Luxury without guilt

The Philadelphia PBS station recently featured a program about “affluenza.” Its premise was that Americans spend far too much money and time on meaningless, disposable things that ruin the environment. But rather than suggest realistic ways to cut back on waste, the program promoted its own brand of “frugal living” as the most meaningful solution. Its definition of frugality seemed to be to quit your job and start a compost heap in the backyard.

I personally found its guilt-about-gilt stance somewhat self-righteous, but it did provoke an interesting question: Are luxury and frugality mutually exclusive?

I don’t believe that they are. Owning a luxury automobile doesn’t mean you can’t conserve energy by walking a half-mile to the video store instead of driving. You can recycle both grocery bags and Neiman Marcus bags. Buying expensive department-store hand cream instead of the cheaper drugstore brand doesn’t mean you can’t object to excessive packaging in either one, and if you use just a little less toothpaste or a little less detergent, you’ll probably find your teeth, your dishes, and your clothes get just as clean without the excess suds.

Compulsive shopping was another of the program’s peeves. Yes, compulsive shopping is bad. But the operative word here is “compulsive,” not “shopping.” Any kind of addiction is a symptom of a deeper problem. And it is true that things, no matter how lovely or fine, are never an adequate substitute for love and attention. If you give your spouse jewelry instead of time, that’s not good. But if he or she has been supportive and patient through a particularly demanding workload or agrees to relocate so you can accept a promotion, a gift of beautiful jewelry or a fine watch says you recognize and appreciate the sacrifice.

If a painting or sculpture brings you pleasure in its beauty, does it really need to do anything else? If the caress of Egyptian cotton against your skin makes you feel good, will a coarser weave make you a better person – or just uncomfortable? If you always insist upon the finest quality, the objects you buy should work better, last longer, require less repair, and make you glad about your investment. In the long term, that costs a whole lot less.

And isn’t it a much more realistic – and appealing – view of frugality?