This is kind of an addendum to my last post, but I found I had so much I wanted to say to the commenters on that post that I should probably just add a whole new topic. (Please note that I adore both of these commenters, I just happen to take issue with them on this topic.)
I believe a large group of people in trouble are where they are because they can't separate needs and wants very well.
We've lived with minimal "stuff", many handmedowns, and no vacations for years, because paying off our debt (and not accumulating MORE) was our priority, as I think it should be for anyone with a debt.
I have a problem with both of these statements. It's not that I don't think there are people in trouble because they spend unwisely (been there and done that and still paying the bill), but I'm bothered by the assumption that we can judge for other people what a need versus a want is, and whether paying debt should be a priority. I am increasingly bothered by the overtones of morality in fiscal conversations like this one. Not having debt does not make you a better person. Have a frugal lifestyle and not spending frivolously isn't going to get you into heaven.
The older I get, the more I believe that our financial system is a game of random luck. Working harder doesn't get you more, being in the right place at the right time does. Sure, stringent habits can keep you afloat, but so can not getting sick or losing your job. Given that, what is the use of attaching morality to who dies with the biggest savings account balance?
Obviously it has become important to me over the course of the past year or so to pay down my consumer debt. I've worked at it, and I'm almost finished. I'll have paid something like $11,000 in 18 months--not pocket change. But I bristle at the idea that whether or not to try to do that is a decision I can make for anyone else (and at the idea of being judged myself for running up the debt in the first place and for not being more frugal and paying it down faster). Lenders sought me out and lent me money. There is absolutely no shame in my having taken it, nor, as long as I meet with whatever interest conditions are agreed upon (most of which are, in my opinion, ridiculous) in taking my sweet time to pay it back. Deciding I didn't want it in my life and paying it back was my decision, and it's one I'm happy with, but it doesn't make me a better person.
Similarly, deciding that I don't need to buy X, Y, or Z doesn't make me a better person, at least not for fiscal reasons. Supporting small businesses and fair labor practices and environmentally friendly products, and forgoing those I know to be made with slave labor and of environmentally damaging materials, might imply moral growth, but just spending less doesn't. A large majority of what I spend my money on may well be considered luxuries by many people, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be doing it. The important part, to my mind, is that you use your resources--time, money, whatever--in ways that make you happy. Letting someone else judge what those should be makes absolutely no sense.
I understand that it's natural and even necessary for people to get more frugal in a recession. And I roll my eyes at a lot of big spending, too. But why can't all of our discussions about how to do things inexpensively come without the heavy layer of self-righteousness? What does a discussion about frugality look like without the moral underpinning?