It's the year of thrift; try to enjoy it

There is redemption in the turn of a calendar year. The clearing away of the old year, particularly one so full of trouble, offers fresh hope. And despite the bleak beginning, who knows what 2009 will bring?

I don't make predictions, because unlike the Rev. Pat Robertson I don't like being wrong. But I do see, as anyone would, that the watchword for this new year is "thrift."

To type the word thrift makes it seem too modern. The word has the feel of something handwritten using a quill pen dipped in ink, with curlicue embellishments on the descending portion of the "f". It is a word that evokes images of rent money stuffed into old coffee cans, "no you can't have a bicycle" Christmases, and, in what may have been its last public embrace before "go shopping" became a presidential edict: Pat Nixon's respectable Republican cloth coat.

We really have no choice about this return to thrift. The year 2008 changed things for our nation in a tragic, modern formulation of chickens returning to roost.

The overextended American consumer had been warned that his profligacy was not sustainable. Housing sector gurus determinedly ignored the cautions of home price inflation outpacing incomes. Investors were told by Warren Buffett as early as 2003 that the growing trade in derivatives was a "mega-catastrophic risk" that could bring down the whole of the financial system.

Now we can see how all the tsks and clucks were on the money.

We have been abruptly awakened from an overleveraged, credit-fueled spending binge with one whopping case of the dt's, as in "debitum-terminus." In 2009, the days of fabulousness-in-a-shoe as epitomized by the women of Sex and the City, will morph into the John Boy ethic of, if your feet are warm and dry it means your shoes are working for you.

There is a shock to this. Americans are just starting to adjust to our new reduced circumstances, in the same way that it must take a while after one's house burns down to absorb the immensity of the loss.

Thrift will spread even to those of us lucky enough to still have a job. Because we know someone who has lost a job and can't seem to find another. And when we check our retirement account it has shrunken like a raisin in the sun.

So if thrift is the new meme, then let's get cracking on figuring out how to do it well.

We all know how to spend less. The trick is to adjust one's attitude so that scrimping and saving makes you just as happy as that frivolous purchase.

I remember hearing a scientist on public radio say recently that there are limits to mind-over-matter thinking. He said that you can't will yourself warm when exposed to freezing weather.

But can we will ourselves into contentment?

This must be the question that bounces off the walls of every therapist's office. Is it possible to go from a permanent state of wanting more and better — an impulse that is invariably tied to our evolutionary biology — to finding happiness in what one already has?

There will be many practical challenges this year, but this will be the greatest psychological one.

I'm guessing that the habit of thrift can create its own muscle memory, just as obsessive shopping did. Over time, the personal sacrifices involved in not indulging one's every acquisitive urge will become less difficult and at some point may even bring a new kind of self-satisfaction.

It would be nice to let go of that desire to own more. Don't you think? I hope we have it in us. But whether we like it or not, the year 2009 augurs a back-to-the-future time in our nation, when old-fashioned prudence will make a comeback. To me at least, that is something rather good.

It's the year of thrift; try to enjoy it 01/03/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 6, 2009 8:53am]

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