Monday, February 05, 2007

Frugal Pleasure

(The alternate title I had in mind for this post was, We Got Our Minds on Our Money and Our Money on Our Minds.)

1. Pretty recently, I laid out $5 for a mocha at Starbucks. While I was sitting in the window, a friend walked by. She came in, said hi, and pretty soon we were having a chat about our coffee budgeting systems (I include it in "eating out," she sets aside a special $10/pay period for coffee).

2. Last weekend, driving out to Jersey to see an old movie at an old movie theater, the friends whose car I was in mentioned that they do most of their grocery shopping at Costco. I mentioned that I'd never been; they immediately began extolling its virtues: the cheap, fresh bread; the huge blocks of cheese; the flats of soda. We made plans for a group trip with general excitement all around.

3. My best friend and I have a motto: "Cheap or free." We'll do anything cheap or free: see mediocre plays, check out movies we might not otherwise have been interested in at free screenings (lots of those in New York), have drinks with people we might not otherwise want to hang out with, see art shows we'd otherwise have passed on. This motto comes into play most often during the summer, when the city is full of opportunities for cheap or free, but nevertheless, it's our all-year-round rallying cry.

The point is, I don't know any of the twentysomethings one hears about, the ones buying plasma TVs on credit and blowing whole paychecks at Juicy Couture. The pressure in my social circle has always been towards some measure of frugality and towards a sense of material moderation. I don't think my friends deny themselves pleasure: I think, in general, there's just a different sense of what's pleasurable. A walk around downtown with good company a cup of coffee is pleasurable; so is a movie at the second-run theater. Making dinner together is pleasurable, everyone laughing and the kitchen smelling like garlic and the music up loud. Sitting on the porch with a six-pack or a bottle of Trader Joe's wine is pleasurable. Going berry-picking is pleasurable. Playing Scrabble drunk sprawled on someone's living-room floor. Going to a friend's show at a little bar with a low cover charge. Picking through the by-weight bins at the Goodwill outlet. Touring the gallery clusters. Craft projects. "Law and Order" marathons. Et cetera.

I don't do these things because they save me money over a dinner out and a cover charge at a club, or an afternoon of shopping--especially because I do those things occasionally, too. I do these things because I like them. And it happens that they're cheap. Or free.

So this is how we live on "artistic" incomes, my friends and I: we become the kind of people who like to do things that are cheap or free. We like them or we learn to like them: Two-Buck Chuck and PBR and DIY and lunch specials and people-watching and being open to anything cheap or free.

It's the power of peer pressure used for good.

I guess the point here is that the way you spend is determined by the way you live and the way you think. I've been thinking about this a lot lately: money is so much more than math. It's about personality, and conscience, and comfort, and childhood, and habit, and belief, and culture. It's a cause and a symptom.

And it's really, really important to think carefully about.


M said...

My roommate and I joined Costco this week. You've gotta be careful there because it's easy to overspend since just about everything is at least $7. Just a few things can add up to > $50.

Also, the prices aren't really that great. For food, on sale items at supermarkets will beat them. Also Amazon or Newegg will beat their electronics prices.

Cris said...

I like how you talked about the inter-relatedness between what we think and the habits that develop. Personally, I feel like fiscal responsibility and healthy eating are one and the same - they are both “consumption”, and we unconsciously react to stimulus the same way when we buy or eat based on impulse. By the same token, the answer to both unhealthy eating and fiscal irresponsibility (at least for me) was consciously consuming - thinking about my habits in order to change them. I wrote more about this here:

Tight Fisted Miser said...

You definitely don't have to spend money to have fun. It is just a matter of choice. I'm sure you enjoyed the free movie as much as a new one you would have paid to see.