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In Hebrew there is an idiom that translates to English like this: "To go without and to feel with". The usual meaning is that one doesn't have some object or ability but is nevertheless is able to act or to be perceived as if one did have the object or ability. An element of deception is usually not involved, at least not overtly.

EXAMPLES: For instance, you can use it in engineering when you use an approximate method to get cheaply/quickly an otherwise expensive outcome.

Another usage example from a random search: I found an article with this idiom as its title. It refers to the USA going without but feeling with in the wake of the 2011 credit downrating. The idea is that although the USA no longer has stellar credit rating it is still able to borrow money as cheaply as before.

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I am tempted to suggest "play the part", but I am a little confused over how you can act as though you have some ability that you don't actually have, without there being an element of deception? –  Roaring Fish Dec 30 '12 at 15:00
    
Could you give a concrete example, rather just "an object or ability"? For example, if I substitute "play the piano" in there, it doesn't make any sense: if you're not able to play the piano it's rather difficult to be perceived as if you can. At least, it is once you're sat at the instrument. If you claim to be able to play the piano then there is an element of deception. Could you make the question clearer for me please? (Oh, and Roaring Fish, who just beat me to it!) –  Andrew Leach Dec 30 '12 at 15:01
    
@RoaringFish: It's a wide-ranging idiom. For instance, you can use it in engineering when you use an approximate method to get cheaply/quickly an otherwise expensive outcome. –  Felix Goldberg Dec 30 '12 at 15:04
    
@Felix: You're just restating your original example. Can you be more concrete? –  Robusto Dec 30 '12 at 15:34
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Why buy a cow when you can get the milk for free? –  MετάEd Dec 30 '12 at 19:55
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3 Answers

The closest thing I can think of to what you are aiming at is

Fake it till you make it.

It means to act like whatever you want to become until you actually achieve that quality.

That does involve a certain amount of deception, but your definition includes someone not having an ability but being perceived as having it, which is deception whether or not the intent is to deceive.

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"Fake it" or "fake it up" is (or was when I was active) of common use in the theatre, where of course deception lies at the core of authenticity. [to a set designer:] "Can we fake up a column here, for the conspirators to hide behind?" [to an actor:] "Fake it for now, we'll work out the details." –  StoneyB Dec 30 '12 at 16:18
    
I'd always thought it was Groucho Marx who said (of honesty/sincerity/whatever) if you can fake that, you've got it made.. But apparently it might have been George Burns, Jean Giraudoux, Celeste Holm, Ed Nelson, Samuel Goldwyn, Daniel Schorr, Joe Franklin. Or (most likely), just "Anonymous". –  FumbleFingers Dec 30 '12 at 17:05
    
Groucho would have claimed to have said it. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 30 '12 at 22:30
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Play the part means to make believe.

Synonyms are

make a show of: act as if, act as though, bluff, counterfeit, dream, enact, fake, fantasize, feign, fool, imagine, let on like, make as if, play, play the part, play-act, playact, pretend, pretend, simulate.

and

put on an act, act a part: bluff, fake, feign, invent, let on like, make up, play possum, play the part, pose, pretend, simulate.

Examples:

"On weekends, to feed his ego he likes to play the part of a successful hustler, partying at his brother's summer house and serving cheap booze from expensive bottles."

"She plays the part of a happy homemaker, despite the fact that her husband is out of work."

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It’s difficult to know precisely what you’re looking for here as the examples you’ve given imply different things.

With regards to your engineering example, make-do-and-mend might work -

From OED –

make-do, n. and adj.

The action of making do (make v.1 39f); an instance of this; a makeshift, a temporary expedient. Also make-do-and-mend.

But it wouldn't be appropriate for your example on the American economy. This would be far more appropriate –

Cut your cloth according to your means.

To plan one’s aims and activities in line with one’s resources and circumstances.

Source: the freedictionary

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