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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Danger: the “Frugal Halo”

(By Mr. DFS)
In a recent article in the New York Times, John Tierney speculates that one reason well-informed, health-conscious Americans put on weight is because of what he calls “the health halo.” I think that perhaps even we cost-conscious frugal people might be susceptible to a similar temptation, what I will call the “frugal halo.”

Tierney wanted to know why people have been putting on weight even while there’s more and more attention paid to eating healthy food. His explanation is that putting “low fat” or no trans-fat” on food labels causes everyone, but especially the overweight, to eat more. And he has some data to back this claim up. In one experiment, Dr. Chandon, a French professor of marketing, and Alexander Chernev, who teaches marketing at Northwestern University, showed 20 people a picture of an Applebee’s meal and asked them to estimate the calories. A different group of 20 people (but from the same neighborhood—what Tierney calls the “nutritionally correct” Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn) were shown exactly the same meal, but with the addition of two Fortt’s crackers prominently labeled “Trans Fat Free.” I’ll bet you can guess the result: although the crackers added 100 calories to the meal, their presence caused people to lower the estimate by an average of 176 calories. The first “non-halo” meal was estimated at 1,011 calories (more than the actual 934); the “halo” meal, with the crackers, was estimated at 835 calories, even though it was actually 1,034 calories.

I wonder if perhaps frugal people need to beware of a “frugal halo” effect. If health-conscious people can be enticed to overeat by deceptive appeals to health, perhaps the fundamental values of value-conscious people can be subverted by appeals to frugality.

Some appeals are fairly easy to resist, and we shouldn’t worry too much about them: the 40% more free, the two-for-the-price-of-one, the once in a lifetime offer that won’t be available again until next year. These belong to the standard repertoire of the unsubtle advertising world, and the Frugals of this world have long ago developed effective resistance. We aren’t about to betray ourselves like this.

What’s more insidious is thinking that getting more for less is always getting more. In fact, sometimes it’s actually getting less. How many times have you bought a lot of something on sale, stashed it, forgotten it, and then rediscovered it months later all moldy or stale. Instead of contributing to financial health, the “halo” of perceived frugality can lead to financial obesity (so to speak). I’m sure it’s not a systemic problem for any truly frugal person, but it’s something to be on guard against. I’ve been guilty myself.

It seems to me there is a related but even bigger danger, though it’s confined to the fringe frugal population, that is, those obsessively in search of free stuff. According to Ms. DFS, who follows this group on line with a sort of morbid fascination, some will acquire (exactly how isn’t important here), twenty free blood-sugar monitors, or shampoos, or hair dyes. The monitors can be donated for a tax deduction; the shampoos and hair dyes can be hoarded. But it’s a waste of resources—one’s own and others’. And sending away for those small free samples can seem like a frugal quest, as indeed it is if one considers only the expense to oneself, which is about zero. But while it may not cost you anything directly, the mailing and processing are quite expensive and take energy and resources; this adds up and in the end we all “pay.” In this case the halo is certainly tarnished, even if it hasn’t morphed into a pitchfork.

I’m going to try to make sure that the gleam of that frugal halo doesn’t entice me into betraying my real values.

[See John Tierney, “Health Halo Can Hide the Calories.” New York Times, December 2, 2008. ]