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Are Italians naturally frugal?

February 29th, 2008


“All the energy Americans devote to the accumulation and management of money, the hours spent thinking about how to amass it, organize it, invest it, will it, spend it, keep it, share it or not share it. Romans instead devote their energy to other things — to looking well, eating well, loving well and spending time with their families.” — Alan Epstein, As the Romans Do 

What is frugal? It’s not being cheap. It’s not being stingy. It’s not being greedy.

It is a question of selection. It is a question of spending money wisely.

As Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner  writes in Living La Dolce Vita, Italians believe in respecting and taking care of the things they have and not wasting things. They believe it is very important to save money, as well.

Of her Italian grandmother she writes, “She disdained extravagances and buying possessions as status symbols. If something was still in working order, it was unthinkable to replace it just to have a newer model. When we ate at her house and didn’t use our paper napkins, those napkins would be folded and saved for the next time . . . Nonna Angela taught me that buying too many things is like taking your money and throwing it in the wastebasket. ‘Cluttering your house with possessions only clutters your mind,’ she would say.”

 In Simple Living by Jose Hobday, the author describes frugality in this way:

“Frugality doesn’t mean not spending. Frugality means a thoughtful economy. We’re frugal if we use our time well. We’re frugal if we cook with healthy materials. Frugality and simplicty or poverty of spirit all say limit, don’t waste.

“Stinginess is just greed and usually clutters our lives. Frugality is a careful examination of the complexities of buying and selling and deciding how to remain free in this complex transaction . . .

She also speaks about living simply to enjoy small, everyday pleasures.

“Freedom comes to both body and mind in the form of time. When we eat, how much we eat, the time we devote to eating and preparing food becomes important … I guarantee you, if you eat a little less and a little less often, you will eat with more relish both for your soul and body. Mild hunger awakens taste buds and our appreciation grows.”

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What is it about those Italian women? You know the ones I’m talking about: beautiful, sexy, dressed to the nines just to take the kids to the park. They have a certain something that is indefinable. It is in the way they dress, the way they prepare their meals, the way they spend their leisure time.

It is because they know the importance of la bella figura. Roughly translated from Italian, it means putting you best foot forward in everything you do. It means cutting a beautiful figura. The opposite of la bella figura is la brutta figura, which is what someone might say about the falling down drunken guy at the party or the super tackily dressed woman at church. It means ugly figure.

La bella figura is much more than your appearance. It goes much deeper than that. It is about how you act. It is about how you treat others. It is about how you care for yourself, your home and your family. Living a life in line with la bella figura doesn’t take money. In fact, it is more about how to have class without a lot of money.

Someone who exudes la bella figura will have clean, pressed clothes and be well groomed. They will not be rude or sloppy. Their fingernails will be impeccably groomed. Their hair shiny and clean and their shoes will be polished. They will not have stray threads hanging from their suit hems. They will not be driving a car in need of the car wash.

La bella figura means driving that 15 year old car and meticulously cleaning it and caring for it. It means keeping your belongings in good repair. It means taking time to clean your house and not cluttering it up with meaningless objects.

When you focus all your spare energy, time and money on the things that bring you the most amount of pleasure, then you are truly living a life in line with la bella figura. The best part about it is that you don’t have to be Italian to do so. You just have to think like an Italian.

Italian children are raised to present la bella figura in whatever they do. From the time they are small and are groomed perfectly to attend church or school, they know that appearances count. They count because it is the first thing people judge about you. That first impression does matter. Appearances are also important because when you take the time to look nice, you are showing that you care about yourself. When you care enough to look good, it shows you have good healthy self esteem. Nothing is more attractive than self confidence.

In addition, dressing nice also shows respect for others. If you invite people over for dinner and greet them in flip flops, baggy sweats and a stained shirt, it is really disrespectful to them. The same if you dress sloppy to go to church or even to the market. By dressing nicely and being well groomed, you show respect for everyone in your world.

Having la bella figura means presenting yourself in the best light possible in all your interactions.