"IT'S NOT ramen if you eat it with chopsticks!”

The fifty-cent noodles didn’t taste bad, but my middle-class background had taught me to turn up my nose at a meal that did not include meat, vegetables, and a starch. I was embarrassed to call a bowl of processed, over-salted noodles my dinner. But what else was I going to eat? Groceries in New York City weren’t cheap, and my paycheck from the local library didn’t buy much anyhow. Still, I stared into the brownish broth with disdain.

After I had finished my “dinner,” though, something struck me as funny. At this time a year ago, I had been studying Mandarin at a university in Beijing. There, I ate delicious Chinese food at the cafeteria for less than a dollar and still brought leftovers home. Of course, most westerners turned up their nose at the place: meat was left on a table for hours in the dirt-smeared kitchen, while students spat on the floor of the dining area. Insects were occasionally found in the food. But if it was good enough for the Chinese who ate there every day, I figured it was good enough for me.

This attitude impressed my Chinese friends: an American who didn’t eat out for most meals was a rare exception to the “wasteful” spending habits of other westerners. My friends’ compliments put a smug smile on my face, but I was inwardly irritated that they thought Americans were paradigms of frivolity.

After returning to the States, though, I began to see their point. Back in suburban Ohio, where my parents lived, people bought $300,000 homes they couldn’t afford and then complained that they had no money to buy furniture. Of course, this made it hard to be generous. My dad, who sits on the board of trustees at a 1,000-member church, told me how frustrated he was that 3% of the members finance 40% of the church’s budget. A majority of families give only $5-10 every week, he said, an embarrassingly small sum in a community where the average household income is $75,000. 

The Chinese, on the other hand, are deeply generous, despite the poverty in which many of them live. One evening in Beijing, I was out late at a friend’s university and didn’t have enough cash for the cab ride back to my dorm. All my friend had on him was a 50-yuan bill (about $7), which could have fed him for a week, but he insisted that I take the last of his cash so I could get home.

It seemed that everyone was like that. When I had a train to catch at the Beijing West Railway Station, I had only to call one of my Chinese friends, who dropped everything to make sure I got there on time. When I stayed at the house of a local government official, he spent the entire day taking me sightseeing around his city. Only after dinner did he send me home with his wife and son while he returned to his office and worked late into the night, returning home long after I had gone to bed.

My Chinese friends were liberal toward me, but they never overspent on themselves. They seldom ate out except when relaxing with friends, and they always had their student discount passes handy when they rode the public buses. Even my professor was thrifty: he could have afforded a car and was getting older (he was 62), but I always saw him on his bike. He even ate in the dirty cafeteria with the rest of us.

In the U.S., we would probably say a man like my professor was stingy, but I contend that this is because we have adopted a skewed view of money. The Chinese wisely see money as an asset to be saved and managed, but spent only when necessary. The term “mad money” does not exist in their language. We Americans, on the other hand, are afraid our cash will burn us like a hot potato if we hold on to it too long, so we buy as much as we can as soon as we can.

Of course, not every American is a spendthrift; I can almost guarantee you your grandparents aren’t. Most of them lived through the Great Depression, an economic crisis that turned thrift from a virtue into a survival skill. That generation insisted on frugality even when the economy improved, and one would have hoped their children would have caught on. Some did, but a disturbingly large majority didn’t.

When the children grew up and entered the workforce, they found that their paychecks left them cash to spare after paying their bills. Cash to spare, however, soon turned into cash to spend, which meant little or none to save. Advertisements, new stuff at the neighbor’s house, and planned obsolescence all served as hoses to the vacuum cleaner of desire and gradually sucked wallets dry. Credit cards and loans helped pick up the excess around the edges. Unfortunately, these parents were much better at passing on their spending habits to their children. Most Americans today are in debt, have been in debt since college, and will stay in debt until they die.

It is just this sort of lifestyle that has led us into our current financial crisis. Sure, toxic assets on Wall Street were the domino that got things going, but the situation never would have degenerated into a severe recession had people been prepared. Prepared? How dare we say such a thing. We can’t really expect people to have savings accounts, plan for the future, and stay out of debt, can we?

You’ve probably read about the huge impact of the present recession on China. Migrant workers have been laid off by the thousands, and the list of bankrupted companies is not short. Even so, I’m not worried about my Chinese friends and their families. They may have to squeeze their pennies (or fen, in their case) a little harder, but they’ve built up enough savings to get them through until things pick up again.

For Americans, though, the only way out of this economic crunch is east: we badly need a refresher course in finances from the Chinese. Or from our grandparents. They know good money management does not mean merely paying the minimum balance on your credit card every month. Unfortunately, most of us have forgotten that. Enough. Let’s put our finances in order and rediscover thrift, even if that means eating ramen once and a while.

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