Tracking the Forgotten Virtue: Thrift

by James A. Bacon

More interesting data from WalletHub: In a ranking of 150 metropolitan regions by 16 metrics indicating the degree to which local populations adhere to responsible household budgeting practices, Virginians fare better than their peers in any other Southern state — and that’s not just a reflection of the outsized influence of Northern Virginia, which is wealthier, better educated and culturally distinct from the rest of the state.

Charlottesville ranked 11th nationally, followed by Washington at 23th, Roanoke at 25th, Richmond at 45th and Hampton Roads at 56th.

WalletHub’s metrics encompass average credit scores, non-mortgage indebtedness, foreclosure rates, percentage of population paying only the minimum on credit cards, percentage of the population spending more than they make, delinquency rates on loans, and related measures.

Education and income are important measures of economic well being but I would argue that household thrift is just as important. Social scientific surveys of happiness and well being consistently show that, beyond a certain point, additional income brings only increment gains in happiness. The pleasure gained from the acquisition of a flashier car, a bigger house or a newer big-screen TV is fleeting. The anxiety that stems from economic insecurity and the risk of losing one’s possessions is enduring. Households that live within their means and set aside some savings, I would hypothesize, tend to experience greater life satisfaction (or conversely, less anxiety) than households that spend money carelessly on frivolous or passing pleasures — even if they accumulate fewer material possessions.

This perspective is almost entirely lacking in the public policy debate in the United States today. Economic well being is measured almost exclusively by the rate of economic and income growth and, secondarily, the distribution of income. As a consequence, government policy is geared overwhelmingly toward goosing consumer expenditures. Anything that stimulates consumer spending, even if it means saving less and borrowing more, is regarded as beneficial to “the economy.” Thus, we witness today the revival of policies last seen during the real estate mania of the 2000s designed to lower mortgage borrowing standards and encourage more lending to the poor. The fact that these very same policies induced poor people into buying houses they couldn’t afford to pay for, much less keep up, and unleashed a wave of foreclosures that obliterated what little wealth most of these people possessed seems not to deter policy makers in the least. The idea that people of modest means can live perfectly happy lives without racking up debt seems alien to the American political psyche.

An ability to resist the siren call of excessive indebtedness, I would argue, is a major contributor to happiness and life satisfaction. The most responsible budgeters in the nation, by WalletHub’s standards, are clustered in the upper Midwest — in metropolitan regions centered in and around Minnesota and Iowa. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that cultural factors are at work, perhaps related to the Germanic and Scandinavian heritage of the populations. The other large cluster — not quite as thrifty, but more financially responsible than the country as a whole — is the Mid-Atlantic/Northeastern region, of which Virginia is a part. The South and parts of the Southwest are a budgetary disaster zone whose citizens, who are more likely to be poor, have shredded their household budgets. Thrift and frugality were never part of the Southern cultural tradition — either among the Anglo-Saxons or the African-Americans who settled there.

It would be interesting to know how Virginians came to embrace the household budgeting practices of states to the north rather than the south. Are cultural attitudes different here? Has state public policy played a role? Does the school curriculum, which teaches economics and personal finance, make a material contribution?

One last point: While it makes intuitive sense to link personal budgetary responsibility to life satisfaction and happiness, there may, in fact, be little correlation. Compare the map above with the happiness map published previously on Bacon’s Rebellion. The South is one of the happiest regions in the country! Maybe happiness is spending other people’s money.

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8 responses to “Tracking the Forgotten Virtue: Thrift”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Just what I need, Jim,

  2. Perhaps there’s fleeting happiness from careless borrowing and carpe diem, and more lasting, profound but more stern happiness from puritan-inspired thrift!
    What kind of model did the always-indebted Jefferson set for Virginia, one wonders? It wasn’t thriftiness.

  3. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    What’s that? The “People’s Republic of Charlottesville” has the thriftiest residents in the state? : ) Though as odd as that may sound, a buddy in banking once told me that academics (surprisingly, given their “liberal” reputation) are thought of as golden for loans. They almost never default. Take that for what it’s worth.

    To answer your question, I think a lot of this is the legacy of the often-maligned (and usually rightfully so in terms of race) Harry Byrd. I grew up with parents and grandparents who “despised debt” and this philosophy was a direct result of listening to Byrd and his acolytes. I think that if you talk to Virginians who are 65 and over, you’ll find a very anti-debt attitude in how they conduct their personal affairs. The only debt that my parents or grandparents ever had in their lives was for a mortgage. That’s it. There are still plenty of senior citizens who still will tell you “pay as you go” is a valid policy.

  4. I think we’re still getting confused between culture and literacy.

    there is no one culture involved in the issues of thrift and irresponsible financial behavior.

    More than anything else it boils down to financial literacy no matter if you are purple, green, black or blue or brown.

    6% of the sub-prime mortgages were to “poor” people.

    94% were to people who were not poor – who took on more debt that they could pay off and many did it because they could get the loan and intended to flip the property for a profit.

    A whole TV show was predicated on this concept – “Flip this house”.

    It had nothing to do with being poor or having poor habits about saving and it had everything to do with with greed and people who thought they could make a quick buck on a house – and walk away if they could not. They could have never had done this without a loan – and no .. these loans were not in the poor sections of town – they were often in hot real estate markets like Florida and California – Nevada yet some folks still want to believe what they want to believe – that it was cheap loans to poor people that caused the problem.

    That’s too bad – because you really do not learn from history when you have blinders on and keep repeating canards…

    We almost had another depression – and it was because of the very same reason behind the original depression. That’s the honest truth but some folks can’t handle it.

  5. Cynthia Brown Avatar
    Cynthia Brown

    So just to add a few thoughts to the conversation:

    Staying within the parameters of the last half of the 20th century through today, for the sake of this discourse, there is rich research and literature on the measurement of happiness as it relates to personal financial considerations and national monetary policies from Edmund Phelps to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to the beautifully-illustrated social commentary by Brendand Gill and Jerome Zerb to David Brooks, just to name a few. Yet again, all of this literature demonstrates that there is not just one reason for the spending/saving behaviors of a generation of people. And this isn’t just an ‘American’ issue.

    The literature as a whole indicates:

    The pendulum swings as one generation sees the value of saving to the next that sees the value of spending and back again. The swings in the national and global economy and catastrophic events (including wars) play a significant role. As a consequence, the psychology of social capital is very powerful – a sense of belonging in a community – and can’t be ignored. Financial considerations, debt in particular, are driven by self-definition within the context of the community as a whole.

    Technology and advancement of science plays a significant role as well. Debt allows people to have what they believe is their “right” to have – whether it’s material things or experiences, or to live a life they believe is improved over what they had – a sense of belonging and participating in the community as a whole. It doesn’t matter if it’s concrete or illusory, it’s what we believe to be true.

    Every human being is susceptible to it. If we were all honest with ourselves, can we judge others for the way they live when we are living lives that are influenced by the community in which we live? Can we imagine living lives that don’t have the latest communications technology, homes that have more rooms than we actually live in, or vacations to far away places? How much do we spend on dining out, or the Verizon/Comcast bill? How many clothes do we have in our closets? If we were each to take a very hard look at our expenditures, can we honestly say we NEED to spend this money? Yet we continue to do so because it’s considered as part of a normal middle-class life.

    It is always interesting when someone who lives a very thrifty life today is newsworthy – and someone who is portrayed as “brave”. They are living contrary to the social norms.

    1. thoughtful comments and appreciated….

      how many of us could conceive of living a truly thrifty life?

    2. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      Very good points. I think the “sense of belonging” is a very powerful force as well as your point about science and technology.

      I have a friend with kids in elementary school. Now, it’s easy to mock the idea of a 10 year old having a cellphone. He and his wife were bound and determined not to get their daughter a cellphone before high school. But when literally every other kid in the class has the cellphone and they use it as their primary means of communication…..are you willing to be the parent that says “no” and allows a certain degree of ostracization for your child? And haven’t we created a society where the “marker” of one’s value in economic terms is how “technologically savvy” one is? Thus, science and technology gadgets become easier to hawk, b/c we want our kids to “succeed” in life and “not fall behind.”

  6. Interesting map. It seems to coincide with the red/blue political map.

    Excuse the wild speculation, but is there is a culture of an extraction economy – a society where most wealth is generated from digging things up and selling them – that may also have some connection?

    The less thrifty states seem to be those that were developed in large part by individuals who came to exploit the land – cotton, tobacco, timber, mining, oil and gas – for immediate profit. That mindset looks to wealth creation through finding new assets to exploit, rather than developing (spending money on) and preserving current assets and communities. The attitudes towards fracking and climate change may be examples – if you’re mindset is current profits with the expectation that there will always be future opportunities elsewhere, you’re not so worried about environmental effects or the effect upon the community. Perhaps the less-thrifty are just more opportunistic and optimistic about their future prospects and are expecting to be rich (however unrealistic they might be).

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