Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cheap and thrifty, but not necessarily more virtuous.

Dear Rita and Phoebe,

I am so excited to be blogging with the both of you on a subject that excites all of us to paroxysms of tight fist waving glee! I do, however, wonder about my qualifications to blog on this subject. While I have posted a couple of times on how to save money cooking and traveling, I am not the best model for financial responsibility. I am not wholly irresponsible, but I have very little savings, and much, much educational debt. While some of my best friends have been working since college and now have enviable 401Ks (well, less enviable since the crash), and my law school classmates are now making bank as third year associates, I am pretty much still living like I have been since 2002: from financial aid disbursement to disbursement, with odd jobs as a reader, research assistant, or TA (very rarely, since my program is not connected to an undergraduate major) to relieve some of the cost of living burdens. I suppose though, that my example can be of a person who lacks a consistent income and who therefore by necessity should be cheap and thrifty. You don't have to wait till you have a steady income to save money, or at least refrain from spending it profligately.

But if not me, who? Who really is a great candidate to write about thrift? The person who washes out every ziploc bag to reuse (my mom), or the person with the biggest retirement and savings accounts? Everyone should be qualified to write about thrift, if by thrift we mean an awareness that how, where, and why we spend money signifies ethical and economic values. The person with a lot of money in the bank is virtuous in one way (depending on how they obtained that money of course); the person who spends very little on clothing and entertainment is virtuous in another way. So my take on this blog will be of a cheap and thrifty, but not exactly fiscally healthy grad student. I'm very aware of how much it'll cost to payback educational loans, start a family and mortgage, save up for kids' college funds and my own retirement, but I am really not anywhere near being able to do any of that, having been in school since 1998 (at least college was free). I also have that great immigrant experience of growing up poor and actually remembering what it's like to be hungry and paying for things with food stamps, so I have a sort of Scarlett O'Hara defiance of "as God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again!"

I love all of your suggestions for blogging towards a theory of thrift. Here are some of my own:

  • Further to Phoebe's suggestion on the gendered aspect of thrift, what are the relational aspects? There has been much written on the hoaxy DABA girls, the actually true Seeking Arrangements sugar daddies/babies ickiness, gold digging, and how the recession has affected dating, all by the NYT. I myself have blogged on my feminist cognitive dissonance on being partnered with someone with A Real Job, such that I go to great lengths to redefine to myself and my relationship the idea of "contribution," such that we can be co-equal partners in this joint enterprise of love, which if you spend every day together, involves a lot of eating and the occasional movie and ball game or concert. Historically, women have been the home economists, managing the money and household as the husbands provided. As some of my research is on work/life balance and gender in the workplace and society, I'm quite interested in how we navigate these personal and social questions. In fact, one of my future posts will be on how incredibly neurotic and calculating I have been, such that I was bargaining to myself whether I should feel guilty about ordering the $1 more expensive carne asada burrito, when I could have ordered chicken. I am still neurotic, but I have stopped keeping a ledger of how much I probably owe, and how many batches of cookies that would translate to.
  • I am also interested in another potentially gendered aspect of thrift: the time value of money. In theory, it can be cheaper to make than buy, but not always. And as Hanna Rosin cogently argued, breast-feeding is "free" only if you don't value a woman's time, in terms of lost income, lost hours, and lost sleep. Let us not underestimate what we spend in time and energy when we try to save money. What do we do to save money, how are those activities gendered or not, and are our behaviors actually economically rational? Beause I spent two hours yesterday making a pan of lemon bars that ended disastrously, I wanted to weep over the cost of the lost ingredients: two cups of flour, two cups of sugar, 1.5 sticks of butter, eight eggs and six lemons, which probably equalled $7. I did this so that I could indulge my hobby of baking, bring something nice and homemade to a party, and not buy a $30 bottle of wine. Instead, I lost $7 in ingredients, but more than that, 2 hours of time and if I calculate my hourly rate at even the least generous pay rate provided by my university for a nominal academic job, I lost a lot more. Had it worked out, I would not have minded losing that time, because again, it was in pursuit of an avocation. But when avocations go awry, we can't help but to compare the lost time it means to our vocation, and what else we could be doing with our time--and money. And when we consider the other thankless tasks upon which we spend our time--cooking, cleaning, child care--and how such tasks are still to this day disproportionately gendered, what do we really save when we try to do everything ourselves? When is it more econoimcally rational to buy than make? When is it more economically rational to pay someone to do this task than to do it ourselves? Add a further level of neurosis by considering how outsourcing any of these tasks might preserve the gender imbalance in most households by putting the burdens on a wife-for-hire (i.e. a housekeeper).
  • Finally, I would like to consider other moral and ethical considerations in spending, further to Rita's point that cheap clothes don't necessarily mean that you're saving money in the long run, and probably entail costs in the form of supporting bad labor practices, adding more to landfills since the clothes are basically disposable, etc. Should we follow Peter Singer's applied ethics model and make every economic decision a moral one? Warning: this may quickly result in cheapness fatigue (much like green fatigue) and a feeling of despair that it is easier to do nothing than everything, if those are the only two choices.
Looking forward to our conversations and shared stories!


PG said...

"Further to Phoebe's suggestion on the gendered aspect of thrift, what are the relational aspects? "

Along these lines, and apropos your distress over buying marked-up ballpark food, I'd be interested in what y'all think about negotiating different preferences in what to spend money on when (practically) living with another person. E.g., what if one person will pay more for food, but doesn't drink much, will take public transport whenever possible, and is resigned to flying coach; while the other considers food to be all about the same, but finds quality alcohol a necessity, and hates being crowded on subways and "steerage" class? I feel like the basic Living Together 101 question of whether you have similar spending styles with regard to being cheap/ moderate/ spendy barely scratches the surface. And eating and drinking and travel (unlike clothing or books) are the kind of things you have to come to some accord upon, unless you just don't spend much time together at all.

Matt said...

not buy a $30 bottle of wine

For most people a $30 bottle of wine is extravagant. Unless someone is a real wine enthusiast she will almost always be completely pleased with a good bottle in the $10-$15 dollar range. There are lots of good bottles in that area. It's true that the very best bottles I've had were more expensive than this, and if you're used to it you can often notice more subtle tastes in a more expensive bottle (but not always!), but for a party or dinner something in the $10-$15 dollar range will usually due, I think. Even the professors I have dinner with rarely drink bottles that are more than $20.

PG- do you know anyone who regularly travels business class or above when paying for it themselves? I don't, even among, say, the lawyers I know. They only fly non-coach if the company is picking it up. It's _so_ much more expensive, even to fly business (like 3 or 4 times more, at least) that you have to be very, very, wealthy, very rarely travel, or have the company pick it up, I think.

Phoebe said...


I think some of what you describe you'd have picked up on before moving in together, assuming you'd already spent evenings in cooking, taken a trip together, etc. Ideally, at least. Although I haven't got much to add, anecdotally, because two grad students tend to agree to, say, take the subway and cook pasta.


Agreed re: wine prices. I did notice a jump in quality after switching from sub-$10 bottles to $10-$15, but it was also at that point I basically stopped buying wine except to bring as a guest, because it now must involve spending $12 all at once, which is frightening.

Miss Self-Important said...

The wine price debate strikes back! I also think that few people really spend $30 on a bottle of wine, even in affluent circles. How many people can tell the difference in taste? They can see a Beringer label or the New Zealand wine w/ the kangaroo that comes in jugs and think, "Oh, that cost $4.99," but what do they know about a random Chilean malbec? (Are there even Chilean malbecs? Maybe I am just unfairly projecting my ignorance and uninterest onto anonymous others.)

Matt said...

I think that Malbec is most commonly from Argentina but I've had them from other places, too, so I'd be surprised if there were not Chilean ones. Since it's rarer you can claim it's even more fancy.

I like to buy wine at a particular shop on 72nd st. near broadway in NYC. It has a lot of expensive wine but also a lot of sales and good less expensive (as in $10-20 dollar) wine. But one day a guy came in and made a big show of asking the sales clerk (they are good there- another reason I go) to help him pick an "inexpensive" bottle of wine, "you know, something around $50." What's funny about that is that even if you regularly drink quite expensive wine, $50 isn't an inexpensive bottle, not even at that store. I assume he meant to be a big-shot, but just looked like a jerk.

Also, I didn't mean to suggest you shouldn't bake things to take to people. That's great, and people will remember it and like it. I merely wanted to suggest that most people, including me, for example, will be very pleased with a much less expensive bottle of wine.

Belle Lettre said...

Dang, I feel embarassed to admit that was a major typo and I meant to say "$20" bottle of wine, which in my head includes tax, so it's like a $15-17 bottle of wine with tax = $20. That is me trying to be fancy, because usually I will buy a bottle under $10.

More on PG's comment later. That may necessitate its own post.

PG said...


I think part of the difference regarding the importance of flying business class has to do with a) whether you've been traveling for work and having it picked up by the employer, and thus become habituated; and more importantly, b) how long your legs are. The coach seat that is tolerable for someone who is 5'2 may be much less so -- even to the point of being worth paying twice as much for a ticket -- for someone who is 6'3. The Tall will simply fly less to keep that budgetarily reasonable.

Matt said...

PG- if business were just twice as expensive as coach that would be understandable, but it's much more than that (to just pull up a quick example from Expedia, you can fly non-stop from JKF to LAX on coach for $265, but in business class a flight on the same days, with a stop-over, is $1129- over 4 times as much, for worse flight!) That's pretty typical, I think. You have to be to such a point that cost really doesn't matter before you take that difference, I think, even if you're tall.

PG said...

You're right, it's generally more like three to four times as expensive. I was thinking twice as much based on the last flight I priced, which was to go to the Austin City Limits music festival -- the roundtrip nonstop on Continental was about $280, while the roundtrip nonstop on JetBlue (which advertises as "all business class") was $440.