Call Me Mr. Thrifty

    Looking for a silver lining in this stormy economy? I’ve got some thoughts.
    When the U.S. stock market experienced its bad home loan–induced seizure in September, a trillion dollars went “ka-poof!” faster than donuts at a Weight Watcher’s meeting. Many of us felt the impact—if not immediately in our wallets, certainly in our future plans as our 401(k)s, college savings, and other investments shriveled to mere shadows of their former, ’90s heyday selves. It’s enough to drive one to drastic measures: downsizing your house, finding a second job, or, worse, canceling your cable TV service and trying to live without Showtime. It’s a time of air traffic controller–level stress. Of course, unlike those in the control tower, we could choose to drink our sorrows away, but have you seen the price of a top-shelf single malt scotch these days? Shazam!

    But do not despair, fellow monetary sufferer, for things could be worse. In fact, things may not be as bad as they seem. Now is the time to embrace a more optimistic, my-bank-account-is-half-full attitude. It may be easier and more profitable than you think. Here is a list of pointers I’ve come up with and am attempting to live by until we can get to the other end of this long, dark, recessionary tunnel. As your account balances plummet, I hope these ideas help buoy your spirits as much as they have mine.

    Take comfort in those who lost more.
    Whatever you lost, you can confidently assume that those Gordon “Greed-is-good” Gecko types lost more. Much more. And let’s face it: that feels good because it’s comforting knowing that there are people out there who got punched in the pockets harder than yourself. Misery loves company, but misery really loves company that is even more broke than it is. Invite a greedhead friend who took a financial bath worse than you out to lunch or dinner. You’ll feel better even if your friend doesn’t. About the time the check is presented, begin talking incessantly about some arcane topic like the feeding, grooming, and healthcare needs of the chinchilla. This will encourage your friend to pick up the tab just to shut you up, putting himself even further in the hole and you that much more ahead in the money game. And by all means, don’t forget to grab a big handful of mints as you exit the restaurant. It will spare you the cost of a tin of Altoids.

    Splurge this Christmas—on yourself. No one will fault you for slashing your gift budget this season. If you don’t spend less, you’ll risk looking like a pompous Mr. Moneybags, which is both unattractive and ultimately damaging to your dwindling bottom line. So take what you normally would spend on, say, your mother, and cut it in half. She’ll be comforted by the fact that you’re behaving like a big boy or girl and managing your money well during these lean times. And you can feel the heartwarming joy of revenge for that time, decades ago, when dear ol’ mom drove to school and walked into your geography class to hand you the tube of acne medicine you left at home.

    You can save a lot of cash by choosing to present friends and family with handmade gifts, items lovingly crafted while you watch Dirty Sexy Money, or The Real Housewives of Atlanta, or some other popular TV show that features the vulgar, debauched, disgustingly tasteless lifestyles of wealthy people. I’m no Martha Stewart, but those bird feeders made of Popsicle sticks seem to never go out of style! Would you rather give something that’s suited for indoors? Then try creating one of those decorative fabric covers people use to dress up boxes of tissues. A few fabric scraps, perhaps from the backside of your couch, a pair of scissors, and some glue or a stapler are about all you need.

    Not only will this approach paint you as a sensitive, artsy-fartsy money manager, it will also leave you with extra cash to shower yourself with gifts! Hey, it’s been a rough year, you deserve a little self-indulgence. And let’s not forget how important it is for the overall health of our economy that you spend as much dough as you feasibly can this holiday season. Uncle Sam and his loan officer, a certain Mr. Hu Jintao, are counting on you.

    You can now unload the ugly stuff. Have you, like me, been waiting around for just the right excuse to sell, or simply dispose of, something that your spouse claims is a family heirloom? You know, that lamp with the fringe on the shade from Aunt Ruth? Or that chest of drawers painted with a Wild West motif? You can do as I have done before and take an “act now, apologize later” approach by finding a new home for an unwanted item without your spouse knowing about it until it’s too late. However, based on my own hard-fought experience, I strongly suggest you take a different path, as “act now, apologize later” is more accurately described as “act now, apologize later, and eat by yourself for two weeks.” Trust me, it’s best to gain permission from the get-go, as this recent exchange I had with my wife, Angie, makes clear:

    “Wow, look at this month’s bank statement, can it get any worse?” I said, reviewing the day’s mail.

    “I’d rather not even look; I know it’s not good,” Angie said.

    Good, I thought to myself, I’ve set the stage: money is tight and we need to manage our budget more creatively. I pushed onward. “We gotta find some ways to cut back or to make a little extra cash.”

    “Well,” she said, “you can stop spending a fortune at Joseph-Beth Booksellers each month.” While true, this was taking the conversation in exactly the wrong direction. Literary pursuits should never be short-changed. Besides, the new Maxim was due out, like, that very day.

    “The low hanging fruit here is in the bunches of small things,” I countered. “You know, workday lunches and gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, new babies, and such.”

    “Yeah, sure,” Angie said, while flipping through that week’s Valpack coupons.

    “That’s why I took that mobile your second cousin gave us for the babies and re-gifted it to Amanda and Tom for their new bundle of joy. By my calculations, we saved 30 bucks, maybe more.”

    “Wait…say that again,” Angie said, with an if-you-said-what-I-think-you-said-then-I’m-going-to-kill-you stare.

    I swallowed hard and repeated, word for word, what I had said. But once I uttered the word “re-gifted” she whacked me on the ear with the Pottery Barn catalog rolled up in her hand. “You did what?” she screamed. “A family member gave that to us! And it was really, really cute!”

    OK, the mobile was cute, I guess, but I didn’t like it. And I didn’t see why we needed another collection of dangly things for our twins to stare at. “If you were a baby, what would you rather have, a mobile or food? We’re setting a good example for the kids,” I said.

    “They’re three months old! And besides, we are a long, long way from having to worry about feeding our babies or ourselves. Though you need to worry about what you’re feeding yourself tonight because you’re on your own, pal.”

    It was a quiet night in the Kissing household. And the next few, actually. Take it from me: before you sell anything, ask first.

    Feel positive about saying “no” to charities. It’s not easy to say “no” during the holidays. There are a few instances where you can usually muster the will it takes to draw the line (“More fruitcake?” No. “How about some egg nog?” No. “Spackling?” Nooooo…). But when someone calls and asks if you’d be willing to donate money for, say, sending under-privileged kids to the circus, it tugs at your heartstrings. Now, we all have an out. “Send under-privileged kids to the circus, eh?” you might respond to the caller. “Are you talking about my kids?”

    Before every nonprofit in town sends me hate mail, let me say that I hope we can all still make room in our budgets, however tight they may be, to support important causes. Still, considering the economic predicament the country is in at the moment, I think it’s OK to walk past the school kids selling over-priced candy bars at the entrance to Kroger, point to your empty pockets, and not feel guilty about it. I know—these kids are out to raise money to support their education. But being rejected and falling short of one’s goals are real-world lessons that can only be described as priceless. Just ask the folks on Wall Street.

    Stop doing some chores. As much as you may want to go out and brave sub-zero winds to remove the two-inch-thick sheet of ice from your front door steps, it’s better you stay inside. Why? Well, that bag of salt you’ll need to melt the ice is going to cost you several dollars. Does it make sense to spend money on something that the sun, when it appears next May, can remove for free? I don’t think so. And even if you opted to forgo the salt and break the ice with, say, a shovel or pickax, it’s still too risky. That kind of physical effort could rip your parka or aggravate your sciatica, which is just too financially risky. When springtime comes and you’re finally able to unzip, unhook, de-couple and generally extricate yourself from the 50 extra pounds of down jackets, sweaters, wet suits, and Capilene underwear you’ve been encased in since December (to save on heating bills), you can further cut back on your gasoline budget by cutting the grass every few weeks instead of every few days. Or better yet, let it grow all summer then harvest it once, with a scythe, in August. Not only will it put you in touch with that fabled Jeffersonian yeoman farmer lurking in all of our red-white-and-blue hearts, it will cost you less, be more ecologically savvy, and possibly fetch enough cash (when you sell your “hay” to a horse farm) to let you purchase some sturdy overalls—which will come in handy when the economy truly craters and we all have to go back to sharecropping.

    A more aggressive chore list will have to wait until the rebound comes. In the meantime, get cozy on the couch and enjoy yet another Law & Order marathon on TNT. It’s a great way to forget about our crappy financial situation.

    Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
    Originally published in the December 2008 issue.

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