99 Days at the 99¢ Store: THE FIRST WEEK

Even during this first week, I’ve had to suppress some yearning I would have otherwise caved to, but, surprisingly, the act of denial leaves me more energized than the purchase would have.
Publish date:
December 6, 2012
money, dollar stores

Oh, Scrooge, you’re gonna get a run for your money this year! In a mere week, I’ve gone from hopeful embarkee to miserable miser, and I’m on the verge of literally smoking grass. As my tense jaw and thrashing keyboard strokes would tell you, it’s definitely been an adjustment period.

It probably goes without saying that I have a bit of an addictive personality. As a kid, my parents tried to instill moderation, but I was too busy swinging from pole to pole. Life’s extremities have always been fascinating to me. (Obviously, that’s how I wound up in Hollyweird.)

So over the past week -- as my modest stash of weed and pharmaceuticals not prescribed to me dwindled into chalky kief, the commissary now closed -- I came to the sobering conclusion that these 99 days were going to be really, really hard.

Now nobody freak out. I’m no Judy Garland or Liza -- it’s all very controlled. Which I guess is what I’m struggling with more than the absence of any chemical: control. My spending options have been cut drastically, which means my hands are tied in terms of where I can go, what I can do, and how I get to experience life. Sometimes -- for instance on this Friday night, restlessly sheltering myself from things that cost money in my tiny studio apartment -- I feel trapped, and I think that’s what poverty must feel like, real poverty, not this self-inflicted kitsch, except a hundred times over.

I certainly could have done myself more favors by stockpiling ahead of time, but the point of this experiment wasn’t to compensate with a pre-fast shopping spree. I made my customary Target run a couple days before this project started, but restricted purchases to depleted toiletries and supplies. I didn’t allow myself to luxuriate in duplicates beyond my usual reserves -- of course 99 days is easy if you’re never left wanting.

Even during this first week, I’ve had to suppress some yearning I would have otherwise caved to, but, surprisingly, the act of denial leaves me more energized than the purchase would have. This experiment forces an extended waiting period, during which I’ll have plenty of time to decide if I really want each extraneous item; it’s teaching me to curb my impulses. Maybe I’ll give myself a reward at the end, but I have to make it there first. Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder; sometimes it helps the heart to realize it didn’t need that fucking thing after all.

My 99¢ Store spending set me back $71.74 for Week 1 -- 100% on food. Though in an average week I expect to spend less than half this amount, I went from half a Diet Mountain Dew and assorted condiments to a well-stocked fridge and cupboards.

I’ve never been a huge produce person, but as a vegetarian it’s a bit of a conundrum. I used to get adequate nutrients largely from dining out -- ordering fresh fruit on the side, etc. Now it’s slightly more complicated, and with both readers and friends expressing concern over my diet, I don’t want to let anyone down. Especially not myself -- eek, cancer! The four 99¢ Stores I hit up this week had varying fruit and veggie selections -- the best one being in Van Nuys. (Outside of bail bonds, this may be the only context in which that phrase is true.)

Although my boyfriend and I love exploring restaurants for both food and ambience -- we typically eat out four or five times a week -- it’s not his job to pick up the tab for my harebrained schemes. Much like stockpiling was against the rules, so is mooching off loved ones or indebting myself to other people; I’d like to keep the suffering my own.

He did take me out once this week: to our new favorite Mexican haunt for dinner on Day 2. (¡Hola, Costa Alegre!) It was delicious, but I prefer to relish my pride; so to maintain equity in the relationship, I suggested a 99¢ Store date night. My cooking skills are a bit raw, but the least I could do was buy the ingredients. A few nights later, mi amore/master chef whipped up penne pasta with marinara and grilled vegetables alongside some fresh pineapple -- huge success, health-wise.

Left to my own devices, though, I didn’t fare quite as well. I’ve eaten eight everything bagels this week, so that’s gotta count for some onions, right? And I’ve had a lot of cereal, which luckily is fortified. I also managed to squeeze in a couple sweet corn tamales and a can of beans towards the end of the week.

Unfortunately, what the 99¢ Store has in the way of low-maintenance food is chock-full of preservatives, which makes perfect sense given their business model. They get items for a gamut of reasons -- overstock, old branding, misprinted packaging, etc. The name of the game isn’t newest and freshest; you can’t get that for 99¢. What you do get is the last stop on the food chain. I mean, it’s fine -- it’s food, as far as I can tell -- but tastes a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys.

Despite the learning curve on 99¢ Store food, there was one discovery that salvaged my week. After a few days of caffeine withdrawals, I found a 99¢ Store (eventually two) that carries Diet Dr. Pepper! Yes, I miss the crisp, refreshing taste of Diet Mountain Dew, but this ain’t half bad. More importantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing’s worse than migraines, so if DDP serves as an alternative to handfuls of aspirin, then so be it. The substitution works out financially, too. I used to buy 20 oz. Dews at 7-Eleven for $1.79; now I'm getting a liter of DDP for 99¢ and I’m saving about 70% on this expense.

I’ve also been trying to limit my driving, so I was thrilled to make it through the week without having to fill up my tank. In fact, the only non-99¢ Store discretionary swipe of my card came was to payoff the $80 balance of a writing class I’ve been taking this fall, a commitment made before landing this assignment. It was an oversight that I didn’t get it taken care of beforehand.

It’s going to be difficult not to sign up for more. School is another of my myriad addictions. When I was 23, I dropped $18K for a Master of Business Communication Certificate program, which qualified me to do nothing I couldn’t already do. (That fact alone should have been clear indicator I wasn’t cutout for the field.) At least lately I’ve been taking classes to motivate my writing deadlines. Aside from the expense, it’s probably my healthiest addiction.

Education that’s both worthwhile and free is hard to come by, but the Internet is melding those concepts in new and exciting ways. A few days after the commencement of my 99 days, I started on a Coursera class entitled "Think Again: How to Reason and Argue" -- which is thankful, because my beautiful, crazy, and now unmediated mind has to get its fix somehow.