There’s so much strange crime in Detroit. Just last week the local constables broke up a champagne-theft ring, or at least its best customer. The police tracked a particularly selective shoplifting ring from the Kroger in Grosse Pointe to a party store in Detroit, which was buying stolen meat but mostly champagne from the thieves. The Kroger manager said he’d make a pass through the wine aisle, and come back five minutes later to find the shelf carrying the $50-a-bottle stuff stripped bare. Even in the Pointes, that’s not normal demand.
These stories interest me because they reveal a set of coping skills I lack. If you presented me with a scenario where I was a) broke; and b) addicted to drugs; then told me I had to get enough money for my fix before, say, noon, it would never occur to me to steal champagne. (I’d nick wallets from purses in the grocery store instead. I’m amazed at how many women leave their purses unattended in shopping carts while they squeeze the Charmin.) Every so often I see one of those oft-e-mailed pieces about the skills required for poverty, how to get free meals and cheap clothing and a month of free rent, that sort of thing. I inevitably fail. I just don’t know enough about the ghetto economy.
One of my Facebook friends posted this story, about the vindication of tightwads in today’s economy. The lead anecdote was about one Amy VanDeventer, who describes herself as “neurotic” about saving money, to the point where she now banks half of each paycheck, up from 25 percent a year ago. She does this by, among other things, repurposing her children’s bagel scraps for pizza toppings and slicing up lotion bottles to get that last little bit. My Spidey sense started to tingle, because I’ve known women like VanDeventer, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I found the telling detail, and whaddaya know, here it is:
VanDeventer was drying her hair in front of a fan after her portable hair dryer broke — until her friends bought her a new one.
I’ve got news for Amy: She’s not frugal, or even a tightwad. She’s a miser. Big, big difference.
People who practice frugality find happiness in simplicity. Misers bring the nastiness. They think an ugly sweater from the 80 percent off rack is better than a pretty one that was only 50 percent off. They’d not only rather eat hamburger than steak, they can’t even enjoy steak, even when you’re picking up the check, because you’re spending money they would have saved. It makes them miserable, all that waste. And waste is everywhere.
I once asked a miser how her vacation went. She said Great! and told me about the clerk at the McDonald’s on the turnpike who got confused and gave her change from a $20, instead of the $10 bill she’d been handed. “So it’s like I made money on it!” she said. Frugal people eat at McDonald’s; misers exult over an error that probably got the clerk fired at the end of the day.
A woman banking 50 percent of her take-home pay who won’t spend $19 at Target on a new hair dryer is not a person to be admired. Of course you may disagree, but that’s how I come down on it.
I’ve worked for newspapers, so I know a thing or two about making do with less. One year I turned off my furnace on March 1, because I couldn’t afford heat. (A valuable early-life lesson: It’s worth the $50 annual American Express fee for a couple of years, if it teaches you to never charge more than you can pay off in any given month.) I wasn’t starving, and I wasn’t poor, but there were times when things ran out or broke and didn’t get replenished or repaired because there just wasn’t any money for it. No biggie. And yes, I too rinse out my shampoo bottles to get the last couple of hair-washes out of it. I can get every drop out of the ketchup bottle. That’s just called Being Midwestern.
Little about the past 20 years has been so disgusting to me as the conspicuous consumption we’ve gawked over. From Donald Trump and his gold everything to “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” from designer jeans to designer sunglasses to designer baby clothes to designer kitchen utensils, from eight-year car loans to thousand-dollar senior proms — it’s all vile, and the sooner we flush it from the culture, the better. Let’s bring back “vulgar,” and paste it on those who deserve it. But hoarding money can be a sickness, the same way hoarding animals or household goods is. It’s one thing to buy the dark-meat chicken on sale, but it’s quite another to reuse your coffee grounds four times.
One is inventiveness and thrift. The other is a lack of generosity. Remember the woman with the ointment and the alabaster jar.
Howzabout some bloggage, then?
Roy watches PJTV so we don’t have to. Given the show in question was all about Going Galt, he should get a medal.
Roger Ebert on eroticism in the movies. Not sex, eroticism.
Off to work, so I can afford my coffee.