clock menu more-arrow no yes
A loaf of sliced sandwich bread.
Eating the ends of a loaf of bread isn’t an innovation, but some people are discovering frugality in quarantine.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

The novel frugality

After decades of materialism, some Americans are experimenting with thriftiness for the first time.

“Damn u eatin bread butt,” our friend Fritz texted, after Kelly told the group chat she was planning to eat the heels of a loaf.

“maybe i’ll make croutons w/ them,” she replied, unfazed by his characterization, “a bread butt sammy.”

Nothing is being invented here — eating the ends of your bread is as old as bread — and certainly nothing about it is weird or gross, but getting the absolute most out of the things you buy seems to have some fresh converts. Other recently developed behaviors being reported: saving glass jars, regrowing scallions, washing and reusing Ziploc bags. (I’ve only just picked up that last one myself, turning gallon bags inside out and lining them up on my drying rack.)

Frugality is a trait and a value as old as time, spiking in certain cultures and generations, living situations and individuals, out of both necessity and outlook. Behaving economically with money or resources has become both a rare virtue — on aspirational blogs like the Frugality or self-help tomes like Your Money or Your Life — and a cultural punchline, good for a joke about hoarders or one’s immigrant family, grandparents who lived through the Great Depression, or good old-fashioned tightwads.

What’s newer, in fact, is the past 70-ish years of American materialism, which birthed the idea that some items are immediately and obviously disposable, or that eating food that you bought and paid for, food made of food, is inherently strange. As a widespread attitude, it’s historically unusual and it may be, at least for now, fading.

Since quarantine started, following the spread of Covid-19, there has been a move away from this culture of waste. This new strain of frugality — call it the novel frugality — is defined by its attachment to this moment and its participants’ motivations. While it might mirror long-held practices (like not throwing away aluminum foil or consciously saving scraps of leftovers to make new meals), its impetus is slightly different.

As Kelly says, when I GChat her later to ask about bread butt free of judgment, the impulse is “one part war effort/ration, one part guilt, one part stay the fuck inside.”

American materialism and pre-pandemic frugality

Ronald E. Goldsmith is a consumer psychologist and a professor at Florida State University who has researched and written about frugality, but he tells me that its inverse — materialism — has been studied a lot more.

Goldsmith defines materialism as “the acquisition of goods for their own sake,” and it’d be hard to argue it hasn’t become something of an entrenched American value. In 2019, personal consumer spending was two-thirds of the gross domestic product. According to a survey from the digital marketing firm Episerver, more than a quarter of Americans shopped online once a week. But they don’t hold on to this stuff; the US is also the most wasteful country in the world. To keep up our cycle of accumulation, we’ve created a culture of disposability.

“Deliberate obsolescence in all its forms — technological, psychological, or planned — is a uniquely American invention,” writes Giles Slade in Made to Break, his 2006 book about North America’s problem with waste. “Not only did we invent disposable products, ranging from diapers to cameras to contact lenses, but we invented the very concept of disposability itself.”

In many ways, this disposability — like the archetypal grandparent frugality — grew out of a response to the Great Depression. Following World War II, expendability was not only “a physical fact of many products,” as Nigel Whiteley writes in “Toward a Throw-Away Culture: Consumerism, ‘Style Obsolescence’ and Cultural Theory in the 1950s and 1960s,” but a “symbol of belief in the modern age.” America was flush, and we didn’t have to hold tight to the old anymore. (This period also coincided with the birth of consumer psychology, Goldsmith tells me, which may account for the lack of academic texts studying the psychology of frugality following the Great Depression — the discipline simply didn’t exist at the time.)

A migrant family during the Great Depression.
Three Lions/Getty Images

For generations now, limited-use products — from paper plates, plastic cutlery, and K-cups to burner phones and even disposable computers — have become part of our collective fabric. This throwaway attitude extends even to perfectly usable items — for an extreme (hilarious) example, think Jacqueline from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tossing out an unopened bottle of water because it had been removed from the fridge. That’s how the average American ends up throwing out 2,555 pounds of trash every year, the equivalent weight of two grizzly bears.

In this environment, the remaining holdouts have often been laughed at, ignored, and little studied, but they haven’t disappeared.

Over the phone, Goldsmith explains to me that his work separated frugality into two types: intrinsic and extrinsic. It can be a natural or externally created trait; some people might be wealthy and still parsimonious, others might come to their thriftiness because of their living situation.

In the 2015 paper “The etiology of frugal spending,” written along with professor Leisa R. Flynn, Goldsmith hypothesizes that intrinsically frugal people show greater cultural independence and self-discipline, that they “must practice self-control in order to save rather than spend.” On the other hand, extrinsically frugal consumers traditionally “have little choice but to limit their spending.”

As Goldsmith told me, the externally compelled people he studied had their habits “imposed upon them by the circumstances they find themselves in. They simply don’t have the resources to spend. It’s not that they don’t want to, they just don’t have it.”

That’s where pandemic-related frugality distinguishes itself. Its situational rise implies new practitioners might not be intrinsically frugal (sorry to Kelly, you’re still better with money than I am) — but it is not necessarily true that consumers in this moment don’t have the money to spend.

What makes the novel frugality novel

While there are undoubtedly financial pressures due to a cratering and existentially uncertain economy, there’s reason to believe that money concerns aren’t the full explanation for recent behavioral changes. According to a McKinsey study about the effect of the coronavirus on consumers, while American respondents are generally planning to spend less money overall, they expect to spend more in the categories that overlap with these new habits (up 15 percent to 30 percent for groceries, and up to 15 percent for household goods). Anecdotally, many of the burgeoning thrifty report alternative motivations.

Tom Namako, news director at BuzzFeed, tweeted that he found himself “diligently washing then saving every single used glass vessel, and I don’t know why.” On a phone call, Namako reports that at its peak his collection included “like 20 bottles” with no clear plan for their use. He’s considering using the bottles for scallion regrowth or pickling, and he’s also started washing Ziplocs and aluminum foil. His motivation, he’s realizing, is largely safety.

“I was always pretty conscious about wasting things, but when it comes to plastic bags now, it was like, ‘No, why would I ditch this?’” Namako says, “You can kind of see the chain reaction it has if you do ditch it, where people are out more, and that’s not what needs to happen right now.” Every plastic bag you throw away means you’re buying a new pack sooner, sending yourself or someone else out into the world to get it. He posits that he and others who have embraced reusability are trying to keep both themselves and essential workers from unnecessary movement.

Allison Van Evera, social media manager for @CarefullyApp, says she has long saved bread crusts, typically sticking them “in the freezer with high hopes of using them up at a later date,” but life often got in the way (her kids aren’t fans). Now, her family can no longer pop over to Costco whenever they want — or at least they’re choosing not to. “We decided to avoid the stores as much as possible to limit exposure,” she tells me via email. They’re shopping infrequently, and studiously avoiding Costco or the grocery store on busy weekends. “We needed to be more efficient with our food,” she writes.

When Teri, who lives in Arkansas with her husband, found herself rinsing out Ziploc bags she tweeted, “I’m turning into my grandmother!” Teri, whom I reached via DM and who requested to go by her first name, wasn’t entirely new to frugal behavior either: She already made a point to wash reusable rubber bags and found herself doing the same with plastic, but this was just one change among many.

Teri is also rationing to avoid the supermarket, being more conscious of not wasting food, and making more from scratch — including bread. She says she first knew things were going to be “strange for a while” when she saw empty shelves at her local store. “Knowing that people were struggling with the unknown” meant that supplies would be hard to find, so Teri wanted to hold on to the stuff she already had.

That unknown is a looming question for everyone at the moment, essential workers as well as those able to quarantine at home, and perhaps as much as the fear of economic collapse, there’s also a fear of scarcity. With runs on toilet paper, flour, hand sanitizer, and more, regular people have rarely found themselves so concerned with the supply chain. There have also been worrying outbreaks at some factories, including meatpacking plants, that may lead to future shortages. We’re not in any current danger of an aluminum foil shortage, but the fear remains.

Even pre-pandemic, frugality wasn’t monolithic

So what is healthy frugality, and when does it slip into something more problematic?

Elaine Birchall, author of the book Conquer the Clutter and host of a Zoom podcast for those struggling with stuff, has been a social worker specializing in mental health and intervention for hoarders for 19 years. When I meet Birchall on Zoom to discuss what this new behavior does and does not have in common with her area of expertise, she tells me that the fear of scarcity that caused panic-buying is the same one that hoarders experience — a fear of being “alone and deprived.”

Panic-buying comes from the same place as hoarding, says social worker and author Elaine Birchall.
Getty Images

As Birchall explains, hoarding is a nuanced affliction with multiple, sometimes overlapping paths that lead to the same crowded conclusion, but some people are set off simply by what she calls “a friendly relationship to clutter” and an overwhelming event or series of events. The issues she sees across clients are depression, anxiety, and most pressingly: isolation.

She helps clients, before and now, work through how to persevere, to trust that there will be enough. Birchall’s own household found itself down to one roll of toilet paper (“because I do not hoard”) but, just as she tells her clients, the universe provided and she was able to buy more before it became a problem. She says an important guideline is that everything in your home be able to have a permanent place — i.e., if there’s no place for your collection of 20 glass bottles, you cannot have 20 glass bottles.

Of course, plenty of people have a balanced relationship with frugality, often passed down, culturally ingrained despite the dominance of materialism in North America. The thriftiness reported in many immigrant families may track back to experience with financial uncertainty, but also with a community-mindedness that stands in stark contrast to American individualism.

Karen K. Ho, a global finance and economics reporter for Quartz, has always been cautious with money, so when she first saw people tweeting about buying rice in bulk, she was struck at the idea that this was new behavior. Ho immigrated from Canada to the US in 2018; her parents immigrated from Hong Kong before she was born.

“My mom immigrated to Canada with $100. Her entire life in Canada was predisposed on economic precarity,” Ho tells me in a phone call. Growing up, she says she didn’t know that they were working class, but her parents’ habits became second nature to her and her sister. “You always pack lunch, as an immigrant family,” she says, in contrast to high school classmates who would buy theirs. She’s long kept a pantry and saved plastic tubs from margarine and other groceries. Friends with a casual relationship to grocery shopping, who treated it as a leisure activity performed multiple times a week, felt bizarre to Ho; “your time is valuable,” she says.

She tells me that this awareness about value comes back to knowing that you’re unlikely to be compensated the same as white counterparts (“who gets laid off first, whose benefits get cut,” Ho describes) and that by extension, getting a good deal can be a way of beating an unfair system.

But she also explains that continuing to save and be thrifty comes from a concern for the people you love. Immigrants and refugees, she says, have a sense of “geopolitical awareness,” and often a desire to help family living overseas. “You’re saving money because it has to go around to more places,” she says, describing how it’s always been understood that she would be working in part to support her family, because they helped her get where she is.

Frugality for the greater good

While the isolation of quarantine could lead to troubling behavior, there’s some reason to believe it’s also causing just a bit of that community feeling in new groups. It might also finally be forcing many to reckon with what they do have. Trapped in our homes, we have no choice but to face our stuff.

For years, environmental and inequality activists have encouraged consumer consciousness, through popular but ultimately small movements like zero waste and “no-buy.” Consumers have largely pinned their ecological hopes on recycling, ignoring “reduce” and “reuse” when it comes to the three Rs. Now reusing is having a small moment. As Namako says, we’re “thinking more about using everything we have at our disposal.”

Regrowing scallions is just one of the frugal behaviors that have recently become popular online.
Getty Images/EyeEm

For those I spoke to, a greater awareness of resources in quarantine resulted in a bit of regret: “I feel like we should have been doing all of these things before — meal planning, using up leftovers, cooking meals at home, and being creative with what’s in our pantry, fridge, and freezer,” Van Evera says. For his part, Namako admits to being “sort of embarrassed” that plastic bag and aluminum foil reuse is a new habit.

Still, Van Evera tells me, “nothing like a pandemic to force you into action.”

This is all early days. As an expert in pre-pandemic frugality, Goldsmith says, “I think that when all the researchers start studying this they’re probably going to find that there was an element of anxiety associated with it, hence the hoarding.”

If hoarding is the most perverse outcome of frugality meeting materialism, one based in fear and isolation, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a healthier intersection possible, and even reflected in the statements of the fairly fortunate people I spoke to. While it seems unlikely that our acquisitive culture will up and stop (even if that would be a spiritual and environmental good), before the pandemic, experts hadn’t highlighted the community-minded aspects of frugality or encountered a materialism that was commonly aware of the supply chain.

“Certainly, people will probably pull back, not just because they have to,” Goldsmith says. But he points to, say, an unwillingness to book cruises, not necessarily a fundamental change in values.

Grandchildren in 2056 might be more likely to notice Nana’s obsessive hand-washing than her bread butt sammies. Frugality that’s based in safety and scarcity might not outlast the dangers of Covid-19, and if environmentalism is any indication, people will likely struggle to hold on to the idea that we should consider reuse for a greater good. It might be easy to forget all this, but for now it’s definitely novel.

The Goods

What would a healthy social media platform even look like?

Recode

How to make your job search suck a little less

Recode

Why everybody’s hiring but nobody’s getting hired

View all stories in The Goods