Friday, May 28, 2010

Luxury canned tomatoes

Quick question: how is an increase in profits at Whole Foods indicative of a rise in "luxury shopping"? Yes, yes, "Whole Paycheck," but it occurs to me that any supermarket, however snooty, is an alternative to dining out. I can't speak for all the locations, but the NYC and Chicago ones tend to be a) in areas where supermarkets generally are kind of posh, and b) where there are lots of restaurant options for restaurant-inclined yuppies. Maybe people who used to buy groceries at Walmart have upgraded, or maybe, just maybe, the yuppies are just cooking at home more, which would if anything indicate a decrease in yuppie self-indulgence.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shoes and scapes

Oh much-neglected Cheapness Studies blog, what can I offer? Lately I've been all over the place, cheapness-wise - hopeless in terms of shoe purchases, but dedicated to cooking at home, but cooking with not-so-cheap farmers' market ingredients (garlic scapes are wonderful but at $3 a bunch...), but at least working between the semester and the onset of summer funding which helps offset shoeshoeshoes, scapescapescapes...

If anyone still reads this, consider this a call for suggestions.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Counting pennies in public

This week's Complaint Box is about the annoyance of not getting change in full. When I got to the part where the writer, Steven Jay Weisz, mentions "several bloggers who have posted" on establishments withholding pennies, I was reminded that I'd done so here. No, you're not "the only one cheap enough to complain about it," just the only one to get the message out to a wider audience. We, the Cheap, demand our pennies!

The column is provoking ire, blatant anti-Semitism, and fine, some of the sort of over-the-top entitlement that gives cheapness a bad name. Yes, the man should have gotten his change, but no, the fact that he did not isn't the world's greatest tragedy. Nor, to his credit, did he present it as such.

As always, when anything related to tips and food service comes up, the 'This guy is so fancy, what with his eating in restaurants and having published this one thing this one time in the NYT, no doubt he's never worked in food service himself' brigade is out in full force. Given that the author is an actor who plays roles like a chauffeur on "Gossip Girl", it strikes me as very unlikely he's never once worked in food service or similar. His objection, like mine, is very much a principle-of-the-thing one: part of frugality is knowing exactly where your money goes. This in no way conflicts with paying (and tipping) fairly. But it does mean being one of those people - who wants to see the pennies, who asks how much the specials cost, etc., and then dines out only as often as the budget allows. Such behavior is not the height of social grace, but nor is it unfair to restaurants' waitstaff.

< tangentially related babbling >What's so odd with the phenomenon of tipping is how it both permits workers to be altogether stiffed, and allows for the conflation of work with charity in a way that just couldn't happen in other arenas. As in, say you're at H&M, and you get to the register with the new outfit that comes to $29.90. If pressed on the matter, you might, depending upon your own income, agree that the cashier could use the implicit ten cents more than you. But it will never come up - if you leave the store realizing you're out a dime, you figure you've inadvertently donated to H&M, which does not leave warm and fuzzy feelings. Meanwhile, every encounter with prepared food or drink requires an assessment of relative need and power. Sure, a 50-cent tip on a $1.50 coffee is excessive percentage-wise, but it will at least go to the server, and isn't the job of serving $1.50 coffee sadder than whatever job requires drinking it? What if it's the other way around, and the barista job is actually the less sad of the two? The barista not getting that tip has no way of knowing if the beverage is the weekly luxury of an office worker making $15k a year or the stingy choice of a latte-avoiding CEO, and the customer will register as 'entitled yuppie' regardless.

The expansion of tipping - both in expected amount and in type of establishment - seems to be a way of asking the haves to remember their privilege, yet one that targets the very purchases also purchased if not by the have-nots, then by the have-not-quite-so-much contingent. I suspect that no one ever tips on a $10,000 handbag, a $100,000 couch. (On delivery is another story.) Yet I recently noticed a tip jar at a vegetable stand at the Union Square Greenmarket. Not one of the pseudo-rustic organic ones, but one of the this-actually-spreads-out-trips-to-the-grocery-store-season-permitting ones. I mean, yes, in the world as it exists, the person selling the vegetables probably needs the change from the purchase more than the person buying them. The gap may not be as great as the anti-food-movement contrarians would have it (for example, many NYC farmers' market stands take food stamps, and it's not an oddity to see someone paying that way), but yeah, it's there.

But the presence of a tip jar reinforces the notion that ramps and kale are of a piece with lattes and macchiatos. Which they are culturally, perhaps, but not nutritionally. One is rich-people-nonsense that, as they say, spreads the wealth, while the other ought to be accessible to all. The jar also suggests that the person selling arugula is even more severely underpaid than suspected. It also promotes the idea that shopping at the farmers' market isn't just about getting good food, but also about donating to a cause, and not only donating in the sense that prices tend to be high, but literally paying above and beyond the cost of the food to show one's support for the endeavor.< /tangentially related babbling >

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How neurosis promotes cheapness

Some anecdotes:

-For a while now, I'd noticed that my cuticles are a mess. I'm not sure what one does about this (there are such things as cuticle oils, sticks, and nippers, none of which I'd know what to do with), so I decided to get a manicure, what would have been, I think, my fourth ever. Then I googled 'manicure hepatitis.' Saved: $12.

-Yesterday, I saw a woman with the chambray shirt of my dreams. I was all set to ask her where it was from, when the following thoughts popped into my head:

1) Given what this woman looks like (40-ish, very-slim-but-not-emaciated, massive diamond ring, perfect-yet-understated hair, all signs point to her being one of the mothers from the private school near where I teach), I can't afford the shirt, and it will be too depressing to know that the shirt exists but costs $3,000.

2) Given how flawless this woman looks, how put-together she is versus how put-together I'm not, it could be that the very same shirt on another woman (namely, me) would not be anything special.

3) She's so not going to want to interrupt her conversation with the other mom to help some shabby grad student mimic her style. Yeah, it was the perfect shirt, but I saved, shall we say, $98.

-Unlike the PhD students one so often reads about, who are convinced that after graduation they will have amazing jobs, I remain convinced that I'm one awkwardly-phrased email to a professor, one messily-formatted citation away from destitution. This, I find, inhibits my shopping tremendously. Money saved: incalculable.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Selective luxury in a restricted life, or should I shell out for a nice apartment?

As I've written before, moving and starting grad school seem to have brought about spontaneous and substantial decreases in my monthly spending. The reasons for this are pretty obvious--I live a narrower life now, and there is less stuff to spend money on. No going out for drinks, no vacations, no health insurance premiums, fewer groceries even, because the store is so far from my apartment that I only go a couple times a month. The main recipients of my money are now my landlord, Amazon, coffee shops, sandwich shops, and Old Navy's online store (all stores are inconvenient to my house). I've even become willing to pay the $7 shipping fee, because the time it would take to schlep to the nearest actual Old Navy is just not worth risking that the hoodie I want isn't even in stock. I could read like 30 pages of Aristotle in that time!

The result of all this is that I've been saving a decent amount of money out of my stipends. All is well in Cheapness Studies Land, except that your thrift theorist is getting married this summer and needs to find new digs for herself and the future Mr. Self-Important, and the cat. Cambridge, while no New York, is a pretty overpriced place in its own right, where for $850 a month, you can have the privilege of residing in a tiny room of an elaborated three-story wooden shack with slanted floors, thin walls, and no insulation. And that is with roommates splitting the cost. Up to now, I have always apartment-hunted by prioritizing the rule that more people in fewer rooms equals less rent. But this rule no longer applies.

This brings us to the current forecast: as of June, I will be living in a 1.5 bedroom work of awesomeness, convenient to school, coffee, and groceries, and complete with a dishwasher. It is true that I don't exactly make tons of moneyz, and the future Mr. Self-Important is a law student, so he makes negative moneyz. But I don't think this should really be an impediment, should it? If I don't spend money on anything else, can it be ok? If I am 25 and married, can I be an adult person with level floors and brick walls and maybe even furniture purchased from a retailer not based in Sweden, even if it cuts into my savings?

I have tried to compensate for this irresponsibility by getting a part-time job, and promising myself to write articles this summer. That is my cheapness penance. I am repenting, and also doodling floor plans and possible furniture layouts in my notebooks during class.

On a related note, between silver clogs and luxury apartments, I think the mission of this blog has officially been subverted.

Context is everything

I'd been feeling a bit guilty about having bought a totally unneeded pair of boots in Arizona. Sure, they were $21, but I'd just bought silver clogs, and there was really no way to justify this additional purchase. It thus made me feel slightly better to see the same boots through the window of a shop on the Lower East Side. I of course had to see how much they cost, and after a bit of poking around inside the boot to find the price tag, got the answer: $198. Granted, this doesn't make the fact that I spent $21 on boots any more noble, but it's reassuring to know that if this academia thing doesn't work out, I have a future in whatever career it's called if you buy lots of used clothing in one town and sell it in another, preferably on the Lower East Side. (Oh, my Ashkenazi ancestors would be so proud.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Esprit. Who knew?

I had time to kill on lower Broadway and found the nautical shirt (this, but with light blue stripes and not at all the odd shape you see in that image thanks to pinning) of my dreams for a whopping $8.99. (Least plausible ever "original price": $35.50. I believe only the previous price of $14.99.) This was that much more exciting because the Uniqlo sailor shirt I'd been on the lookout for a) is no longer being sold, b) would cost $15.50 if it were, and c) isn't as interesting. This one has buttons on the sleeves! Extra nautical! (As if I know what that would even mean.) My loyalty to the Japanese chain has, it seems, been broken.

The funny thing about the shirt, though, is that its size is different in different countries, as per the tag. In the US, as in Germany and the UK, it's a medium (that, I should note, fits me just right even though I'm a small or extra-small in other stores); in France and Italy, a large. Maybe the discount comes from the implicit reminder that the wearer would be considered "large" in Paris or Milan...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Failure to shop as pathology?

Dear Prudence has received a letter from a man with a problem I'd have thought inconceivable: he's annoyed (see the first letter) that his wife refuses to shop for new clothes. I'd always thought that the role of men in heterosexual relationships was, among other things, that of cheapness-promoters. "Do you really need another pair of black boots?" Clich├ęd, yes, but I've found it's often altogether true. Men may spend elsewhere, but women notice subtle differences in clothing that causes many of us to buy what seems to many men to be a replica of that which we already own.

Anyway, the letter seems quite obviously to be about more than a mom feeling cozier in sweats. There's the question of why this woman wears rags to a wedding, and on the other hand of why her husband cares that she hasn't worn earrings in years. I mean, I have a tendency to lose earrings, and so tend not to wear any, but can't imagine my boyfriend or any other man noticing either way. I could imagine a man being upset if his wife stopped, say, showering, or gained 300 pounds. But who cares what their partner wears in public, unless it's at a meeting for your work or something like that? The guy seems way too concerned about non-problems (again, earrings?) while the woman seems truly uninterested in dressing up. What's her deal?

The husband hints at the possibility that it's about weight - his wife is not as thin as she once was, but not large, either. Could be. Or, as some commenters suggest, it could be depression.

Another possibility: Cheaporexia. Not as in anorexia, but as in orthorexia - the eating disorder less about self-starvation than about an attempt to eat healthfully taken too far. Women are stereotyped as shopaholics, wanting new clothes whenever possible. But we've been told that this is wrong.

Not only is buying new clothing frivolous and vain, confirming all the worst stereotypes about women, but it supports child labor (who if not an oppressed four-year-old made that new dress you're admiring in the shop window?) and contributes to landfills. Think of the environment! Moreover, money spent on personal appearance could just as easily be donated to Haiti relief or one's savings account, depending where one's guilt primarily lies. Sure, we all want to look appropriate at work, and no one's faulted for owning a suit for meetings when in theory sweatpants would do. But gratuitous clothes-shopping is, in our culture, sin, a particularly despised subset of gratuitous spending more generally.

The ideal woman would look amazing - stylish, put-together, well-groomed - but not shop. (A bit like the new idea that the perfect woman is one who's a cover model even without airbrushing - this, when the anti-airbrushing brigade is ostensibly all about making all women feel better about their own looks!) It could be that, on some level, the wife in the Prudie letter suspects that by not shopping, she's in fact more appealing - to her husband or more generally - than she would be if she did what her husband ostensibly wants. Because yes, he wants her in a nice dress, but does he want her coming home with shopping bags? Or, two dresses later, would there be a Lucy-and-the-hats situation?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

There's always a catch

In NY, food establishments can only meet two of the following three criteria: cheap, delicious, and comfortable. By "comfortable" I mean a number of things, but mostly chairs or benches rather than barstools, at least a hint of space between you and your neighbor, and no seats where you're perched on a stool, facing the street, during your meal.

Alas, two of my favorite lunch places fail the comfort test so much it's not even funny. Old favorite Taim (Waverly off 7th Ave South) and new obsession Dos Toros (14th Ave and 13th St), selling falafel and burritos, respectively, are both places where everything tastes fresh and delicious, where you'd have to have seconds to reach $10, and where you will end up getting a very messy food all over your face, clothes, and neighbors as passersby look on. By "you," for that last one, I mean "I."

Given that years of experience have not taught me how to eat falafel without a fork, I don't know what I was thinking with my forkless approach to the two soft tacos overflowing with rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, and hot sauce. Other people were picking theirs up just fine, but the same goes for falafel. It's not cheap ethnic foods, it's me. It was only by the second taco that I realized forks were available, but at this point 4th Avenue was strewn with the contents of taco #1. This was unfortunate both because I was sad to lose the contents of so much of my lunch, and because I teach next to Dos Toros, meaning I was fairly convinced my students or colleagues were about to witness the mess I was making. If I read anything on this semester's course evaluations about black beans, I'll know my fears were well-founded.

So what's the answer? Proper restaurant dining? More compact food items? Lunch at home? Abandoning shame?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Recipes overanalyzed

Let me be clear. I say this as someone who bases many meals on pasta and even a good number on legumes, but are these not the most depressing, dreary-sounding (Puritanical?) recipes ever published? Yes, we've all heard a thousand times that no one's so poor as to need to eat fast food, because OMG lentils. Haven't The Poor heard of lentils?

My point, however, is less about the patronizing genre of Dear Poors, They're Called Beans, You're Welcome, than it is about the smugger-still I-know-what-real-poor-people-are-like one-upmanship in the comments at the Well blog. Rather than faulting these particular recipes for making any reader with taste buds crave a plate of fries (is it just me?), commenters are outraged that "budget" recipes include ingredients other than beans. Who would have the audacity to include olive oil in a recipe meant to be inexpensive? Sure, olive oil, unless you're getting the fancy stuff or using it as a base for soup or a beverage or who knows, adds a few cents per meal. But gosh doesn't it sound snooty! Let's make the yuppie food writer behind the recipe feel bad about not knowing what it's like outside her arugula-filled bubble! Privilege! And not white beans, that known caviar equivalent! How dare anyone suggest that beans are an appropriate ingredient for a budget recipe!

Once we've established that peanut butter is in fact foie gras, I want to know, what's accomplished?


Seriously, though, I'm not sure what intervention is going to make Americans - yes, including yuppies, whose healthy eating is highly exaggerated - stop eating crap. I suspect that I could rewrite these recipes to make them somewhat more edible-sounding (hint: don't pile broccoli on top of pasta; add a whole lot of olive oil, cheese, garlic, and, blood pressure permitting, salt to absolutely everything; and don't even start with something called "cabbage and bean soup" if you want meals to be something you look forward to), and that other home cooks could do the same. But would this make any difference? Do I ever cook anything (baking not included) that wouldn't sound like cabbage and bean soup to someone used to takeout?

And I don't see where the NYT is going wrong, promoting meals designed more for broke, faux-broke, or just plain cheap yuppies than for those trying to make ends meet in Palin country. Because who's benefiting from these things if not people who are only now realizing that four advanced degrees in Obscure Studies interspersed with extended finding-oneself traveling leaves one highly knowledgeable about where to get cumin and less so about how to pay for non-bean-based meals? If the recipes could acknowledge this a bit more openly, and admit that they're for people who have heard of but can't afford or would rather not pay for the absolute priciest ingredients, that might be a first step. (There are few foods not improved by the addition of a bit of $12/lb. bucherondin, but goat cheese...) As the recipes stand, they hover in a bland no-man's-land between SWPL and that town Jamie Oliver recently invaded. Nothing too 'gourmet', because then the NYT's being elitist, but nothing with even the potential to sway anyone from chicken nuggets.