In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, by Lauren Weber

Many bookstores celebrate the first of the year by promoting two kinds of titles: diet guides and books about finances—both subjects likely to find a wide audience in the weeks following a holiday season's worth of overindulging. If you're in the market for the latter, don't be seduced by the adorable cover art gracing Lauren Weber's In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue. Weber's book is both entertaining and informative, but it is not a practical guide to money management.

Instead, In Cheap We Trust explores the history of America's love-hate relationship with thrift, a virtue extolled by notables like Benjamin Franklin and Booker T. Washington, but equally likely to be aired as a racist criticism of Jewish or Chinese immigrants. Weber, a former staff reporter for Newsday and Reuters, traces Americans' admiration of thriftiness (particularly when times are bad!) and complaints about stinginess (particularly when times are good!) from the pre-Revolutionary War period to the present, taking stops along the way to investigate characters ranging from famous miser Hetty Green to economist John Maynard Keyes to Adam Weissman, the unofficial leader of New York City's “Freegan” movement.

The promotional quotes on the back of Weber's book are as misleading as its pop-art cover, praising In Cheap We Trust as a "fresh take on the quirky side of saving and spending [that] couldn't be timelier" and announcing that the book is "the perfect guide to the oncoming era of like-it-or-not thrift". We sympathize with the publisher's desire to make Weber's book look like a downright practical purchase during the current financial downturn, but these encomiums fail to do her book justice. Weber has written a readable academic history, not a how-to book, and her work should have been marketed as such. (If a how-to book is what you need, however, may we recommend Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi's All Your Worth or Amy Dacyczyn's The Complete Tightwad Gazette? Trust us: both are awesome, and both are probably available via your local library.)

But setting aside its misleading marketing and the fact that it's a little too short—273 pages—to do its massive subject justice, In Cheap We Trust is an engrossing and surprisingly cheery read. Weber paints a picture of America that could be depressing (we're a nation of hypocrites who moralize about the virtue of thrift when times are lean, but abandon it in favor of crazed spending as soon as possible), but could just as easily be uplifting: we're a happy-go-lucky people constantly on the lookout for a silver lining, even when the cloud in question is today's financial crisis. (Think of all those nauseating end-of-year articles about how 2009 was the year Americans rediscovered the wonder of "family time".) In Cheap We Trust might not tell you how to manage your retirement accounts or lose fifteen pounds, but you could do worse than kicking off your year by reading a well-written and thoughtful book about America's long and conflicted history with thrift, and our boundless ability to at least talk about an upside to living within our means—even if we never actually do so.

Review based on a library book.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


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