Money Matters: When Poverty Is An "Experiment"

Time's piece on frugality experiments — like living on a dollar a day, or abstaining from buying new clothes for a year — is a depressing reminder that for many, thrift is a necessity, not a stunt.

Time's Brad Tuttle is a little late to the party — the Food Stamp Challenge, in which Congress members and others tried to feed themselves on a food stamp budget of $21 a week, started in 2007, and reduced consumption for environmental reasons has been a Thing for some time. Tuttle pegs his piece to the book On a Dollar a Day, in which authors Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard spent just a dollar a day on food for a month — and then binged on chocolate donuts. This presence of an endpoint — even an escape hatch — is common to several of the frugality experimenters Tuttle profiles. Of "Seattle clotheshorse Sally Bjornsen," who's blogging about her "yearlong quest not to buy a single garment other than underwear," he writes,

It's difficult, particularly for affluent consumers, to stick to their own arbitrary rules. Bjornsen admits she's fallen off the wagon at least once. Arriving at the gym with no workout pants and with a babysitter already paid for at home, she sucked up the guilt and bought a $98 pair of Lululemon pants.

An understandable cheat, perhaps, but one that speaks to several layers of privilege — a gym membership, a babysitter, $98 to spare for brand-name pants. Another blogger, Rachel Kesel, says her crusade against consumption has made her realize "how mindlessly I'm capable of buying stuff." But not all Americans are capable of "mindlessly" buying — as evinced by another feature in Time. For How Americans Spend Now, Time talked to unemployed couple Barbara and Kevin Lowe, who say,

It's hard to invite people for dinner, so we don't accept many invitations. We went to the art show on the day tickets were discounted, and told friends we'd brown-bag our lunches. One of them said we could go to a cheap restaurant, but I can't. I'm not sure they really understand how it is. I know I didn't until it happened to me.

While reining in waste is certainly laudable — and as Sadie pointed out, many of us could benefit from reining in some of our shopping impulses — it's also not true that all Americans are buying lots of things they don't need. And while "deprivation experiments" may be instructive for the middle class, I'm not sure what they do for those who are already deprived.

Cheap Thrills [Time]
How Americans Spend Now [Time]

Earlier: Abstaining From Crappy Clothes (Let's Not Say "Diet" More Than Absolutely Necessary)