Monday, June 8, 2009

Faux-poverty =/= cheapness

There's something that needs to be cleared up early on in the Cheapness Studies experiment, and that's the difference between The Cheap and the Fashionably Faux-Poor, otherwise known as hipsters. It can be easy to confuse the two, because both are sets whose spending is or seems in conflict with their wealth or social class. Both can be found rummaging in thrift-store bins, scouring used-book sales, and, alas, cutting their own hair. And the 'it's hip to be frugal' lifestyle pieces that keep popping up further confuse matters - if thrift is in, are The Cheap just one more set of hipsters obeying Hipster Rule #1, which is of course to deny one's own hipsterdom?

Before things get blurrier still, some ways to tell cheapness apart from its evil cousin, faux-poverty:

-Dress: Faux-poverty is always for show, whereas cheapness can be but doesn't have to be - some exercise cheapness discretion from the confines of a cheapness closet, while others shout their cheapness from the rooftops. But an openly cheap person will, for example, buy a designer dress on sale, hoping to use her money as efficiently as possible for an upcoming event that requires such an item. When someone points out in a tsk-tsk tone that the item's designer, the dress's cheap owner will mention, with pride, the steep discount. Whereas the faux-poor do not buy designer clothes, however low in price, and will in fact be willing to spend more than the cheap do on their sale items for clothes whose faux-poor cred is self-evident - 'it's thrifted' or, for the very ironic, 'it's from a Walmart down South', being your key words.

-Financial responsibility: While cheapness is not always about money saved, and can merely be entered into for it's own sake, it is done with the idea, however buried in one's mind, that one must be saving for something. Faux-poverty, meanwhile, is not about savings, but about a perpetual state of being 'so broke.' And sometimes the faux-poor are as broke as they claim, because they can spend huge amounts of well-hidden money on intentionally-'distressed' jeans, gritty-looking lofts, hand-rolled cigarettes, drinks at expensive but 'downtown' bars, and so on. They're not getting blow-outs or manicures, flat-screens or yachts, but they might well be spending, all the same. If someone faux-poor also happens to spend very little - and this has been known to happen - it's just a coincidence.

-Class: Faux-poverty is a statement about authentic membership in (some fantasy version of) the working class. Thus the overalls, flannel, mullets, and tattoos, and the preference for converted industrial spaces and homes 'down by the docks'. For the faux-poor, nothing could be worse than for it to be revealed that you grew up in Greenwich, CT, and attended the finest Northeastern boarding schools, and not on scholarship. (Witness every last Williamsburg resident telling all who'll listen that they don't, unlike everyone else in Williamsburg, get their rent paid by their parents.) Meanwhile, to be faux-poor, by definition, you did not grow up poor.

Whereas there's no requirement, for the cheap, to have any particular family background. While cheapness and economic self-sufficiency go hand in hand, and while poverty does not, of course, allow freely choosing not to buy the new fancy car, that's about where the relationship to class status ends. A person can be cheap because he grew up poor and can't imagine spending freely, or because he grew up rich and watched his parents save to get that way. There's no one route to what amounts to the same result. Cheapness is not about sneering at those who, as luck would have it, were born to wealthy families - if anyone's sneered at by the cheap, it's those who spend thoughtlessly. Who your parents are is sort of besides the point, except insofar as cheapness can be instilled in one's offspring.

-Chic: Cheapness isn't chic. Think of when, on Seinfeld, Jerry says, in reference to George spotting a dime on the floor while without his glasses, "Maybe cheapness is a sense." George Costanza? Not chic. (Referencing Seinfeld in 2009: even less chic.)


Britta said...

Great post! Good break down. I'm from Portland, OR, which is rapidly becoming the next Williamsburg (no thanks to the NY Times). As a genuinely cheap person, I have watched my neighborhood get partially destroyed by faux poor people. There are two main reasons why faux poor people are the enemies of actual cheap people:
1) They drive up demand (and therefore price) for things that used to be cheap, e.g. thrift stores, antique shops, etc. The thrift stores in my neighborhood where I used to shop as a teenager are now ridiculously overpriced and full of hipsters who just love love love getting "bargains" there. I mean, who pays $20 for a USED Old Navy or Limited tee-shirt when a new one from actual Old Navy would be far cheaper?

2) They attract businesses selling services that ought to be cheap but are not: $5 ice cream cones, $4 slices of pizza, $10 sandwiches, (or my personal favorite, $8 bowls of rice and beans) etc. They can pretend "going out for a sandwich" is cheap, never mind that you could make about 10 sandwiches at that price at home.

So...basically, the faux poor willing to pay far more than you do to live your lifestyle and businesses respond accordingly, pricing you out of your own life.

Phoebe said...


All good points!

"I mean, who pays $20 for a USED Old Navy or Limited tee-shirt when a new one from actual Old Navy would be far cheaper?"

OK, that is truly the single most frustrating thing about shopping for used clothes. Is there anyone who so regrets not buying some item from Spring 2006 Old Navy that they'll pay more than it's original price for a pit-stained version?

My only question is how much hipsters are to blame for the inflated prices of normal items. There's also a more general trend - has been for some time - of 'basics' costing a ton, perhaps because even for those ready to spend $1,000 in one go, it's less intimidating to do so in a shop that sells jeans and tees than in one that sells evening gowns. I don't think the $200-jeans trend of circa 2004 was driven by hipsters. But expensive rice-and-beans, used clothes, etc., that's definitely the hipsters' fault.