Consider the humble bar of soap. You use it, and at some point it becomes a thin shard of its former self. It could still serve its cleaning and lathering purpose, but the mechanics make it difficult. You can’t really grip it in the normal way, because the pressure of your fingers would break it into even smaller pieces. If you try to palm it instead, the slippery remnants slide from your hand. And what to do about the odd-shaped hotel soaps — the ovals, and perfect squares, and little circles, all exotically scented — that you have collected during your travels? This is why most soap ends its life cycle unhappily, tossed into the trash in frustration or melting into oblivion on the shower floor.
The solution is the soap stack. Through careful engineering and soap size matching, the cheapskate constructs a multi-bar creation that maintains the bulk and heft necessary to proper soap usage. It takes patience, and some dry aging, for the soap tails to become welded together into a functional unit, leaving you with a riotously multi-hued object. But when it works, the result is an immensely satisfying accomplishment for the practitioner of household economy.
Lately I’ve been focused on trying to use things up. It has been a very pleasant and rewarding process.
After the kids left for college, I slowly came to realize that we have lots of extra stuff around. My first step was to inventory what we had. What I found amazed me. We had more than a dozen cans of shaving cream, about 30 unused disposable razors, 10 different kinds of shampoo, and a large box full of bars of soap — and that’s just in the personal hygiene category. We also had countless pens and pencils, notebooks and pads of paper, iPod chargers and earbuds and extension cords. So, I put them all together and, for some time now, have been slowly using these household goods — drop by drop, lather by lather, blade by blade, and pen by pen — until they are used up and can be discarded in good conscience. I’ll probably never have to buy a can of shaving cream again.
This effort has been extremely satisfying, and not just because it scratches my cheapskate itch. I’m one of those people who think the advertising-driven consumer culture makes Americans accumulate too much stuff. We end up with all of these unnecessary possessions, and then we cart them around with us from place to place. It becomes absurd, and suffocating, and embarrassing. No human needs a dozen cans of shaving cream or a hundred perfectly good pens. Using them makes me feel a bit more responsible, a bit more virtuous, and a bit less egregious in our contribution to waste and conspicuous consumption. Every time I use one of these items it’s like I’ve won a small but meaningful battle against the overwhelming forces of consumerism — and that feels good.
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on middle-class spending in the past few years. Department of Labor statistics show that middle-class Americans cut their spending by 3.5 percent from 2008 to 2009, the steepest one-year decline in spending since such records began being kept in 1984. Spending by the richest Americans also declined by 2.6 percent from 2007 to 2009. The statistics show that reduced discretionary spending produced the decline, with people shelling out less on things like alcohol and eating out.
These statistics aren’t a surprise to anyone in middle America. The ongoing recession — only economists believe it ended months ago — has truly shaken the confidence of the American consumer. In the past, spending by optimistic Americans pulled the country out of recession. In this instance, that is not happening because there is too much uncertainty. No one knows whether their taxes will be increased, or whether another round of layoffs may hit their workplace, or whether a desperate family member will come to them asking for help. In such circumstances, the only prudent course is to cut back on non-essentials and try to make do.
This may be why the current recession is baffling economists whose models predicted a rebound in consumer spending. Most Americans may be optimists, but they aren’t crazy. They will adopt a careful wait-and-see attitude about whether there is real economic recovery before the purse strings are loosened again.