This I Believe

Patricia - Lee, New Hampshire
Entered on January 20, 2008

I believe in economy. I will search for a long time to find the

smaller size paperclip in place of one of those giant ones, if I only have a few

papers to fasten. It offends me to see the more expensive article used in place

of one better suited to the purpose and more economical as well. There is a

certain beauty in not consuming more than is appropriate. My uncle used to take

his date out for one dollar in the late ’30s: they would go to the movies and

then to a soda fountain, and he would adjust his order to hers, just a little and

subtle adjustment, like ordering a soda rather than an ice cream soda, so that

the total expense for the evening was that dollar he had budgeted. Elizabeth

Gaskell describes in one of her novels a gentleman who was so discomforted by the

idea of using envelopes (rather than folding the letter itself so that one sheet

would do for letter and mailer), that he would turn old envelopes inside out to

reuse them. When I was a student on my junior year in London, sitting in the

very cheap seats at the top of the opera house, I would admire the little old

ladies who brought a thermos and a sandwich rather than buying the pricey

refreshments sold at the bar.

Long term, large-scale inflation has undermined our ideas of economy as much as

has creeping affluence. A friend who went to college in the ’40s, on a

scholarship which he badly needed, was given $50 in pocket money by his parents.

That was more than his tuition bill for the semester, though it was nevertheless

a modest sum. These days, it’s hard to convince students not to buy themselves a

latte whenever they want one: their tuition bill each year would have bought a

house not that many years ago, and their yearly tuition might be ten thousand

times the cost of that latte, whereas for my uncle, the tuition might have been

only eight hundred times the price of a coffee and he would leave the coffee

unbought. Debt has become a way of life, life is full of incomprehensibly high

expenses (some of them insured, some not), and lattes bought on loans seem

perfectly normal. There’s something of the “Eat, drink and be merry attitude”

these days.

Still, economical habits are currently seeing something of a second life under

the heading of sustainability. Now I am not the only one who saves padded

envelopes, crosses out the old address, and reuses them. But even those who

worry conspicuously about carbon footprints usually don’t go so far as to admire

plain thriftiness. I believe in economy for its own sake, for the sake of living

considerately and carefully. And with any luck, there will be enough saved on the

prose aspects of life in order to have more of life’s poetry. Let’s not imitate

the Romans of the decadence, self-indulgent, wasteful, and lethargic, but instead

be proud to live within our means, both individually and collectively—to live

economically.