YEARS AGO, Eve Devine planned her visits to discount clothing stores at odd hours, hoping to shop and leave surreptitiously. If, heaven forbid, she spied friends and got cornered in a cart-to-cart exchange, she'd resort to six simple words that together made one white lie: This is my first time here.
How times change. These days she relishes bumping into acquaintances at favorite off-price haunts like T.J. Maxx or Marshall's. "We look through each other's carts. We're not embarrassed at all," says Ms. Devine, 32, of Ellicott City.
In the downsized, downscaled '90s, a mystique has grown up around pinching pennies, paying less and exchanging clever ways to save. What was once perhaps declasse -- brown-bagging it, clipping coupons, shopping secondhand -- has become recession-era chic. And even the well-to-do are beginning to feel the effects of the less-is-more movement.
"The feast of the '80s has given everyone cultural indigestion. Now we're on a diet," says Jill Savitt, spokeswoman for the
Center for the Study of Commercialism, a non-profit organization in Washington that examines the impact of advertising on society.
Fur-clad theatergoers turn up at Henry & Jeff's deli and restaurant on Charles Street, where a sandwich costs as little as $2. Jaguars and Mercedes dot the parking lot of Home Depot, the do-it-yourself hardware store in Glen Burnie. And socialites confess to wearing (gasp!) last year's cocktail dresses to this season's galas.
Trendwatchers are already trying to outwit each other with names for the times. Have we become the Nouveau Cheap? Are we entering the Age of Restraint? Lite Living, anyone?
"In the old days you'd buy cheap scotch and if company was coming you'd put it in a Chivas Regal bottle. Now the attitude is such that if you can afford Chivas Regal you put it in a cheap bottle, so people won't think you're putting on the dog," says Jane Fitzgibbon, senior vice president, Ogilvy & Mather Trendsights division in New York, which tracks consumer trends.
But where does that leave the status symbols of the past -- cars, clothes, ZIP Codes?
In flux. People mention everything from "a day off" to "being in control of their lives" as symbols of success today, says Susan Hayward, senior vice president of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a Connecticut-based marketing research company.
Only 14 percent of the population were impressed with a gold credit card in the latest Yankelovich Monitor, the organization's annual study of society's values, she says.
Advertisers have been quick to tap into this message. Sam & Libby, a California-based line of footwear and clothing, has used the phrase "for people who have other things to spend their money on" to identify its products. And in the new Subaru ad, a voice says that buying one won't make you younger or more attractive. "And if it improves your standing with the neighbors, then you live among snobs with distorted values."
Such ads exploit the times, says Ms. Savitt of the Center for the Study of Commercialism. "It's unbelievably hypocritical that they're using 'don't buy, scale down' as a ploy to get you to buy more."
But Ruth Schwartz, spokeswoman for Sam & Libby, defends the ads. "There's nothing exploitative. Sam and Libby really don't feel that it's necessary to buy the most expensive anything," she says.
Sam and Libby have lots of company.
A cottage industry of sorts is springing up around this new frugality. Two newsletters on the subject -- Living Cheap News by Larry Roth of San Jose, Calif., and the Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn of Leeds, Maine -- give tips on everything from reusing coffee grounds to making the most of canned tuna.
"Friends used to tease me," says Mr. Roth. "They considered me amusingly eccentric. Now some of them come to me for advice."
Ms. Dacyczyn (pronounced decision) has been surprised how diverse her 85,000 subscribers are. "There's a whole group of yuppies turned thrifties that are hungry for this information," she says.
While these publishers are considered the vanguard of the movement, some observers believe they go too far. Says Ms. Dacyczyn, "Even relatives who survived the Depression have said we're not having enough fun. 'Why don't we take the kids to McDonalds, for Pete's sake?' "
But she is not the only one dining in these days. "Lots of our old customers tell us they're brown-bagging it," says Henry Pertman, co-owner of Henry & Jeff's. "We have an architectural firm that was getting deliveries every day. Now they can't afford it. Their office of 27 is down to 3." His saving grace has been gaining a clientele that once frequented more expensive restaurants.
Yet that doesn't mean people are dispensing with luxuries. They're just discovering there's more than one way to acquire them.
For Cameron Barry, bartering works well. The marketing and communications consultant has worked for boutique owners and artists in exchange for clothing and paintings she felt too guilt-ridden or debt-ridden to buy.
"Bartering is a way to get what you want without having to pay for it," says the 35-year-old who lives in Baltimore County. "It feels less self indulgent. You've traded. You haven't gone out and spent money."
In addition, her recession game plan includes shopping at off-price stores, where she now finds herself among the conspicuously well-to-do.
"The recession has taught some of us . . . that if you can get a broad range of merchandise at different discounters -- from Syms to Leedmark to Home Depot -- why pay full price? Just because you're rich doesn't mean you're stupid," she says.
Ms. Devine finds that sharing good buys also makes for cocktail hour chatter. At a recent dinner party she had, guests complimented her on her dining room chairs. She quickly confessed that they cost $30 at a flea market. It became the topic of animated conversation for several minutes, she says.
"That's not considered cheap today. It's the realistic way to go," says the marketing director for Faidley's Seafood.
Talk is cheap now, but clipping coupons and tracking sales may lose their luster when the economy rebounds. "I'm not sure that this isn't [merely] politically correct at the moment," says Ms. Fitzgibbon. "I see this continuing for the next couple of years. It's become a psychology of restraint. . . . But I have to laugh when people say they won't buy the Mercedes. They'll buy the Range Rover instead. A Range Rover costs [about] $30,000."