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Thrifting is Thriving

'Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'

In 1964, Bob Dylan penned ‘times they are a-changing’. The song described the cultural shift happening due to the sexual revolution. Around the same time, David Tucker, observed that the cultural shift swept with it Westerners love affair with thrift. The puritan-ethic of virtue gave in.

If thrifting sounds like thriving to you, it is because thrifting really is thriving. Is it surprising then that both “thrift” and “thrive” largely disappeared in our vocabulary? I will give you a second to ponder on this question. Refreshingly, just when we thought the word was on the verge of disappearing we suddenly discovered it all new again; albeit in bits and pieces. I should say this rediscovery in not wholly unexpected. Our modern society demands better. Our current generation is searching for virtues that matters and have meaning. In his book, thrift and thriving in America, Joshua Yates beautifully captures the essence of thrift as “whatever else one makes of it [thrift]; thrift is a virtue of necessity… both as a way of diagnosing the causes of our economic troubles and as a prescription for their solution”.  

Thrift has come to mean frugality in our everyday conversation; however, the origin of the word offers something deeper than frugality. It turns out that the original meaning of thrift is ‘the condition of thriving’. Hitherto capitalism and the consumerism wave, thriving remained the hidden idea of thrift. It is within this original meaning that thrift ultimately makes sense; and also we somewhat experience a glimpse of the power and the true potential of thrift. It moves the meaning beyond the ordinary conception of frugality into a more fundamental question about the ends of [economic] life – and that is more or less of what and for what purpose? Put differently, thrift forces us to reimagine the most fundamental economic question for any society. That question, according to Joshua Yates, is “what does it mean and take to thrive?”.

Renewed or rediscovered practices and virtues mostly tend to suffer from a misunderstanding of their true import. Sadly, same appear true for this renewed interest in thrift. For most people, thrift is synonymous with second-hand clothing shops. This falls far too short of the richer meaning the word embodies. I would not go into the historical details of thrift. However, if you’re interested in understanding the etymological and historical perspectives of thrift; I strongly recommend Joshua Yates book. Rediscovering the true import of thrift is only the beginning of reassessing and re-envisioning the nexus between thrift and thriving. This important beginning will shape the discourse of thriving in the coming decades and the role of thrift in such a discourse. That is, whether thrift will be the heart of the conversation.

In this article, I set forth three main reasons why thrifting is thriving; and why I believe rediscovering this true meaning is even more important now than ever.

  1. The increasing social and economic inequality. Covid-19 pandemic and social unrests have brought into sharp focus the level of inequality that exists within our society. Whereas the wealthy has added fortunes to their wealth, the vast majority of people wonder day-to-day how to pay bills. The reality is that for majority in these financial difficulties (and even with slimmer prospects of a better future), thrift will once again become a virtue of necessity. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided society an opportunity to rethink many things including the moral purposes of the economy. At the center stage of this conversation, I believe, should be the thrift and its historic connection to thriving. According to Joshua Yates, forcing our attention to such a connection “focuses attention on the ends of economic life, helping to resist the reduction of the economy to its purely technical and mechanistic dimensions”. Simply put, it reinforces what matters and opens the door for a possibility of a meaningful debate.
  2. The threat of climate change. The existential threat of climate change appears to be the major catalyst of the rediscovery of the lost virtue of thrift. I am not talking about the political discussions surrounding climate change; but the more nuanced conversations among the ordinary citizens. These conversations have potentially illuminated points of common concern and agreement that would otherwise be neglected at the political debate stage. The ordinary person has resorted to thrifting as a moral responsibility to protect or even extend the life of our planet. The promise of thrift is real and offers an avenue to contribute to the climate change efforts. With heightened political tensions surrounding climate change, rediscovering the meaning of thrift provides us with a common vocabulary or language by which we can have a meaningful conversation in spite of our many dilemmas and political disagreements about the nature of sustainable and equitable society.
  3. Spiritual renewal. I am a Christian, and for a millennium the practice of temperament as embodied in thrift was a necessary virtue just like chastity. That’s why I believe the rediscovery of thrift has a spiritual dimension. The Puritans, for instance, were motivated by thrift and thriving to accumulate wealth as a spiritual vocation or calling for the whole communities. In essence, this motivation sought to reform societal norms of wealth creation as a response to divine grace. Before I am accused of preaching communism or radical socialism, that’s not the intent or the import here. My intention is to highlight the spiritual dimension and stewardship of wealth. In today’s world, many are constantly longing for meaning and purpose. For these people, the Puritan thrift virtue which eventually gave way to capitalism and extreme consumerism that worships at the altar of instant gratification will be a thrilling experience.

Of course, unless this renewed interest in thrift is accompanied by structural reforms in our day-to-day behaviours, the promise of thrift will forever remain elusive to us.