I have been known to say that cheapness is my hobby. I don’t need to be cheap, I guess. There have been times in my life during which I scraped by on a very low income, like on a graduate assistant stipend or tutoring money. And there have been times in my life, like now, when I’m contributing to a dual-income household, when I probably have enough cash to buy a cell phone or a second pair of pants, but I don’t.
I could also spend more than $129.99 a month on food -- and I usually do. So what’s the point? Cheapness for cheapness’s sake? I’m not squirreling away for my daughter’s education (I mean, I am, but not by skimping on groceries) or for a trip to France. In other words, I’m not taking the money I’ve saved and earmarking it toward anything in particular.
For me, frugality has been a choice. I understand that for many, living on a tight budget is not a choice but a necessity, and I don’t presume to speak about anyone else’s experience but my own. I’ve been wrestling with my personal spending habits for most of my life.
I used to be flat out miserly. I grew up in a frugal household. We wore hand-me-downs, planted our own vegetables, and rode around in the same used cars for years and years. My father worked at a family business and my mom stayed at home with us.
I don’t remember feeling deprived in the least, yet somehow this run-of-the-mill middle-class childhood molded me into a skinflint. My mind refuses to forget that Jessica Nowak owes me thirty-three cents for a Twix bar on a field trip we went on together in fourth grade.
In college, I went out to eat just one time during my freshman year. But when I got to the restaurant, instead of reveling in the experience and enjoying the break from cafeteria food, I stressed about the expense. I still remember exactly what I ordered and exactly how much it cost: spaghetti with marinara sauce, $7.50. I chose it because it was the cheapest dinner item on the menu, not because it’s what I was in the mood to eat.
This is not to say that I didn’t make stupid spending decisions. One time, home from college on break, I received a letter notifying me that I’d won a free trip. Of course, lured in by the putative free-ness of it, I called the toll-free number to find out more. The salesman sweet-talked me into buying some sort of sketchy vacation to New Orleans that cost $1,000 and didn’t include airfare. I hung up the phone, dazed. Instantly I realized I’d been suckered in. My dad ended up bailing me out by making a few phone calls and writing a letter to the company about their high-pressure sales tactics that target young impressionable girls like me.
When I got back to school and told a friend about this, her eyes bulged.
“How old were you when you did this?” she asked, as if it must have transpired a lifetime ago. I admitted it had happened over break.
She found my behavior puzzling, out of character. Terrified of losing control in other areas of my life, I didn’t experiment with drugs or even drink. I was afraid that if I gave myself an inch I’d take 10 miles.By recklessly agreeing to shell out $1,000 I didn’t have, I had confirmed my worst fears. I didn’t even want that trip! I couldn’t explain it.
I was still in my early twenties when I discovered The Tightwad Gazette, Amy Dacyczyn’s collection of newsletters she put out for several years in the late eighties. It’s chock-full of thrifty tips. Many of them are wacky and end up saving just pennies, like concocting an apple crisp out of a fallen apple or diapering a baby with an old bread bag. I love that kind of stuff!
But she also turned her tightwaddery into such an art form that she and her husband were able to retire at forty. She talks about thrift as a way to afford the lifestyle you really want. In her case, it was six kids and a huge farmhouse in rural Maine.
For me it’s a combination of things. My job as a college instructor offers me flexible hours and ample time off to spend with my daughter after school and during vacations. I can grade papers and plan courses from home, and I am lucky enough to also have time to write or work on projects around the house. What it doesn’t give me is a high salary, but I do feel it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
In other words, I’m fortunate to be able to use a big chunk of my time saving money instead of making money.
During my pregnancy, I became obsessed with tracking my expenses. I had a spreadsheet on which I itemized every penny I spent on baby gear for a year. I then compared my expenditures to the ones they suggest in the book Baby Bargains. I managed to save 85% of what the average American spends and 75% of the Baby Bargains suggestions.
I was proud of that accomplishment. I may have bragged about it a bit. I get high off of bargains, from beating the system. It makes me feel self-sufficient, if not a little self-satisfied.
All this obsessive calculating did amount to more than bragging rights. My sister in thrift, college pal Joy Hatch, and I shared the vision of raising a baby on less. Not just because we wanted to be fiscally prudent. We romanticized the simpler times when kids were happy with just one doll made out a corn cob. In a giddy frenzy, we talked about sharing our ideas with others. We poured all our money-saving, planet-saving advice into a blog and then a book, The Eco-nomical Baby Guide, which came out in 2010.
Since then, I’ve lost a lot of my enthusiasm for both saving cash and the earth. I look back and wonder if I could have made my life a lot easier if I’d caved in and bought an Exersaucer or another pack of disposable diapers.
One summer during those college years nudged me toward change. My cousins and I were standing in line at a bustling old-fashioned ice cream parlor, complete with marble counters and a full case of lemon drops and chocolate-covered caramels. As usual, I counted out my handful of coins and ordered the least expensive ice cream cone on the menu.
We gathered at a table with our treats, and my cousin Erin held out a bag filled to the top with gummy worms and sour patch kids. “Here guys!” She hadn’t bought a few pieces of candy for herself, to parcel out to herself every night for the rest of the family reunion, like I might have done. She’d bought the bag for us, her cousins, to share, because she thought we’d enjoy it.
This simple act of generosity blew my mind. My love for thrift had turned me into a scrooge. Letting go of a few dollars had become painful to the point where I wasn’t savoring my own life, let alone contributing to the happiness of my friends and family.
If you throw money on the bed and roll around in it like Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, you are a spendthrift. If you hold onto those purse strings too tightly, never buying your cousins so much as a gummy worm, you are a miser. Somewhere in between those two extremes is the golden mean -- the perfect balance between wastefulness and stinginess. I wasn’t there.
I’ve learned to ease up. But giving up those old penny-pinching ways doesn’t necessarily make me happier or freer -- and I still haven’t reached that golden mean of magnificence.
Of course living as a voluntary cheapskate -- and writing about it -- opens the lifestyle up for critique. If I talk about paying $33 for an organic veggie box, you might point out that I could get a bigger bang for my buck at the grocery store, and you’d be right.
I signed up for the service in 2005, after some characteristic agonizing over the price. I eventually came to the conclusion that it was worthwhile to support a local company that in turn supports local farms. I like that the veggie box supplies me with a wider variety of produce than I’d buy at the store, where I’d undoubtedly limit myself to carrots at $.38 a pound.
But I don’t offer my reasons for getting the veggie box as a prescription for other people’s spending habits. My veggie box might be someone else’s fashionable wardrobe or collection of antique books. Applying the Tightwad Gazette principles, I’m trying to cut back across the board so I can splash out on what I really want or enjoy.
I can only hope it will all balance out in the end.