll tend to run short on people to invite to your weekly poker nights.
But now the times are ‘a’ changin’. The Mustachian Nation has been born. Look around at the comments on these articles and in the Forum. These are real people, tens of thousands of them, who have collected here on a less-than-one-year-old website that does no advertising or promotion. These people were already out there, and they are growing in number every day as more people see the light.
A great thing about frugality is that it still allows you to show off in a hilarious and social way. In the olden days, the executives at the golf resort felt camaraderie as they showed off their Rolexes and BMWs and thousand-dollar titanium drivers. It wasn’t the actual nature of these products that made the situation fun, it was the fact that they felt close to each other as they joked about their latest purchases.
When Mustachians gather, they show off the way they have modified their 30-year-old work trucks to work harder than brand new ones while burning less fuel. They bring their home-made radios to the campsite and share tales and tips of how it was made using entirely leftover materials. They discuss strategies on how to feed a family with peak nutrition and deliciousness, for less than $1 per person per meal. And unlike those who compete to consume more, these people actually have something to be proud of – they are blazing the necessary path towards a sustainable life for everyone. Eventually, all humans will have to learn to live on what the planet can regenerate each year. When you use more than that, you’re stealing resources from your own kids, and from the rest of the people you share the globe with. You don’t have to feel guilty about this.. you just have to feel good when you stop doing it.
This appreciation for our badassity is still rare, but it’s growing. If you adopt a frugal lifestyle, you may occasionally have to endure some misguided shit from clueless consumers around you. I took lots of it from the MSN readers back in January, although nobody has hassled me in real life so far. But you will also find you start getting some envying looks and respect from other people for your frugality skills. Eventually, just like the BMW-financing 21-year-old gets respect at Spring Break today, you will in due time become a hero in your own community for doing what’s right.
But ironically, the same skills that will get you there, mean that you won’t give a shit what they are thinking.”
The clash with the dominant culture is constant. Many frugality adherents report misunderstandings, howls or derision or other negative interactions, and even scapegoating or shunning. A typical hostile comment is of this nature (which was commenting on Mr. Money Mustache’s blog):
“So what how does this work? It’s so simple I can sum it up in one sentence: You need to be cheap as fuck . . .
If that sounds appealing to you, go for it. As these guys are demonstrating, it definitely can work. If material possessions don’t really matter to you, if you don’t want to do anything that requires a fair amount of money, or if you’d simply rather focus on something other than the “rat-race” (though don’t forget that being this frugal takes a lot of effort), this seems like a great way to go.
If, like me, you’d rather have your hand slammed in a car door . . .”
Jacob Lund Fisker, who occupies the more extreme end of the frugality spectrum, has catalogued the slew of objections he has encountered to his lifestyle in this wiki. He notes that:
“Many objections to ERE stem from looking at the world from a consumerist or careerist angle, and can be reduced to objections of the following archetype: "Isn't there a problem doing--or not doing--X because it's not in accordance with consumerist or careerist values? How is ERE even possible when society has been organized to support consumerism and careerism?"”
This reactions of the dominant consumerist culture are quite strange when you consider how unnecessary and uncalled for they would appear to be. Certainly, in a free society one should be allowed to decline participation in the activities and memes favored by the majority.
Yet looking through the Mimetic Lens with a little help from the Prospecting Lens, we can see why there might be such angry reactions from the devoted consumerist majority.
First, the idea that one’s desires might simply be a product of unconscious mimetic desire is not terribly attractive to most people. Most people would prefer to think of themselves as rational, independent thinkers who chose their lifestyles on their own. And most people would prefer to think that their habitual consumptive behaviors are driven by real needs that go to the core of their happiness or satisfaction in life. That someone else is taking an approach to life which essentially says that those needs are "not really needs", just mimetic desires, and that their consumption is unnecessary seems to cause some level of cognitive dissonance in many of the dominant culture. It causes them to question their own choices and runs up against the System 1 heuristic of Cognitive Ease.
This is revealed in some of the objections catalogued by Fisker, such as:
What is really at stake here is the sacred object or concept of the consumer and celebrity cultures, which is “scarcity”. Recall that the goal of these cultures is to accumulate objects and positive notoriety (fame) that most people do not possess. The frugal culture movement essentially reject “scarcity” as source of value or meaning. Less scarce objects that perform the same function are considered just as good, if they are required at all. To an archaic-sacred cultural structure that holds "scarcity" sacred, this is a form of blasphemy. It also sets off System 1 heuristics, including a reverse Halo Effect and Affect against the frugal persons, and Miswanting of things that the frugal people have rejected.
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The view through the Fractal Lens is mostly about how this counterculture deals with uncertainty.
In How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World, the author identifies this issue as one the “traps” of modern society:
“The Certainty Trap is the urge to act as if your information were totally certain. You’re in the trap if you make decisions without recognizing the uncertainty of your assumptions and the risk that goes with that.
It’s a normal urge to want to believe that one has the final answers to things. Certainty is a more comfortable feeling than uncertainty.
Unfortunately, a feeling of absolute certainty is usually unrealistic. At any given time, you have at your disposal only a small fraction of the information you would need to make a decision with complete foresight. . . .
Uncertainty isn’t a curse, however. You can still act; you can still make decisions. You use the best information and reasoning you can muster. The important thing is to recognize the limits of the information you’re using. There are variables you can’t possibly predict, there’s knowledge that’s less than certain, and there’s the ever- present possibility that you haven’t drawn the best conclusions from what you’ve seen.
None of these things need stop you from acting. But they must be recognized. They constitute the risk involved in what you do. And for every risk there’s an accompanying liability — a price you’ll have to pay if things don’t go as you want them to.”
And indeed, the consumerist culture is one that lives in an illusion of certainty and a false narrative that goes with it. Consumption of scarce objects, membership in exclusive organizations and invitations to exclusive events is thought to be certain to create a state of happiness or fulfillment. More and more consumption of more scarce products and exclusivity is supposed to create greater feelings of well-being.
This is the basic theme of most advertisements -- the "official language" of the dominant culture, which are generally not about the products themselves, but about people using the products who appear to be experiencing some form of happiness or well-being. This is also why celebrity endorsements of products are usually quite effective. Because of this illusion of certainty, a member of the consumerist culture is lulled into what Nassim Taleb would deem a “fragile” existence, chained to a job and perhaps debt to fuel an addiction to chasing scarce products and exclusivity or fame in the hopes that this behavior will result in the happiness that was promised.
By contrast, most of the people in the frugality movement recognize uncertainty as a fact of life and try to reduce dependencies so that it can be weathered when unfortunate events arise. Thus, there is an emphasis on saving, developing skills like gardening, cooking and construction and other forms of self-reliance, and having multiple sources of income. As Franklin was wont to say, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” In the Talebian lexicon, they are largely "robust," and some even "anti-fragile."
For what is sacred to this group is not scarce objects or fame, but freedom of thought and time itself. The scarcity of one's time is the principal theme of Your Money or Your LIfe.
“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
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Finally, there is the question as to whether this is a new phenomenon or a just an old one reborn. In fact, it appears to be both.
As developed nations have aged and fertility and economic growth rates have dropped, there has been a trend towards introspection and looking for value in simplicity. This appears to be more marked in developed nations outside the United States. It is probably not a coincidence that a number of the standard bearers mentioned above were raised outside the U.S., including Pete Adeney (Canada), Jacob Lund Fisker (Denmark) and Jake Desyllas (England).
One of the more popular authors in the past year or so has been Marie Kondo, who is from Japan, the developed country with the lowest fertility, the oldest population and the least growth. Kondo wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which has been the subject of many positive reviews in the minimalist and frugality space. As described in Life Hacker's review:
"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a different kind of self-help book. Although it offers practical advice for cleaning out your home and storing your stuff properly, the book is more about a philosophy of owning things. (In fact, it’s the #1 bestseller on Amazon in the Zen Philosophy book category.) . . .
[T]his book is less about how to organize or purge your things (although it does offer guidance on both) than it is about learning how to let go of them. Clearly it’s become a kind of cult classic because it really drives home how we’d be happier with fewer things. Getting to that realization with a quirky personal organizer by your side (so to speak) is pretty life-changing."
Yet despite the modernity of the trend, the core theme of this movement -- that there is more to life than consumption, fame and careers, is part of a timeless tradition that is rooted in both Western and Eastern cultures, as Alain Botton narrates in this video:
More specifically to the United States, in addition to the colonial Ben Franklin, the movement relies heavily on the Transcendentalists of the 19th Century, especially Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson. The current dominant consumerist culture, in fact, only came to mass appeal in the 20th Century, partially after World War I and in full flower after World War II.
From Art of Money Getting by P.T. Barnum from 1880:
"True economy consists in always making the income exceed the out-go. Wear the old clothes a little longer if necessary; dispense with the new pair of gloves; mend the old dress; live on plainer food if need be; so that, under all circumstances, unless some unforeseen accident occurs, there will be a margin in favor of the income. A penny here, and a dollar there, placed at interest, goes on accumulating, and in this way the desired result is attained. It requires some training, perhaps, to accomplish this economy, but when once used to it, you will find there is more satisfaction in rational saving, than in irrational spending. Here is a recipe which I recommend; I have found it to work an excellent cure for extravagance, and especially for mistaken economy: When you find that you have no surplus at the end of the year, and yet have a good income, I advise you to take a few sheets of paper and form them into a book and mark down every item of expenditure. Post it every day or week in two columns, one headed "necessaries" or even "comforts," and the other headed "luxuries," and you will find that the latter column will be double, treble, and frequently ten times greater than the former. The real comforts of life cost but a small portion of what most of us can earn. Dr. Franklin says "it is the eyes of others and not our own eyes which ruin us. If all the world were blind except myself I should not care for fine clothes or furniture." It is the fear of what Mrs. Grundy may say that keeps the noses of many worthy families to the grindstone. In America many persons like to repeat "we are all free and equal," but it is a great mistake in more senses than one.
That we are born "free and equal" is a glorious truth in one sense, yet we are not all born equally rich, and we never shall be. One may say, "there is a man who has an income of fifty thousand dollars per annum, while I have but one thousand dollars; I knew that fellow when he was poor like myself, now he is rich and thinks he is better than I am; I will show him that I am as good as he is; I will go and buy a horse and buggy; no, I cannot do that, but I will go and hire one and ride this afternoon on the same road that he does, and thus prove to him that I am as good as he is."
My friend, you need not take that trouble; you can easily prove that you are "as good as he is;" you have only to behave as well as he does; but you cannot make anybody believe that you are rich as he is. Besides, if you put on these "airs," and waste your time and spend your money, your poor wife will be obliged to scrub her fingers off at home, and buy her tea two ounces at a time, and everything else in proportion, in order that you may keep up "appearances," and, after all, deceive nobody. On the other hand, Mrs. Smith may say that her next-door neighbor married Johnson for his money, and "everybody says so." She has a nice one thousand dollar camel's hair shawl, and she will make Smith get her an imitation one, and she will sit in a pew right next to her neighbor in church, in order to prove that she is her equal.
My good woman, you will not get ahead in the world, if your vanity and envy thus take the lead. In this country, where we believe the majority ought to rule, we ignore that principle in regard to fashion, and let a handful of people, calling themselves the aristocracy, run up a false standard of perfection, and in endeavoring to rise to that standard, we constantly keep ourselves poor; all the time digging away for the sake of outside appearances. How much wiser to be a "law unto ourselves" and say, "we will regulate our out-go by our income, and lay up something for a rainy day." People ought to be as sensible on the subject of money-getting as on any other subject. Like causes produces like effects. You cannot accumulate a fortune by taking the road that leads to poverty. It needs no prophet to tell us that those who live fully up to their means, without any thought of a reverse in this life, can never attain a pecuniary independence."
In a certain sense, frugality is more fundamental to the American psyche than even the nation's pastime; it reappears as a perennial flower upon the American stage at least once in a lifetime as a cleansing tonic that people line up to drink. With my apologies to W.A. Kinsella:
People will come back to frugality. They'll come back to forgotten ways for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, no one will mind if they look around. They'll stop thinking about the money, the career and the next big thing; for it is money they have and peace they lack. They'll read the stories of lives being fulfilled by simple and straightforward acts. And it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories and stories of their ancestors will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come. The one constant through all the years has been frugality. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But frugality has marked the time. It's a part of our past. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come. People will most definitely come.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.