A couple months ago, I stumbled across an article on the Wall Street Journal called “The Biggest Ways People Waste Money.” I’m always interested in issues of frugality, so I read the piece with attention.
As is typical for these kinds of articles, the piece addressed the importance of plugging financial leaks from the small (daily coffees) to the large (mortgage payments). The author interviewed several financial experts to seek their advice, including someone named Robert Shiller, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and Yale University professor.
It was Dr. Shiller’s advice that caught my eye. Here’s what this expert had to say: “Big houses are a waste. People are still in a mode of thinking about houses that is kind of 19th century. As we modernize, we don’t need all this space. For example, we don’t need elaborate kitchens, because we have all kinds of delivery services for food. And maybe you don’t need a workshop in your basement, either. You used to have a filing cabinet for your tax information, but now it’s all electronic, so you don’t need that, either. And bookshelves, for people who read a lot. We have electronic books now, so we don’t need bookshelves anymore.”
Is this Nobel Prize-winning economist implying a kitchen, a workshop, a filing cabinet, and bookshelves are economically wasteful? On what planet? If he’s addressing the extravagance of McMansions, I might get his point. But he didn’t say that.
“We have all kinds of delivery services for food,” he says. Really? Constantly eating takeout food is economical? What about those of us rural folks who live far away from restaurants? What happens if food delivery is unavailable due to weather or pandemic lockdowns? I’m not the world’s greatest cook, but a kitchen of sufficient size to get a job done is critical. I think of the endless cooking and canning projects I’ve done in our kitchen over the years and wonder how Dr. Shiller can think food delivery is somehow a better financial choice.
“And maybe you don’t need a workshop in your basement,” he says. Is this man familiar with tools and how they can save untold thousands of dollars in standard repairs or modifications? A workshop is essential for those with a self-sufficient mindset. Not only has my husband supported our family with a woodcraft business for three decades, but the number of things he’s built, fixed, repaired, improved, or MacGyver’d over the years is astounding. It has also saved us a stinkin’ fortune.
“You used to have a filing cabinet for your tax information,” he says. A file cabinet is a waste of money? I’ve done our business and household taxes by hand since 1993. I need somewhere to store the paperwork since I sure as heck ain’t putting our sensitive financial information in “the cloud.”
“We have electronic books now, so we don’t need bookshelves anymore,” he says. Um, no. As a bibliophile, just … no. What happens if the power goes out and you can’t charge your Kindle? Books – physical books – are useful for both research and entertainment. Besides, a wall of books is a thing of beauty.
I don’t mean to pick on Dr. Shiller or imply his remarks in the article were meant to be anything but helpful. However, I do find it extraordinary that a Nobel-prize winning economist cannot grasp the economic benefits of doing things for one’s self: cooking, repairing or building, organizing, even entertaining (reading). Just sayin’.
I also find it interesting that of the thousands of potential money-saving tips Dr. Shiller could have suggested, he singled out these four. I could be completely misinterpreting his points, but it seems his ideas of economy are at odds with our ideas of what brings us economic freedom.
Yes, economic freedom. There comes a point where purchasing the goods or services of outside providers is more costly than the slightly larger home space necessary to provides those goods and services for one’s self.
Look, last year we moved from a 3,600 square-foot home to a 1,400 square-foot home. There certainly comes a time in life when downsizing makes sense. But we made sure our new home provided us with enough space to achieve our goals of self-sufficiency. It would be fiscally absurd to give up the space and the things that allow us to live our frugal, non-wasteful lifestyle simply because some economist apparently can’t grasp how having room to do things is more fiscally prudent than hiring someone else to do those things.
When I first read the article, I was inclined to view Dr. Shiller’s position with some amusement as the difference between an urban and rural mentality. After all, presumably this Yale professor doesn’t need space to keep livestock or preserve the garden. Possibly Dr. Shiller cannot grasp that some people live in places so thinly populated that the nearest restaurant is many miles away, and food delivery is unheard of.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this seemingly innocuous position is indicative of something much deeper and more sinister: Them vs. Us. And not just because readers quickly located Dr. Shiller’s five-bedroom 3,900 square foot luxury home (with, presumably, a gourmet kitchen) in an upscale neighborhood in Connecticut. And not just because readers posted a photo of a smiling Dr. Shiller in his office surrounded by books and filing cabinets.
No, what echoed through my mind is this: You will own nothing, and you’ll be happy.
Already, in the face of supply-chain shortages and skyrocketing gas and energy prices, we are being advised to “lower our expectations.” But is Dr. Shiller lowering his expectations? How about the Clintons? The Bidens? The Obamas? Pick any ivory-tower elite and ask if they’re lowering their expectations.
Ironically, those of us who have the room to grow a garden, preserve food in an adequate kitchen, and do endless DIY projects live far more frugally and economically that the Dr. Shillers of the world can possibly fathom.
But since when does common sense ever enter into the elites’ plan of world domination? Oh yeah: When it’s their sense of what’s best for us commoners.
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