The Lost Culture of Saving

Last Updated Apr 29, 2009 12:44 PM EDT

Social scientist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead


Even before it was fashionable, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead was
proselytizing about the value of thrift and saving. In a widely read article
published last summer
in "The American Interest," she described how shortsighted
government policy and a financial system based on greed turned Americans away
from what had been an enduring social consensus that valued thrift.

As a social
scientist and director of the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute
for American Values
, Whitehead has studied extensively the effects of social
policy on family well-being. Here Whitehead discusses the institutions and
forces that conspire against saving, and how we can change them.

Why aren’t people saving the way their parents once did?


The first reason is a regime of easy consumer credit that
has encouraged people to max out their credit cards. The second is the use of
home equity as a speculative investment instead of a rock of security. Third,
new “anti-thrift” institutions get people into a debt trap.
And fourth is the idea that debt is no big deal and that saving for a rainy day
is outmoded — Depression-era thinking.

Can — and should — the government do anything to restore a culture of thrift?


Yes, because this burden of heavy debt at every level is
simply unsustainable.

What I call “antithrift” institutions
prey on lower- and middle-income people. I’m thinking of things like
payday lenders, pawnshop chains, and rent-to-own centers. These institutions
tell people that there is such a thing as free cash and easy money, and that
you can borrow with no downside. That just isn’t true. There should
be more regulation of the antithrifts, such as usury caps on payday lenders.


In addition, the government should create more incentives to
help lower-income Americans save. An interesting idea here is to expand the
federal thrift savings plan, which is available to federal workers, to all
Americans. Another is to give people a checkoff on their tax forms to use their
refunds to buy U.S. savings bonds. We’ve forgotten savings bonds, but
they have been a classic way to get a large group of small savers into
investment mode. They’re still a good bargain, and a good idea.

Existing incentives to save — IRAs, 401(k)s,
Roths, and so on — don't seem effective. Why would anything new work?


Now public consciousness has been raised. People are looking
for ways to dig out of debt and to build a nest egg. But they need information
and advice on how to do it.

The banking industry used to run campaigns to help
people save and used to sponsor school savings programs. But many banks have
stopped doing so. This is why it is important to have new information
campaigns. Give people simple, plain-vanilla steps on how to go about saving.

You criticize state-sponsored lotteries as a form of gambling that prey on lower-income people. Should they be abolished?


Ideally, yes. But that isn’t likely. States are
addicted to the lottery as a revenue source. But states could repurpose the
lotteries. For example, they could devote a share of their revenue to a savings
ticket that would give people prizes for saving money, as Britain has done
successfully for the past fifty years.

Many economists are saying that higher savings rates could actually retard
recovery. How do you respond to that?


Yes, the paradox of thrift. But I do
not think that is an accurate view of what is happening, because the government
is stepping in to be the spender of last resort. That’s the reason
for the href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/article/the-800-billion-question/279229">stimulus package — to boost the economy to compensate for
slower consumer spending.


I also think you have to realize that people are doing what
is rational. It is not as if consumers have a whole lot of choices; they cannot
get credit and are overwhelmed with debt, so it’s entirely rational
to pull back.

You talk about the value of public campaigns for encouraging saving. What
should such campaigns say?


That it’s href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/article/life-in-a-thrifty-future/279223">cool and smart to save. In principle,
saving is fairly simple. First, you need to reduce your consumer debt and start
to build a rainy-day fund to protect against unexpected expenses; a CD or an
interest-bearing checking account is fine. It’s okay to start small;
the important thing is to get into the habit.


The same thing goes for longer-term saving and investing.
How to do this? Make a budget and include a regular entry for savings. If your
employer offers direct deposit into a retirement account, or if your bank will
automatically deduct a certain amount to go into a CD, take advantage of that.
You can’t spend money you don’t see.

Research shows that
people who save href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/article/how-depressing-is-a-depression/277122">tend to be happier and less anxious. Sure, it’s fun
to buy, but no fun at all to get the credit card bill.

How should children learn about money?


It depends on the child, but it should start from a young
age. The idea is that you want your child to make a progression of steps up the
learning curve. Encourage them to have a sense of their own resources, and to
do small jobs to earn their own money. Introduce the idea of saving money
early; for really small children, a piggy bank will do.

As they get older, go
with them to open a savings account in a bank. Eventually, debit cards are a
really good idea, because they are self-limiting; it’s important to
remember to show them the statements and explain to them how they work.


As for credit cards, I don’t really see why high
school students need one. College students sometimes do, but they don’t
need three or four. They should see if there is a college credit union; these
offer better rates and an opportunity to save, too. And they need to pay it off
every billing cycle.


Kids today don’t know about cash except that it
comes out of an ATM; their world is ATMs and plastic. Parents have a
responsibility to educate them about the realities that underlie these services
— the basics of earning and credit.

Any last thoughts?


Western Europe has generally proved better at maintaining a
culture of thrift. I have a daughter who has lived in Paris for 20 years, and I
have noticed that many Europeans are big fans of Benjamin Franklin and his
principles of industry, frugality, and generosity.

So it’s
interesting that in the U.S., when the tercentenary of Franklin’s
birth was commemorated in 2006, the celebrations ignored his role as a
popularizer of thrift in America. If the anniversary were this year, I bet that
would have changed.


Read more on the economy and the new era of frugality:



href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/article/the-800-billion-question/279229">The $787 Billion Stimulus: Is It Working?

href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/article/life-in-a-thrifty-future/279223">Life in a Thrifty Future

href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/article/is-increased-saving-good-for-the-economy/277116">Is Increased Saving Good for the Economy?

  • Cait Murphy

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