Forget the election. If you want a good indication of how people feel about their economic situations, consider this: For a couple of days last week, the most popular story on Smart Money magazine's Web site wasn't about playing the stock market or even about saving for a plush retirement. It was a tip sheet offering "8 Ways to Cut Your Grocery Bill." And it was more than eight months old.
Clearly, these are not fun times for the personal finance press. Most people can't even bear to open their 401(k) statements these days, so they are not all that interested in reading about 10 investments they should make right now! We saw this problem a few years ago after the tech bubble burst and personal finance mags like Smart Money morphed into pseudo-lifestyle pubs. But this time around, even that category is suspect; it's hard to have much style in your life when you're worried about losing your home or your job.
Now, the personal finance buzzword is thrift. "The present crisis could actually be the ideal moment to make thrift cool again, because debt has rarely been in worse repute," Money Magazine's sister Fortune recently intoned helpfully. OK, that makes sense. But what does that really mean for the legions of personal finance journalists out there? How do they write about "thrift" without boring readers to tears or coming off like the latte police? Can thrift be "cool"? And can it make for interesting, helpful journalism?
The Wall Street Journal, for one, seems to think so. It has launched a new column called Cheapskate in which reporter Neal Templin dishes about his thrifty ways. In one recent offering, Templin urged readers to "opt for the cheapest way to look acceptable" and proudly revealed he was wearing $40 dress slacks and a $35 shirt. Good for him. Meanwhile, Wall Street Journal style columnist Christina Binkley last week told us "in a troubled economy, splurges seem shameful and cheap is cool." And in another recent personal finance offering, the WSJ presented "How to Make a Spending Plan." Its words of wisdom: "The goal of successful budgeting is learning to live within the bounds of your discretionary income."
True enough, but really -- how many Wall Street Journal readers don't know how to make a budget, even if they don't or won't stick to one? And how many more of these Heloise-like helpful-hint stories can we take before we go bellying up to the local coffee bar out of spite? Then there's the issue of people not spending enough. As New York magazine, which offered an entertainingly wry cover package of spending tips last week ("Paint your own damn nails" and "recycle your romances" among them) warned: "This is a micro-, not a macroeconomic exercise. If everyone quit shopping, or eating out, or buying books, the city's economy would stop dead in its tracks."
Another story genre clearly on the rise is the tragedy of the laid-off banker. You know the type -- guy loses job; guy loses wife; depression and possibly bad personal hygiene sets in. Well, the WSJ took that genre to a new extreme on Nov. 6 with its piece on Barry Fox, a research supervisor at Bear Stearns & Co. who committed suicide when Bear's buyer, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., did not offer him a job.
It's a very sad tale. We learn that Fox went home on the day he received the bad news and overdosed on Valium and Restoril, and later jumped off his balcony to his death. We also learn that Fox had been battling schizophrenia and a muscular condition that caused parts of his face to jerk. As his longtime companion, Fred Philippi, tells the paper, after several personal setbacks, "this Bear Stearns thing happened to be the last straw that broke his spirit."
That suggests any number of things could have been the last straw for this troubled soul, but for the WSJ, playing up the Bear Stearns implosion as the causative factor is too rich to resist. When they base an episode of Law & Order on this sad story -- and you know they will -- we're betting they'll find a way to charge the Jimmy Cayne or Alan Schwartz character with Fox's death. These days, Wall Street can be blamed for anything.