Historically, recessions always vindicate the frugal. Dismissed as penny-pinchers during prosperous times, economic despair makes frugality the center of media stories and casts it in a newly positive light. Whether it’s brown bagging, dumpster diving or even gardening, these previously “weird” behaviors suddenly come into vogue, serving as models for the rest of us to emulate. Our current downturn is no different, and today we will examine 10 behaviors that the recession has made more palatable to the consumer mainstream.
Read any personal finance book written in the last twenty years and you will find the admonition to “brown-bag” your lunch. Study after study has shown the cost savings of making your own lunch versus buying it at restaurants, cafeterias or vending machines. Before the recession, however, this was still a somewhat fringe practice, limited to the truly frugal. Recent polls seem to indicate that brown-bagging is now more widespread.
According to the Dayton Business Journal:
“More than half of the people who responded to a recent poll revealed they are eating lunch at their desk more often because of the recession. Only 1 percent said they are eating out more these days than in years past.”
No doubt the rising tide of unemployment and layoffs have motivated people to trim their food costs by brown-bagging. Whether the trend persists after the recession, of course, remains to be seen.
Growing Your Own Food
Perhaps an even more radical way of trimming one’s food bill is to grow it the backyard. Extreme as this may sound, CNN has reported a surge in what they call “recession gardens”, noting that “some are turning to the backyard, rather than the grocery store, as the place to look for produce.” In gathering research for their story, CNN followed the sales of a prominent seed retailer and found some truly stunning results:
W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the largest seed and gardening supply store in the country, says it has seen a 25 to 30 percent spike in vegetable seed and plant sales this spring compared with last.
“I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it — even remotely like it,” said George Ball, chairman and CEO of the company.
The story goes on to claim that there has not been such an uptick in home gardening since the 1970′s. It would be difficult to attribute such a dramatic rise to anything other than the recession. Furthermore, it appears to be a wise investment: the National Gardening Association states that a $70 investment in a garden will produce roughly $600 in produce yearly.
Dumpster diving has always divided the frugal along controversial lines. Even those who agree on the necessity of bargain hunting seldom agree on whether this creed justifies hand-sifting through trash in back alleys and parking lots. However, if the Orlando Sentinel’s reporting is any indication, the practice of dumpster diving is back, and it’s “thanks to the recession.” In their March 26, 2009 article, the Sentinel describes one woman’s experience in trash rummaging, despite her husband’s view of it as an “awful habit.”
“..you never know what you’ll find. I have an awesome decorative convex mirror in my hallway that a friend of a friend was throwing out. It had been in his parents’ house and he was getting rid of it — and couldn’t find anyone who wanted it. (I raised my hand — and was promptly mocked by his friends. Years later, I have gotten lots of compliments on it.)”
Of course, this particular behavior demands some safety precautions. Dumpster divers are advised to wear rugged, durable clothing as well as thick gloves and even goggles to guard against sharp, dirty, or otherwise dangerous objects lurking in the the dumpsters. And of course, always get permission beforehand. Some businesses have strict no-diving policies that can enforced by trespassing laws.
Many today fail to realize that barter (the direct trading of goods or services without using money) was long the primary means of exchange. The practice never fully vanished however, and the recession is bringing back into vogue in a big way. In their article “Newly Thrifty Americans Go Foraging”, Reuters offers several interesting examples of modern day, recession-inspired barter transactions. For instance:
“Miranda Walton’s old Ford pickup was collecting dust on her ranch in Austin, Texas, so she decided to trade it in for something she needed — goats. Walton, 38, will get milk for her three sons, a tax break for using her land for raising livestock and someone will get a sturdy truck. There’s no cash involved, making Walton one of a growing number of Americans who are looking outside the traditional economy to confront the recession.”
The entire transaction was orchestrated over Craigslist (where barter listings have doubled in the last year), adding a modern twist to this age-old practice. It’s also worth noting that the “under the radar” nature of most barter transactions make them exempt from taxation, which is no small consideration during such harsh economic conditions. Look for barter to continue and expand for at least the duration of the recession.
As TreeHugger.com notes, “food foraging has moved from being something out there on the fringe to an almost mainstream hobby.” While it was once unthinkable that anyone but the furthest on the fringe would take to the forest in efforts to hand-forage their own wild food, the recession has begun to change that. In fact, foraging is now so popular that there are specialized courses one can take about learning which types of plants are edible or poisonous. Following one seminar attendee around, the UK’s Guardian recalls a typical day in the woods for the class:
“I’m on a seminar at Gorse Meadow Guest House near Lymington with 10 other fungi fans, delving into the fascinating world of mushrooms. There are, I learn, around 3,000 types in the New Forest alone, but we’re only interested in identifying about 10 edible varieties. Passing around pictures, we discover that different mushrooms like particular forests or specific trees (oysters favour beech; beefsteaks prefer oak) and learn when and how quickly they grow, and, most importantly, what not to eat (around 10 per cent of mushrooms are poisonous).”
As with dumpster diving, precautions are in order. The fact that there are courses on foraging illustrates that people should not just take to the woods in search of whatever looks appetizing. If nothing else, some introductory reading on the practice is highly advised.
The great American garage sale always has a resurgence during recessions, and this one is no exception. Whether it’s a new lamp, shelf, or set of dishes, people tend to cruise by local garage and yard sales before visiting the more common retailers. Fox Businesses discusses this trend in their August 14, 2009 article “Garage Sales Booming as Recession Grinds On”, reporting that:
“As companies fold or shed jobs in the worst recession in decades, a growing number of Americans are saying a fond good-bye to their belongings at garage sales to generate some badly needed cash.
One barometer of their rising popularity is a three-fold leap in garage sales listings on free online classified advertising service Craigslist in the past two years the firm attributes to the struggling economy.”
The story quotes one family in particular as saying that they use the proceeds to pay down bills and debt, rather than simply as spending money. An open air market specialist at the University of Wisconsin was also quoted as saying that “people have always been interested in face-to-face commerce, but they are more motivated now because of tough economic times.” Indeed, the rise in garage saling appears to be helping both bargain hunters (discussed below) and those holding the garage sales themselves. It’s a recessionary win-win.
More generally, consumers are cultivating a spirit of bargain hunting that is not as widespread during prosperous times. Even those who aren’t going as far as dumpster diving or foraging are taking a more skeptical view of retail prices, utilizing bargain hunting websites like PriceGrabber and buying in bulk at stores like Costco. WalletPop.com discovered in March 2009 that there had been a “resurgence in coupons”, noting that while people “still hate them”, coupon use increased 10% in the fourth quarter of 2008 and retailers as a whole have produced and distributed over 319 million coupons in the last year. Here as elsewhere, the recession’s role in this trend would be difficult to deny. Paying full retail price is simply not acceptable with the threat of unemployment looming large.
Buying Used Clothing
Buying used clothing is another practice many hold their noses at when the economy is humming along. Today, however, a significant number of people are now finding that this once scoffed-at behavior may not be so beneath them after all. An April 13, 2009 CNN article investigates the recessionary rise in thrift and consignment sales, discovering what has been found in many past recessions:
Many are discovering the hidden treasures in consignment shops, as well as thrift stores and other places once thought to be only for the destitute. Denise McShane owns McShane’s Exchange, whose two locations in the Chicago, Illinois, neighborhood of Lincoln Park have seen an uptick in those unloading their Prada and St. John.
“Business has really boomed,” McShane said. “The bad news is that we are in a recession, but I absolutely have had a surge in consigners.”
Those skeptical of buying used may be surprised to learn that thrift stores often offer serious discounts on trendy, in-style brands and styles. The notion that only poor or unstylish people buy used appears in this light to be myth rather than fact.
Eating Junk Food
Many of the behaviors discussed so far have arisen out of more or less noble motivations – saving money, bargain hunting, and making the most of limited resources. But if ChewsWise.com has it right, the recessionary trend of rising junk sales has its origins in a less praiseworthy cause. As the food blog bluntly states:
“When people get laid off and feel like crap, they eat crap. Which is why McDonald’s sales are rising while Starbucks’ are falling. Why not Starbucks? Because people don’t need a caffeine jolt when they’re worried about their job and finances. They want comfort food. Greasy food. Interesting theory.”
While it may come off as crude or simplistic, on the surface it does appear that this may be the case. However, there is another compelling argument for eating more junk food in economic downturns – it’s cheap. Virtually every gas station or supermarket in the country offers potato chips, soda, burgers, fries, frozen pizza and more at prices nearly everyone can afford. Therefore, healthier options being a bit pricier (combined with the aforementioned comfort food value) could be spurring the rise in junk food sales. Unlike most of the other activities in this article, we can’t give this one a ringing endorsement!
An enduring trend remains to be seen, but it appears the recession is making people re-think their smoking habits. British-based Sky News reported that roughly 9% of the UK’s nine million cigarette smokers planned to use the country’s “No Smoking Day” as their first day of kicking the habit. Sky also added that “figures show smokers in the Midlands are most likely to quit because of the effects of the recession.” The savings opportunity is no less significant in the United States, where federal tobacco taxes have risen more in 2009 than ever before. According to Fox News, the federally-mandated tax on a pack of cigarettes has risen from thirty nine cents to over a dollar just this year alone.
The writing on the wall is clear. A pack-a-day smoker stands to save over $2,500 a year by quitting, and some appear to be doing just that in response to recessionary pressures.