Family Values

11 06 2011

The milk industry loves to argue that its product “does a body good.” I’d like to add that, even though can be terribly painful for some, that a recession does an economy good.

How so, you ask? That’s like asking the branch that has just been pruned what it feels like to have been a part of a mighty oak.

Simple. As bad as it may have been for the 10% (or up to 17%, depending on how you count them) unemployed throughout the Great Recession of recent years, it has finally started to sink in with nearly everyone: Value shopping is good for that most basic of economic units, the family. And as proof the idea has hit home, retailers are responding to the value trend, even those catering to the well-off.

My parents were both born in the 1920s, and by virtue of that, lived through the Great Depression. That singular event shaped their lives to the point that even today, they save rubber bands, paperclips, etc., with the notion they might be used later on for something else. Frugality is in their DNA, even if it was coded after birth.

But since those despairing times, the US has known nothing but unbridled prosperity. Few were scared of foreclosure, of being unemployed for years. But the last four years has seen that nightmare return.

And for those of us blessed to have not been broadsided, the lessons have been learned. While vicarious living is often associated with someone else’s good times, I like to think we have suffered vicariously. In the process, frugal has become the new black, even for those earning six digits or more.

Extreme couponing has become more than just fad; rabid coupon clippers make it their mission to leave the market with carts full of groceries and a fist full of cash back. Shoppers carry calculators, trying to figure out the best deal down to the ounce. And discretionary purchases are weighed heavily in light of their long-term implications: payments, interest, and whether we really need the darn thing anyway.

Thankfully, retailers are awakening to this trend, and repurposing themselves as value centers. Walmart has given up on the idea of appealing to the wealthy, as well as wide, uncluttered aisles. It’s back to stocking the basics, plenty of ’em, and at cheap prices.

For the wealthiest among us, maybe the frugal freak thing is only applied selectively, but it works because it frees up more money for truly discretionary purchases and whims. For those of us in the middle, it helps balance budgets while sparing a more modest amount for pleasure. Those who know me, know that I am a gadget junky, quick to latch on to newer, faster, cooler. But it has been 20 years since we bought a brand new vehicle, opting instead through those years to buy used, and to maintain and repair what we have. Not having hefty car payments each month saves a fortune real fast. As long as I am not spending $500 or more per month on repairs, I figure I am saving money. Never mind that my insurance is about $40 per month (who needs collision coverage when the vehicle has little residual value?). These savings are then used for family vacations and to pay off the house.

But the broader takeaway from this trend is that consumers and retailers are working in harmony, rebuilding our economy like a pruned tree grows stronger. We have all re-learned some painful economic lessons the last few years, that being there is no guarantee of infinite growth. There are winners, there are losers, and on both sides of the cash register. But just like our Phoenix rose from the ashes in the 1930s, we shall fly again. Even if it’s up and down the aisles of Walmart.

Just don’t buy any rubber bands or paperclips. You can get some from my parents.

Dr “And Maybe A Coffee Can” Gerlich

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