Misguided mindfulness: an ode to frugal American twenty-somethings

By Mike Scott

On any given Saturday morning, there is an interesting mix of people at the continental breakfast of any hotel chain in Anywhere, America. No matter how commonplace, it is a strange social atmosphere. The muffled silence and friendly yet awkward interactions are a mixture of a doctor’s office waiting room and an elementary school cafeteria. Through the obligatory “good morning!” and the imminent first degree burn that someone will surely sustain from the waffle iron, participants’ credentials go fairly unchecked.

I acted as though I was involved in an animated phone call while smoking a cigarette in front of the lobby of one such hotel. After I hung up the phone, in a huff with no one, I doused the cigarette and walked in the front door. I grabbed a plate, got in line, and cursed the waffle maker just as fervently as the guy in front of me. Sitting down with my waffle, orange juice and questionable banana, I silently enjoyed the incessant scrolling text and bright-colored design renderings of the local morning news.

I was not trying to create a ruckus, but rather intended to make an example of the lengths some Americans go to in order to get free food. Ploys like this are quietly becoming commonplace in hotels across the country.

By hotel hopping and collecting food from the dumpster to eliminate going to the store to spend money one would rather spend elsewhere, this frugality is further complicating an already dire situation for those who rely on food stamps and other helping hands provided by the government and taxpayers of the United States.

In parts of the Prescott College community, and around the country, the “millennial” generation, ages 19 to 25, has developed a conception that is seemingly antithetical to most norms of western society. In this age group, frugality is paramount. Some people in this age group have developed an idea that spending less money is good no matter what. This is not a bad thing, but the effects of this philosophy can be detrimental to others.

From a wide lens, most see a hungry college student that fancies themselves a pioneer of sorts, boasting self-sustainability as their top means of living. While there are certainly more positive attributes than negative to such an approach, when these thrifty crusaders root through dumpsters for dinner, they are potentially taking the food of others who need it more than they do. There are still thousands of pounds of food being wasted every day in the U.S. alone, and just because food can be obtained for free, does not mean that it is morally right, or economically reformative, to do so.

In a recent article in The Economist — “US Consumer Spending: Hard Times,” written as a staff article — statistics reveal that Americans are spending eight percent less on going out to eat and shopping for clothes (from 2010 – 2011), and more on household fuel, and “day-to-day essentials.” This means that with the recent recession, Americans have realized that they need to spend money on essentials, and not necessarily indulge themselves all the time.

With the consumption and over-consumption of mass quantities of food in the United States, the main problem is: the people who need food the most are not getting it. Though there are government funded food stamp offices that provide money for food across the country, there are still people who survive on a meal-to-meal basis who suffer greatly because of people who can, if just barely, afford to shop for their food.

Citizens of the United States like to get the best. In recent days, a debate about the United States’ attention to health care and Medicaid distribution has arisen. It is easy for U.S. citizens to look at other countries and see affordable healthcare with few economic issues. Though these other countries have economic success and affordable healthcare, the policies are simply different than the United States’.

On March 26, the Supreme Court began to address the “high prices that impede access with no or limited insurance” says Alan B. Cohen, professor of health policy and management at Boston University, in a “New York Times” article. Cohen goes on to say that if we can harness the power and potential that often go unheralded into creating affordable healthcare, our country could be a leader in health policy. The US is a worldwide leader in technology, so why can’t we apply the same spirit we have for advancing our technologies to improving our healthcare for citizens and thus, creating a better, more affordable lifestyle for all?

Those of us who crash continental breakfasts and root through dumpsters contribute to this trend of wanting to remain prudent with our spending money and yet also wanting free food. Though these are simple ways to find free food and to get that small adrenaline rush that comes from going incognito, these actions also morally oppose the healthcare act (currently being debated by the Supreme Court) that advocates equitable access to healthcare. If it is a struggle to scrape by and to barely afford to buy food, then we must endure the struggle and leave the “free” food for those who need it to survive. The demographic that cannot afford to buy food and who must spend money on things like mortgages and bank loan debt, are the ones who would benefit most directly from battling the scalding hot, and ever-dangerous waffle iron in the hotel lobby.

After a conversation with a traveler from Gallup, New Mexico sitting at the table next to me about this past week’s snowstorm, I realized I had succeeded in blending in, and had gone unnoticed in the lobby. I finished my orange juice with a satisfying gulp, threw out my banana peel and walked proudly out the front door.

Just after feeling good about duping the not-so-watchful breakfast facilitators at this local hotel, I almost immediately became discouraged. For across the street at a fast-food chain, I saw a young man, no older than 25, but weathered past most 40-year olds, fishing through the dumpster out back as furtively as he could. I changed my path to walk by him on my way home and suggested the waffle bar at the hotel with a wink. I gave him a cigarette and told him my foolproof plan. I walked the rest of the way home feeling patriotic.

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