Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Worried Wealthy

I guess I've been reading too many articles about ordinary working people who are now saving $150 a month by brewing coffee at home to replace daily trips to Starbucks. For me, the idea of going there even once a week has always seemed decadent. I had a head start on everyone who recently realized that living frugally is not only sensible, it has its own rewards, including the sporting aspect of bargain hunting. (Forget the people who are so rich that they embrace The New Frugality just because it's trendy. Look under their Frette-covered bed, and you'll find a box of new Jimmy Choos.)

Being a semi-employed freelancer for the past 7 years, I already know many of the tricks and strategies of living within my means and buying carefully. We've always paid the monthly balances on our credit cards (one major card apiece, plus a seldom-used Banana Republic card that gives me many nice benefits). 

Our only debt is our mortgage, which costs less than our rent did 12 years ago. We ignored the advice we were given by our elders at the time: "Never buy a house you can afford, because your income will increase and you'll 'grow into' your mortgage." "Not with our lousy nonprofit salaries," we thought. And we turned out to be right. We have a 30-year mortgage we can manage.

I walk almost everywhere (I don't have a driver's license), and we don't drink, so we save a fortune on liquor. (And when I see homeless people smoking, I'm just amazed.) We have an inexpensive, somewhat fuel-efficient car, and paid cash for it. I buy most of our clothing at 60 to 70 percent off full price, according to the careful records I keep. We've both been going to the same charming stylist at SuperCuts for years, and I color my hair myself. Most of our furniture is antique (in other words, second-hand). I get most of my books from the library, and even my magazine subscriptions are heavily discounted, because I'm "in the business." We almost never go to plays, concerts, or even full-price movies; our cable package is basic; and we have the cheapest Netflix service. 

Yet we don't feel culturally deprived. We visit Newbury Street galleries, and we can get into any museum for free, because my husband works in one. We have this glorious downtown neighborhood, so an 800-square-foot condo seems like a good size when we have the whole city at our front door.

I have a somewhat pricey gym membership — $90/month — but it's right nearby and I use it about 10 times a month. I feel the cost is preventing me from becoming a slug; working out keeps me saner and healthier. My husband has an insanely expensive squash membership, but it's the only form of exercise, besides walking, that excites him. And it's his one splurge (besides his iPhone, the true love of his life). 

I was always a cheap date. We almost never eat in fancy restaurants (unless someone else is paying), mainly because we actually prefer burritos and certain hole-in-the-wall pizza places. I rarely buy organic food, although I feel bad about that, and we almost never eat red meat. I seldom buy the expensive kosher chicken we love, but I won't settle for less. We eat a lot of my home cooking: soups, pasta, salads, sandwiches, cookies. 

Still, when a loaf of good, multigrain bread costs close to $5, and one bag of groceries from Shaw's can set you back $40, I feel like a spendthrift. Our apartment is too small to allow us to stock up at wholesale outlets, so we rely on Trader Joe's, which has some bargains.

I've been wondering if we were simply too cheap to have kids. But not having them makes living in town and saving for retirement possible. We're cat people, not kid people, anyhow.

But I'm still worried that I'm spending too much and not saving enough. This economy is messing with everyone's heads. You can never save enough, and for many of us, there's no reason to live in deprivation. You can't go for a week not spending a dime: you need fresh food. Sometimes you actually need clothes. And sometimes you owe it to your community to buy stuff you don't need and eat meals in restaurants — because it keeps local businesses alive, helps provide paychecks to workers, puts food on the tables of cashiers' and dishwashers' families. 

But it's difficult to know how to behave as a consumer in this economy.  People with credit-card balances and other outstanding debt know what to do: pay it off. People who perpetually live from paycheck to paycheck have an even better incentive these days to find ways to economize — although they probably can't. They are already up against the wall.

But for those of us who are further away from that wall, what? Should we be paranoid and worry about the collapse of the world markets and utter poverty down the road?  Should we not take advantage of $200 coats selling for $35 when we could use one?

My dad, 94 and thriving,  thinks so. He lived through the Great Depression and I think he's been waiting for decades for this one. He keeps telling me I don't understand what it was like to be worried about having food, heat, and shoe leather. And although I've read up on the subject and heard his and other stories a hundred times — no, I haven't experienced that personally. (And neither did he: his father worked a couple of days a week, my grandmother became a seamstress, they grew vegetables and hunted, and no one came close to starving.) But my dad seems awfully eager for me to experience penury and want. He thinks it's time for all the spendthrift younger generations to suffer. It's only a matter of time, he tells me, before I'll be the one standing by the tracks after the train rolls by, looking for stray pieces of coal to burn in my stove. Except we only have commuter rails around here, and my oven doesn't burn coal. 

But I get his point. So I cheer him up by telling him that, since we own a parking space in the alley, we can always live in our car on that spot, tax-free. "And what will you use for a bathroom?" he asked. "The backyard, like the construction workers do now. It will take some getting used to, but if ya gotta go, ya gotta go," I said. "And what about food?" he asked. I said, "We have many very rich neighbors who throw out tons of food, dad. We'll find food in the trash." 

Now that he can imagine us subsisting in the alley, I think he feels better. But I don't! If I had a steady, secure job, I might relax. If our investments hadn't just dropped in value by 30 percent, I'd feel more secure, too. But does it make sense to become a fearful wreck when my husband still has two jobs, and health insurance, and we've saved plenty over the years — and I occasionally earn a very decent living myself? 

I just can't freak out as much as my dad and all the journalists think I should. And when cashmere socks go on sale for $7 at Banana Republic, and mine all have holes I can't darn, I'm buying.


  1. This is a very thought-provoking post. I am of the mindset that you have to conserve, but not to the point of hardship...

  2. You are my soul sister! And let me know when BR has those sales. I just don't shop anywhere other than yard sales -- gotta say, have found plenty of my fave Brepublic and J. Crew, thanks, for $1 a piece. Can't wait for summer yard sales ...


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