Cognitive Daily

Last week we asked readers how far they’d go to save a little money. Would you wash and re-use disposable plastic silverware? Get a “Doggie Bag” for your restaurant leftovers? Over 5,000 people responded to our Casual Fridays thriftfest last week — the most popular Casual Friday ever, thanks to a link from Consumerist.com.

In fact, I was a little concerned that the large response from an external site would skew our results, but I couldn’t find much indication of that — we had over 600 responses before the link appeared on The Consumerist, and responses didn’t change significantly afterwards.

So how thrifty are we? This chart offers a general summary of the results:

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While most respondents are quite likely to get a doggy bag or re-use the back side of printed paper, for the other questions, respondents were more divided. People are about equally divided between soap-melders (who mush the old bar of soap together with the new ones) and soap-purists, who keep their new bars of soap pristine. Most people are unlikely to re-use old zipper bags or plastic silverware, but many are willing to re-use plastic containers like margarine tubs from the grocery store.

But given that there are many differences between individuals, we also wanted to know how those differences might arise, so we asked people to say how thrifty they thought their friends and family were in general. This graph shows the response:

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As you can see, on average respondents rated themselves as thriftier than pretty much everyone they knew. Even the difference between respondents and their parents was significant due to our large sample size.

We also asked respondents to rate their parents and significant other/friend’s likelihood of performing specific acts of thriftiness. Here’s how they compare:

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Once again, respondents generally thought that they were more likely to be thrifty than their loved ones. The only example of a loved one being rated as thriftier was re-use of Zipper bags: respondents rated their parents as slightly (but significantly) more likely to do this than themselves. Still, when all the responses to these specific questions are averaged together, the pattern still holds:

i-bc7bc3f177e5928038fcc88f1dcc7185-thrifty4.gif

Despite this, there was a correlation between reported thriftiness of our respondents and the thriftiness of their loved ones. Thrifty people are significantly more likely to have thrifty parents, thrifty significant others, and thrifty friends than non-thrifty people. The only people respondents don’t correlate with on thriftiness are their bosses.

Several commenters pointed out that the custom of getting doggy bags is frowned upon in Europe, and that was borne out in the survey results: While 68.7 percent of North Americans said they were extremely likely to get doggy bags, only 31.5 percent of Europeans did. Otherwise, there wasn’t much difference in the results, no matter where the respondents came from. Even though many commenters complained about the final question, which asked “If you had to pick ONE of these sources for all your clothes, what would it be?”, in fact the responses were quite similar no matter where in the world the respondent lived:

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(Because we had very few non-US respondents, most of these differences were non-significant. There were only 20 respondents from Mexico/Central America/Caribbean, for example)

Do you have any additional thoughts about this week’s study? Let us know in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 The Nerd
    September 4, 2009

    Bosses earn more than us, so we will be greatly inclined to see them as not needing to be as thrifty.

  2. #2 Tasha
    September 4, 2009

    Was the store choice supposed to be representative of thrifty? Which stores were visited by the thriftiest shoppers?

    Also, some of the “thrifty” measures seem to be highly correlated with being “green.” For example, my husband likes to reuse zipper bags and wash plasticware, not because of the cost but because he wants to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment. (Sadly, I find washing zipper bags to be one of the most annoying chores on the planet, so even though I’d prefer not to, I end up throwing them away anyway…)

  3. #3 Donna B.
    September 4, 2009

    @2 — I don’t think re-using plastics is done to be “green” especially not when done by my parents and their siblings. It’s money — get as much use out of something as you can, for them.

    I’m with you on re-using zipper bags, though most of the women in Mom’s generation do. I don’t do it because I don’t think I can get them clean enough.

  4. #4 D
    September 4, 2009

    That the results of the last question varied very little might suggest that people answered it more or less at random with some sort of bias involved. This is simply because not a single one of the store chains mentioned are available in (most at least) non-US countries, so there’s no way most Europeans or Asians could have a preference.

    Similarily, while I can’t speak for all non-US countries, zipper bags are very uncommon here (Sweden).

    Honestly, I think that you should either try as hard as possible to make these polls “universal” (no doubt a harder task than it might seem) or state clearly that they are supposed to be US only. I think you’d find a lot less skewed results that way.

  5. #5 khan
    September 4, 2009

    People such as myself might skew results: I go out to eat maybe once a year; don’t have a boss; no longer have parents

  6. #6 Bardiac
    September 4, 2009

    I had difficulty with the soap melding question, because I switched to liquid soap for pretty much everything. Where does that count in thriftiness? (I’m guessing it’s less thrifty than bar soap?)

  7. #7 Michael Dickens
    September 4, 2009

    I think it’s interesting that people consider them more thrifty than people around them. I thought that, originally. I always thought I was fairly thrifty, but it looks like I’m actually only a little thriftier than average.

    I would hypothesize that we do not see others as as thrifty as us because we do not see them doing thrifty things.

  8. #8 george.w
    September 4, 2009

    Some of the important questions weren’t asked. For instance, i don’t reuse zipper bags, but I do reuse cereal bags. They’re extremely tough. Also re-use those long skinny bags the newspaper comes in – we call them “newspaper condoms”. Laptop is five years old, runs Ubuntu, car is 20 years old, runs fine.

    It’s really hard to quantify thrift.

  9. #9 Noadi
    September 5, 2009

    I do everything on that list. I think it’s a consequence of not growing up with much money, my family had to do that stuff to get by. Now it’s just ingrained in me that you don’t waste stuff that can be reused. Food in particular, if there are leftovers that’s lunch the next day or next week if you freeze some.

  10. #10 RG
    September 5, 2009

    Yeah, that’s a weird response set. I’d rather re-use zipper bags (at least once!) than regularly reuse store containers – I have plenty of clear tupperware that I just don’t see the point of reusing a yogurt container that’s likely to open on me. But the flip side is that I simply don’t use zipper bags, instead re-using produce bags or using tupperware. And I try not to print anything out, and use the computer to make notes – what do I need to reuse printed documents for? I’ll make notes on “the back of the envelope” but there’s so much paper floating around, I rarely need to.

  11. #11 Katherine
    September 6, 2009

    I find it strange that you attribute all of these actions solely to thrift. I would have said myself that many people would do these things so as to waste less (food, plastic containers etc.) and so not have to throw out as much stuff.

  12. #12 Luci
    September 6, 2009

    I recall the amazement of a visiting European friend to the concept of taking leftover pizza home. At home, only poor people would do that. No complaints at lunchtime the next day, but there was a cultural jolt.

  13. #13 Shane
    September 6, 2009

    I’m a Brit and I’d be embarrassed to ask for a doggy bag. While it makes sense to want to take something home with you if you’ve paid for it… it looks cheap.

    I know that does nothing to dispel the international perception of Brits as uptight, but it’s the way it is.

  14. #14 bill
    September 6, 2009

    Just packing lunch out of leftovers is a huge savings. Over 25 years of teaching, I could not leave campus for lunch, didn’t want to eat in the noisy cafeteria, and couldn’t send out. So at 180 lunches per year x25x$5+$22,500. Can’t imagine what it would be with just compound interest over the years, but thrift DOES make a difference. Buying good quality the first time for items you plan to retain long-term is wise, too. Just go to some garage sales and look at the stuff. How much of it is something you would never have spent money on in the first place?

    As far as the Europeans not taking doggy bags, I think they should get over it. Willful waste is just conspicuous consumption translated. My grandmothers raised 11 children during the Depression. I never saw either of them waste a dime. I wish I had taken up their ways sooner. They both had a joy in life by love of their families and kindness to others.

    On the other hand, my parents could never show me a meaningful way to manage money, because to them spending was a sin. I grew up willing to part with dimes, but not to spend dollars for a really good thing of long-term value/utility. At some point you just have to figure out why and how you spend. Again, visit yard sales. You can learn much about spending patterns/habits when you do. It will give you a context for evaluating your own spending.

  15. #15 Princess Kessie
    September 6, 2009

    @ 14: The concept of a doggie bag is not unknown to those of us in Australia – but it is not something that is commonplace. This is because our restaurants have cottoned on to the concept of adequate portion size. When we go to a restaurant here, we get (generally) a reasonable portion size, able to be eaten comfortably in one sitting. Anything more than this represents wastefulness on the part of the restaurant (the exception to this is eating at a Chinese restaurant – a doggy bag is acceptable practice, and is encouraged).

    When my spouse and I visited the US recently, we were appalled at the size of the portions presented at almost all restaurants. We’re big eaters, but even we had to leave substantial amounts on our plates almost everywhere we went. The amount of wasted food was disgusting – how do your restaurants survive financially? Their profit margins must be so tight!

    Conversely, we found the potion sizes in Britain to be on the verge of stingy in many places, so it stands to reason that doggie bags are unusual practice there.

  16. #16 S. Wednesday
    September 7, 2009

    The results tie in nicely with classic “better-than-average” effects found throughout psychology, also known as the Lake Wobegon effect.
    Here’s a brief wikipedia intro – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Wobegon_effect

  17. #17 Marc Fleury
    September 7, 2009

    What I found was that the examples of thriftiness didn’t reflect what they should. Sure, you can stick the little bits of soap to the next bar, but how much money are you saving? Ten cents per month?

    Someone who is actually trying to save money would pay more attention to things like speeding (driving 90 km/h on the highway instead of 110), how much interest they are paying on their debt, etc, since this will have a measurable effect on expenses, whereas reusing three cents worth of cling wrap will not.

  18. #18 Marcia Dream
    September 8, 2009

    Re doggy bags – if you were really thrifty, you wouldn’t be eating out in the first place

  19. #19 Dave Munger
    September 8, 2009

    if you were really thrifty, you wouldn’t be eating out in the first place

    …unless someone else is paying for you!

  20. #20 AnnR
    September 8, 2009

    I just don’t understand about zipper bags vs food containers!

    You have to BUY zipper bags. Why wouldn’t you reuse them? Old food containers are more or less free.

    It must be that people don’t think they can wash them out.

  21. #21 Scott
    September 9, 2009

    Shop goodwill. The fact that a large number of individuals claim that if they could only shop at ONE store for cloths would shop at thrift shops is a laugh. I question if most of these people ever have shopped at a goodwill.

    I picked macy’s because of the variety of vendors you can find and the fact that they have sales often. I did debated wall-mart but I’m just to snobbish.

  22. #22 Teresa
    September 9, 2009

    @21, I have often shopped at thrift stores. When I was younger I bought all of my clothes there. I think you would be surprised. Also, the choices were limited to fairly expensive stores, so a lot of people who would have shopped at Marshall’s or TJ Maxx or Burlington Coat Factory ended up choosing thrift store because its way more likely they’d be there than at the Gap.

  23. #23 Natalie
    September 9, 2009

    I am such a chintz when it comes to zipper bags. We’re saving for a trip to Paris (not thrifty) but I decided I could take my lunch every day and re use zipper bags for a year. That will probably only save us $50 in the long run, but its a mind set more than anything.

  24. #24 Mikey
    September 10, 2009

    The “one source for all my clothes” question — I was forced to pick Macy’s as I don’t want thrift store/yard sale underwear. Some things are just nicer new, and you didn’t list Target. So that settled that.

  25. #25 Rhodora Online
    September 13, 2009

    I’m from Asia and I know idea what I was picking in the last question. Walmart is the only name that I had already heard.

  26. #26 Klaire
    September 14, 2009

    Since I’m a student living on financial aid, I think I have to be pretty thrifty to manage at all. But I think the thriftiness quantifiers here are really just myopic penny pinching.

    I don’t reuse plastic bags and food containers because it’s unsanitary and the plastic is cheap plastic that breaks down with multiple uses and causes cancer. Buying proper food storage options isn’t very costly or un-thrifty.

    Why use bar soap at all when liquid soap is cheaper in bulk and more sanitary?

    Reusing plastic silverware? Why not just spend the same amount of money on long lasting silverware from Goodwill? Unless you’re taking plastic implements and condiments from Taco Bell…

    Anyone who doesn’t take leftovers home has got to be crazy though. I’d feel rude.

    Things I consider thrifty are a little more significant:

    Keeping up with your credit cards so you never pay interest

    Riding the bus, walking, and biking

    Eating a lot of legumes and rice

    Eating in instead of out

    Buying produce from the “quick sale” rack

    Repairing your clothes instead of buying new clothes

    Selling old stuff on the internet

    Utilizing the public library

    Cutting your own hair

    I wonder if by framing thriftiness in those simple behaviors instead of more significant ones it changed peoples’ perception of how thrifty they are.

  27. #27 Tomas
    October 6, 2009

    My girlfriend is so thrifty that she collects every piece of paper and glues them together to make new A4 sheets!

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