embracing frugality

April 18, 2008

Despite the fact that I dislike my 30-minute each-way commute (and the gas it requires), it does give me the chance to enjoy one of my favorite free things in life: NPR News. For the past few months though, NPR time has caused me to really think about my economic choices. Listening to Marketplace every evening has given me a deeper understanding of how rough our economy has become, and moreover strengthened my feelings that the mainstream American habit of spending ourselves into debt is not only personally foolish, but ruining our society.

Although I grew up in well-off Elm Grove, my parents were not extravagant spenders. I don’t think they ever worried about buying food or paying the bills, but we weren’t allowed to go to the mall and pick out anything we wanted either, far from it. We had everything we needed and more, but our vacations usually involved long car rides, cabins and lakes, not flying, three-star hotels and amusement parks. We didn’t eat dinner at “sit-down” restaurants on a very regular basis and we certainly didn’t shop at high-end boutiques or grocers. We enjoyed our life, but it wasn’t luxurious. We had it good, but we didn’t feel the need to have everything new at every moment.

Strangely, (when you consider my upbringing anyway), the minute I started making my own money I thought nothing of spending all of it on clothes, food, entertainment, going to the movies and gas to drive my girlfriends around. I remember one year, perhaps 1995 or 1996, I saw on my tax returns that I had actually made more than $12,000, working part-time, at McDonalds, as a teenage high-school student. That seemed like an enormous amount of money back then, but the funny thing was, I didn’t have a dime of it in savings. Not a dime. I had spent it all as it had come in. And frighteningly as I look back at it, I didn’t learn any lessons during that moment. In fact the habits I got into as a 15-year-old McDonald’s grunt have basically stayed with me until, well, until a few months ago, let’s hope.

I blame this as much on culture as I do on my own lack of personal responsibility. The fact that most people my age who come from similar backgrounds are simultaneously finding themselves in this predicament leads me to think there has to be at least some collective reason. For those of us who were raised by financially responsible parents, the sort that put things on layaway when they couldn’t afford it, who didn’t scoff at hand-me-downs and occasionally shopped at rummage sales, it amazes me that we all turned out so self-indulgent. How is it that there is so much credit card debt per person in this country? How do so many of us spend $3.50, or even $1.90 per day on coffee? How do we buy $200 jeans and $10 mixed drinks and $50 dinners?  My generation is used to instant gratification. Women in my demographic are marketed to like no one else. We have grown up taking in the indirect whispers of a thousand marketing specialists telling us that purchasing their product will somehow get us the style we see in Vogue or the domestic skills we see in Martha Stewart Living.

And the thing is… it’s not true. And that’s okay. That is my revelation for the day — The fact that I cannot remodel my kitchen this year: it’s okay. My kitchen works. It doesn’t have to look like something from Better Homes and Gardens. It doesn’t need stainless steel, granite or travertine to be okay. I make food in it. It serves its purpose. That’s just the most personal example I can think of, but this entire rant sprang from my morning reading of Salon.com television critic Heather Havrilesky’s “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Recession.”

Please read the whole article; but if you refuse, it begins with Havrilesky describing a trip to the grocery store, which is similar to one I had a few weeks ago: I was at Pick ‘N Save, and I came to the bean area. I saw a bag of colorful mixed beans (15 varieties, one $1.99 bag!) and I got excited about them. (This is counter-culture for me). I read the recipe on the bag for Hillbilly Stew (oh yes I am serious) and I immediately tossed the bag in the cart. My first bag of dried beans. All I needed was a can of roasted tomatoes, some carrots and celery, and I was on my way to a nutritious, ridiculously cheap meal that could easily feed me for three days. Now, the best bargain shoppers really do know that I could have gotten these beans cheaper at the Mexican market El Rey, conveniently located two blocks from my house, but give me a break, I am still learning.

This may not seem remarkable to some of my already thrifty readers, but last year I actually started shopping somewhat regularly at the new Fresh Market location on Bluemound Road in Brookfield, home to all manner of very upscale groceries. I also shopped at Whole Paycheck Foods. It was just so cool to shop at these places. So cool I just loved it so much and tried not to wince every time I picked up a few items that would last me 3-4 days, and drop $60. I do believe in spending a little more money to get good, fresh food, but to be honest, I also enjoyed shopping in a fancy store with all manner of expensive olive oils, organic oranges and fines wines to choose from.

Back to Heather Havrilesky is in the bean aisle — she encounters a woman who complains that a $2.69 bag of mixed beans very similar to the ones I bought that day) were too expensive…

“For the rest of my shopping trip, I try to think like the woman who refused to pay too much for beans. Four dollars for half a gallon of milk? Isn’t that obscene? $2.99 a pound for pears? Maybe my kid should try to develop a taste for apples. I steer clear of the aged-cheese-and-cured-meat aisle completely, fearing temptation.

This picture might seem sort of droopy and pathetic to some of my friends, who would feel as deprived as Haitian boat people if they couldn’t afford their regular $70 bottles of Erno Lazlo moisturizer. But honestly, I’ve found my newfound role as recessionary coupon-clipper oddly soothing.”

Yes, you know, it is so soothing. I’ll leave you with my favorite line from the story:

“I like knowing that I can’t afford to move and I can’t afford to quit my job and I can’t afford to think about the boundless possibilities that the universe has to offer, I can only afford to clean my own stupid house and eat leftovers and lose weight so the shitty clothes I already have don’t look even worse on me than they would otherwise.”