Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Getting and Spending (But Mostly Spending)

If frugal-living meant giving up Saturday afternoons at Mexican restaurants with my sisters, partaking immoderately of chips, salsa, and diet Cokes, talking endlessly of boys and clothes...I'd pass. Happily, frugal-living is like sex: There are many ways to do it, and no winners are declared.

I refer to myself as frugal (perhaps more often than necessary). Anyone who's been shopping with me a time or two might furrow her brow at the suggestion. "Polly? Frugal? Did she really say that? The same Polly who just bought three cashmere sweaters, a box of Edward Hopper note cards, a pound of Nuts 'N' Chews, and a lamp? That Polly?"

In an attempt to embrace the philosophy more fully, I've made a list of reasons for picking up an item I don't need, and the self-talk I use to help me put the item down before leaving the store:

I want to Start Fresh.
I'm plagued by the feeling that I need a new direction in life, and convince myself that new underwear, a new purse, a sprouting kit, or an assortment of cloth-bound journals will give me a today-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-my-life feeling. It can also happen at the grocery store, when I'm suddenly certain that I've been eating all wrong, and I fill my cart with things like quinoa and lentils, which I will eventually donate to the food bank.

  • I remind myself that a fresh start is an illusion. We "start" the day we're born, and we "stop" the day we die, and there's no resetting the shot clock during that brief time. Even as I sit pondering my new path, planning my new-and-improved life, time marches on. It's like an airport's moving sidewalk, and stepping off (and back on) is not an option. Shopping is useful if I need socks or yogurt, but there are much better and less expensive ways to redirect a life.

I have extra time. I'm thirty minutes early for an appointment or a lunch date, and I'm driving past a store, and I pull into the parking lot. I don't need anything, but I've been in this store before, buying sweaters, skirts, note cards, brightly colored colanders...all the things I stockpile. The clearance racks are no doubt bulging, and I could spend $80 on items that originally cost $800, and still be on time for my lunch date.

  • I take a few deep breaths, because my pulse is already racing with the anticipation of bargain hunting. I remind myself that there will always be shopping, there will always be sales. And, again, I have to see past the illusion: An item this cute and this inexpensive is not rare and fleeting; it is, in fact, the norm. That's the very reason I like this store. I have to trust (based on the number of cars in the parking lot) that this store's business plan is sound, and if I need another pink cashmere sweater for twenty bucks (I do not), this store would be a good place to look, come February.

I'm bored. I enter a store, but I'm not really shopping, I'm wandering. Maybe--in my unfocused state--I'll stumble upon something (or someone) extraordinary. It often gets worse before it gets better, and I wander more slowly, sometimes actually stopping. I stand there, eyes filling with tears, wondering what the hell I'm doing here...and then I see a red plaid jumper, fully lined, and I buy it, and the clerk puts it in a shiny bag with handles, with tissue paper poking out the top, and it almost seems like a gift, I almost feel loved. I stop for frozen yogurt, and...wait for it...I'm okay!

  • Before entering the store, I remind myself that boredom is the opposite of happiness. I'm lonely and scared, and I should admit it (and be willing to suffer), rather than trying to distract myself. I need to take risks, I need to demand more of myself, but shopping is so much easier than those things. For me, this is the very worst time to buy something, because it reinforces the warmly held belief that shopping "makes me happy," and I don't have to bother myself with introspection, hard work, and perseverance. This particular flavor of ennui is best remedied by heading home, curling up on the couch with a cup of herbal tea, and making a mental list of all that's right in my world.

I feel emotionally disconnected and unloved, and I plan to fix this by buying someone a gift. I'll buy something that's nicer than what I would buy myself, and the recipient will sense my sacrifice, and adore me. Or I'll find something that proves how well I know him (since this is more fun with a man), how clearly I see him, and he'll wrap his arms around me, forever grateful that I am able to see into his soul, despite the barriers he's erected.

  • Sadly, people seldom agree to read from the script I've so lovingly written for them. "Oh. 'Travels with Charley.' First edition, signed by the author. Thanks. Are you ready to order? I think I'll have the Reuben." Gifts--no matter how thoughtful--do not create or sustain a relationship, and that goes double for a romantic relationship.

I want to establish bragging rights, especially in frugal circles. The other day, I bought a hat for $1, and the regular price was $90. Now, I can't imagine that anyone ever paid $90 for this navy-blue wool hat with a rolled brim, but the price tag says $90, so it's a $90 hat (right?). I've bought Lego sets for $1, Jockey underpants for 50 cents, "Atlas Shrugged" for 25 cents, spiral notebooks for 10 cents, and--by god!--everyone is going to hear about it.

  • No one cares. And boasting is unattractive. My Depression-era grandmother might feign interest, but she's actually remembering when underpants cost a nickel, and everyone was too busy to read "Atlas Shrugged."

Shopping is what the women in my family do; it's our default activity; it's our only activity. I suppose it has replaced quilting, or tapping maple trees for syrup, or processing whale blubber. We move as a herd, encouraging each other to buy, making each other laugh, becoming a bit manic at times.

  • I find that it's better to manage this type of shopping, rather than eliminate it, because I adore my sisters, and we don't really want to attend a film festival or a gallery opening, in part because those places don't encourage nonstop and noisy chatter, riddled with inside jokes and benign put-downs. The mistake, though, is in getting caught up in the bargain hunting and buying five cheap sweaters that I like rather than one expensive sweater that I love. Also, it builds character to occasionally enjoy the talking and the laughing without any of the buying, by declaring a self-imposed spending moratorium (although after noticing that I make an occasional exception when I do this, my husband said that I put the "more" in moratorium).

It's the land of plenty, and I buy out of misplaced patriotism. I enter a store, and tears well up because I'm overcome with feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving, because store shelves are crowded and prices are reasonable. In a novel once, I read about some folks on a train (in an Eastern European country, I think, in the early 1900s), and a woman had a small boiled potato in her coat pocket, and she was careful to hide it from the other travelers, because they'd be jealous, and they might try to take it from her. I read that passage several times, trying to imagine myself in that situation.

  • I've never known food scarcity, even when I was attending BYU in the seventies and living on five dollars a week. There was still plenty of food. If I get confused, and begin to think that I need to buy enough to feed and comfort a train-load of Eastern Europeans, I breathe deeply and remind myself that it's not necessary to feed literary characters. And that the truly hungry would appreciate my donation of food or cash, but generosity and kindness spring from another mood entirely.

I don't know what the future holds, so I buy for a variety of futures. Who knows: Maybe I'll lose weight (or gain weight), maybe I'll get an office job (or a forest-service job), maybe I'll learn to ski (or bake bread), maybe I'll want to cut my own hair, reupholster furniture, or teach preschool in my garage. Better get shopping!

  • I remind myself to embrace a just-in-time approach to inventory. I also remind myself that if Step 1 (of a multi-step project) is Shopping, then I better be darn sure I'm interested in Steps 2 and 3, which will probably be less fun than shopping, and considerably more work.

There are so many cute things to buy: cute clothes, shoes, jewelry, fabric, lay-abouts, linens, stationery, journals, gifts. And such good prices! Sure...health care is expensive, and college tuition, and apartment rent, but all the made-in-China stuff is affordable and adorable.

  • I remind myself that a more austere lifestyle is desirable. Men (when acting alone) sometimes embrace such a lifestyle, as do Europeans. On HGTV the other night, a couple was house-hunting in Spain, and I tuned in as they were wandering through a two-bedroom condo, and had just entered the second bedroom. The room had dark wood floors and white walls. It was furnished with two beds (narrower than twin beds) with plain white spreads, and a dark-wood nightstand between the beds, and that's all. The closet was cleverly designed to maximize storage space. In that moment, I yearned for this monastic-cell-of-a-room. I imagined Jack Bauer resting here: focused, ruthless, effective...his worldly possessions in a canvas messenger bag. A person could get things done with this room as a home base.

I want to be prepared. As a child, I was taught that truly righteous families have two-year supplies of food, water, and hygiene items (although we were lucky at my house to rustle up the ingredients for a bologna sandwich or a pan of brownies) (what my mom considered "stockpiling," my dad considered "hoarding"). But I was occasionally privy to the basements of others, with shelf after enviable shelf of food: cans of tuna, jars of peanut butter, boxes of pudding, bags of chocolate chips and caramels. My favorites, though, were the nonfood items: dozens of rolls of paper towels, hundreds of bars of soap, thousands of tampons.

  • There's nothing wrong with being prepared, but I remind myself that preparation can take many forms: money in the bank, a variety of skills, a strong and healthy body, the confidence to adapt to new situations. It's okay to buy a few extra of something when it's on sale, but I don't need to panic if I run out of toothpaste, and there aren't twenty more tubes in the underground bunker.

Understanding why I buy--and learning to recognize the difference between a reasonable purchase (black tights, 'cause I've run out of black tights) and an unreasonable purchase (lime-green tights, 'cause I only have four pairs of lime-green tights)--has been very helpful in keeping costs down while keeping inventory adequate. I have more money and less regret. And I'm subjected to less eye-rolling and snickering when--after a few buzz-inducing diet Cokes--I begin to wax lyrical about my frugal path.

1 comment:

Peggy said...

I can relate to all those things you wrote about. I, as you know, used to shop when I was bored or sad, but I think the thing that made me realize how truly foolish that is was when i lost my job. I realized that even though I missed the big "going out of business" sale at JoAnn's I was going to be all right. That it was OK to skip a trip to Ross because I didn't need another pencil skirt or a pair of stilettos. I'm not saying that I don't over spend now, because I do, but I also make a lot more money and my bills are ALWAYS paid before I decide to buy the perfect Home Decor item at World Market or the the best Salt Water Taffy at the mall. It's about knowing what you can afford and only buying that and I think a big part of it for me is not apologizing for it. I work hard for my money (not unlike the Donna Summer song..so you better treat me right dammit!). Also Polly, I do think you are frugal, you pick and choose what you want to buy. Neither you or I go hog wild anymore and that's a good feeling (can we somehow channel that into our eating habits?)and it's good to know that we have some control. I often find myself on the Lane Bryant, Victoria's Secret, or Target website looking at stuff and adding it to my shopping cart but in the end I click on the little X in the right corner and think about what I really need and it's not that stuff.