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Hard Times

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In his media column last week, The New York Times' David Carr wrote of "a smart young woman" in Hollywood who tells him that she is indeed feeling the effects of the troubled economy -- she's ordering drip coffee instead of lattes. "I waited a bit for the woman to crack a smile, to hammer me for being so credulous," Carr relates, "but then I realized she was serious."

For Carr, this woman is a prime example of Hollywood's "indifference" to what's going on in the rest of America, where folks are fretting over plunging 401(k) balances and are in a general state of financial panic. But Carr doesn't realize is this young woman isn't totally in la-la land. On the contrary, she's just following the advice being doled out by an ever-so-helpful personal finance press -- cut out those lattes and watch the savings pile up!

The demonization of the latte has been a pet peeve of this column, going back to 2006, when some financial-help gurus and their media enablers tried to convince unenlightened renters that all that stood between them and the American dream of home ownership was their penchant for froufrou coffee. (And a subprime mortgage, we suppose.) Now, of course, the message is different: Skip that latte and retire in style! "If invested, the savings from brewing coffee at home and 'brown bagging' lunch over the span of 25 years would be staggering," chirps a story in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

Interestingly, the big personal finance glossies aren't the ones espousing the latte-less lifestyle. (The most recent issue of Money suggests charging a latte a month to a rarely used credit card to keep the account active.) This time, it's more of a local newspaper phenomenon, with skip-the-latte pieces spotted in The Columbus Dispatch, the Allentown Morning Call and the Chicago Tribune. The trend is so ubiquitous and so annoying that we found at least two money-saving-tip stories -- in USA Today and North Carolina's The News & Observer -- boasting that they are NOT suggesting forfeiture of the foamy fix. Instead, The News & Observer tells us to wear long underwear and "turn the dishwasher off when it gets to the drying cycle and open the door to add heat to the room." If only Bob Cratchit had thought of that.

Such frugal behavior, it seems, is in, so much so that BusinessWeek decided to put it on its cover last week. Never mind that the actual business news of the past few weeks -- bank failures, bailouts, markets in crisis -- was unprecedented. Instead, the magazine trained its eye on "The New Age of Frugality." Intones BusinessWeek, "People who overconsumed during the past decade are now rejecting extravagant lifestyles. They're spending less, and more wisely. Some are getting their finances in order. Others are fearful of losing their jobs, shocked by investment losses, or hunkering down amid the general uncertainty."

Really? We're shocked. And just to make sure we don't think BusinessWeek is making this all up, the magazine wheels out the Ingram-Behre family, former spendthrifts who now have no credit-card debt thanks to a year of walking everywhere, dining at home, shopping at consignment shops and turning off lights when they leave a room. We're told that Leah Ingram even has a blog, " 'The Lean Green Family,' where she encourages others to be more frugal."

And green, but BusinessWeek doesn't really concern itself with that. Indeed, there's lots of stuff the magazine doesn't tell us about Ingram, though she and her family clearly serve as the centerpieces of the story. ("Ingram and Behre are harbingers of a dawning Age of Frugality," the magazine declares.) It turns out Ingram, a self-proclaimed "lifestyle expert," has written several books and countless magazine articles on shopping, gift-giving, etiquette, wedding planning, etc. And on her Web site, she informs that The Lean Green Family blog is "the topic I hope to cover in a forthcoming book and TV show."

That's great for Ingram; more power to her. But what does it say about BusinessWeek? If you're going to write a lifestyle trend story based solely on anecdotal evidence, shouldn't your main anecdote be about an ordinary person -- not a plugged-in media-type looking for a book contract? Or maybe BusinessWeeek is just getting frugal with its reporting assets