The New Phenomenon: The Phony Frugalists

A colleague of mine was relaying the tale of his neighbors today. Here’s how it went: The husband is a police officer and the wife is a nurse. During the recent heydays of lavish global spending, this couple wasn’t considered especially affluent, but now, because of the security of their professions, they’re flying high in comparison to their neighbors. They didn’t hesitate to take their two children on a recent vacation to Walt Disney World, where they enjoyed some excellent deals on hotel pricing and dining. They realize that this is a great time to travel, and they’re wondering if they should start planning their next trip soon, while the deals are so favorable.

At the other end of the spectrum, another colleague cited an example of friends who are tenured professors with just a year to retirement. Their mortgage is paid off and they are set for life. The woes of Wall Street and the horrors of the housing market have no impact on them whatsoever…yet they’ve cut their budget for discretionary income from a few hundred dollars a week to a mere $100.

Unfortunately, I think the second couple’s mindset much more reflects general opinion these days, and we can thank human nature for that. A recent article in The Washington Post entitled “When You’re Flush But Acting Flat Broke: Social Cues Can Drive a Downturn,” referred to a study conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram about 40 years ago. He asked one or two people to stand and stare upward on a busy Manhattan street. No one paid them any attention. However, when he asked 15 people to do the same thing, floods of passersby stopped and mimicked this behavior, even though they had no idea what they were looking at. When times are especially tough, the article’s author, Michael S. Rosenwald, indicated, people tend to look outward for their cues rather than inward.

So how do you, the travel agent, get the word out to a wary public that they should look to you, and not strangers on the street for hints on how to behave? It’s my belief that if you simply make them aware of the syndrome they’re participating in (in the most cordial way, of course), you’ll have success. Tell them the story I’ve just told you about the policeman and the nurse. Emphasize that in this turbulent era, they have the unusual opportunity of visiting some very nice places that are anything but affordable when the economy is stronger. Tell them to stop staring idly up at the sky and to look to you for the answers.

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