Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thrift and financial independence

Here's something to liven up Cheapness Studies: the story of how all my disposable income for the semester went down the drain, in a mere few seconds in Red Hook, Brooklyn, this afternoon.

Right after driving and parking just fine during my last driving lesson, I up and failed the test, first by not signaling as I pulled out of the spot (after repeating to myself endlessly, for hours, 'signal and gear, signal and gear'), then by, for what I believe was the first time ever, hitting the curb while parallel parking. Fun! And then I did something really financially irresponsible: drowned my sorrows in a $2 iced coffee. But I have that coffee to thank for the fact that I'm calm and at my laptop now, not still teary, self-pitying, and ashamed, over by the Ikea.

I attribute the failure to a number of factors: having still not had the recommended hours of driving practice; having spent barely any time in cars even as a passenger (unless subway cars count); having no depth perception or coordination whatsoever, taking lessons in a part of town (Chinatown) not exactly conducive to driving; being basically incompetent at life (which is, let's face it, what it feels like to be 25 and have just failed one's second driving test)... but most of all I pin it on amount the lessons cost. Every step I made, I kept telling myself, if you forget to signal before pulling out of the spot, if you forget for even just one second the car is in reverse, you are throwing all your money away. And it's not only the money already spent - I'll need to pay again to re-take the test. This thought led me to a chain of other thoughts - perhaps if this is such a problem, I should work in a more lucrative field. I started imagining the process of not only reapplying for a permit (mine being about to expire), but of getting started in business or corporate law, just as my dissertation is starting (in my head and in outline form, at least) to take shape, all so that, if I ever happen to be in a situation that requires driving, I can not only do so, but do so with the approval of the state of New York, and also, say, pay for professional haircuts on a regular basis.

Once the panic stage lifted, I realized the practical thing to do is just to get the new permit, then wait until I do live somewhere where driving makes sense, and perhaps take the test there, without a dozen forays through the streets of Chinatown first. Obviously the lessons were not a waste - when not being examined, I can apparently sort of drive, which, after starting from zero, is something. But there was a panic stage, which was... strange. Of all the tests I've taken in my life, one that I don't actually need to pass shouldn't feel like the biggest deal of all.

But let's move on from the driving (or lack thereof) to the question of how cheapness relates to where one's income comes from, still - apologies - from the realm of personal experience.

Senior year of high school, I remember being very aware that, unlike high school, college had tuition, and that even if I got a job there (which I did), my parents would be the ones mostly paying for my education, and I'd only be self-supporting after graduating. This was a lot of what attracted me to the University of Chicago - I felt plenty guilty for being in a situation that permitted me to go to a private college, and figured if I would go that route, it had better be a place where I'd work far too hard and have no fun whatsoever. Ultimately Chicago proved less sober and monastic than it had appeared in my masochistic high schooler's imagination, but the sense of being in debt to my parents absolutely affected my behavior in college. I don't think, for instance, I ever, even once, missed a class.

And my college-era spending did, on some level, have that 'would my parents approve?' element, because even money I'd earned would hardly cancel out the fact that I was not even close to financially independent. I would not call home and ask whether it was OK if I got a mocha or a beer, but the nagging sense that nothing I bought was really with 'my own' money certainly played a part in my not having the world's most debauched college experience. And it's not even that my parents were particularly strict when I was in high school - it was, as I neurotically understood it, the principle of the thing.

And yet, the driving lessons I paid for with money I earned were endlessly more nerve-wracking than any college class. Now, perhaps this has something to do with the fact that driving a car down Delancey in rush hour is not contemplating Proust in a wood-paneled seminar room in Hyde Park. But I sort of think that's not it, that whatever illusions I may have had in college that by not having too much money-requiring fun, I somehow avoided being a brat, thrift is fundamentally different when it's money you've earned and when it is not. However little I spent in college, these days I'm stingier still.

While I'd like to attribute this to my having finally learned the value of a hard day's work, I think it's more that whatever I (theoretically) save now goes to the theoretical Idiotic Selfish Purchase, one for which I and I alone would be responsible. I don't want to make such a purchase, nor do I even know what one would be (a very belated sorority membership and trip to Cancun?), but again, it's the principle of the thing. Thrift I engage in now is on some level about independence, as though with every dollar I don't spend, I've bought myself something nice.


Miss Self-Important said...

Can you take the test out at a DMV in Westchester or something? Does it have to be in Manhattan? My driving test in the suburbs required me only to drive three blocks straight and make a successful left turn on a nearly empty street w/ a light.

Phoebe said...

Hmmm. The test is in Brooklyn for, I think, people from all of NYC, but this might be worth looking into.

Matt said...

That seems like pretty ticky-tacky things to fail you for, especially the parking. I got to be quite a good parallel parker at one point, but when I took my driving test (years and years ago) I'm pretty sure that I had a space that you could have easily gone into head-first and I probably didn't get that close to the curb. It's also always a lot harder in a car you don't drive all the time since it's hard to know where the bumpers are. I'd think that so long as you don't hit the cars hard (and many drivers do that!) it should have been fine. Unreasonable, it seems to me.

Phoebe said...


Agreed that it felt unfair, but I did a whole lot better on the first test I failed (although I drive a bit better overall now), and am still not quite sure why that happened. Oh well.

WhatKathyDid said...

My sympathies. It's particularly difficult to fail an exam when you're used to passing all your tests, and passing with flying colours.

I thought I was good at everything until I failed my driving test. FOUR times.

The fifth was taken 2 weeks after the 4th fail at the same test centre, and, unlike the other times when I was practically in tears at the start, I was relatively calm. I think I'd finally realised that I would eventually pass and it was just a case of screwing the money and taking the test as many times as possible.

Keep at it. Don't wait until you have to pass or the pressure will be even greater. If you can scrape together the money, passing your driving test is a serious investment. It doesn't even qualify in the same league as an expensive leather handbag that will "last for years" or somesuch. Give a man a fish etc...

And big cities are more difficult to take your test in - I've never seen so many drivers shouting at each other as I have in New York! So you do have a valid excuse.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

"the sense of being in debt to my parents absolutely affected my behavior in college. "
Whatever you've been smoking,I want it for my son. dave.s.

Phoebe said...


Thanks for the support!


Interesting word choice there, given the content of the post.

Stuart said...

My driving school in Brooklyn is offering the opportunity (as long as you pay the tolls) to take the test in Staten Island...just think...those gentle, wide suburban streets...

Good luck if you haven't yet taken the test again!