A friend and I got joking the other night about the old Onion article about William Safire going to BK and ordering two “Whoppers Junior”. In the course of the conversation he mentioned to me that Safire’s word of the year this year is Frugalista. My guess is that the meaning is obvious, but it’s someone who is a fashionista on a budget (which, I would imagine, is even more time consuming than just being a fashionista).

The whole concept bugged me, and it was all I could do not to go off on a total rant. Instead I just went off on a partial rant about lifestyles and money, with the thought in the back of my mind that I would end up writing about it here. These are dangerous topics because they are so personal, and I know that often my preaching can make it sound like I think my lifestyle is the best out there. That mindset sounds terrible, but think about this: If you don’t think your lifestyle is the best, why are you living that way?

Having been ruined for life by the Jesuits, I have an odd relationship with money. Like I tell my students, we all know that Jesus said “give away all you have and follow me”, and we can make whatever choices we want about money but we can’t ever pretend that he didn’t say it. Dance around it, interpret it, parse it within an inch of it’s life, but it’s there and if we take the Evangelists seriously we can’t ignore it.

When I got back from Mexico after the first time I traveled on an international service trip, I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything for month and a half. A cup of coffee filled me with guilt, and little luxuries felt superfluous. After a while I realized that I couldn’t control the world I was born into any more than my friends on the outskirts of Tijuana, and decided that sometimes I had to buy a new pair of jeans. That said, to this day I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than $35 on a pair.

I still spent the next 3 years doing “the voluntary poverty thing” as I called it, living in community for 4 years, sacrificing privacy and autonomy in an attempt not to consume more than my fair share. After a while it started to get to me, and I was lucky enough to be able to choose between two jobs: one at a wealthy school and one at a less affluent school. The decision was a struggle, but I was tired of not knowing how I was going to afford groceries, and I sold out. I don’t regret it.

What does this have to do with being a Frugalista? Despite being able to afford my own place and new shoes, I am still annoyed by nation’s emphasis on style and consumption. This will only become more apparent as we plow forward toward Christmas. Even as people are forced to consume less because of the economy, I still am perturbed that so much of what I hear about are the extraneous things people can’t afford. Did it never occur to them when things were flush that maybe they didn’t need that extra piece of technology, that fancy vacation, the second, or third, or fourth home? Did they really see no value in consuming less simply for the sake of consuming less? I own very little of significant monetary value and it makes me feel free. Have we become shackled to our own consumer aspirations? Has Madison Avenue made it impossible for America to know the joy and liberation of letting those consumerist dreams go?

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