This article examines the development of the Chinese discourse on consumption and standards of living from the early twentieth century to the implementation of the New Life Movement in the mid-1930s. During this period, the idea that China's economy was characterized by scarcity rather than growth—and thus was experiencing a different level of development from the industrialized West—caused Chinese intellectuals and officials to question the wisdom of adopting Western-style consumerist habits and “extravagant” standard of living. In this context, they struggled to find a balance between a supposedly universal model of economic modernization and China's particular nation-building and developmental needs. This early twentieth-century debate illustrates how nationalist and developmental perspectives hindered the adoption of liberal models of consumerist economy, marking the beginning of China's uneasy relationship with a free-market economy as well as a growing tension between urban consumerist trends and central planning. It also helped bring about new forms of frugal modernity that were to culminate in the New Life Movement.