Monday, June 29, 2009

This blows

So the DIY haircut grew out into the predictable not-quite-mullet form, with a long piece in the back that was too involved to just chop off. I figured the time had come for professional intervention. I figured wrong.

Running out of ideas, I headed to a chain one rung above Super-Cuts in the classiness hierarchy, noticing that a cut was $45, a full $15 less than the ones to which I'd grown accustomed prior to the DIY revelation. A cut with a blow-dry was $70, but given that summer weather has finally arrived in NY, I figured there'd be no need.

Once again, wrong I was. The hairdresser assigned to my case informed me that without the blow-dry, my haircut would not be even. The whole purpose of this haircut was the evening-out of my hair, but it struck me that if they openly offer such a thing as a cut without a blow-dry, surely such a thing is possible, assuming a client not obsessed with perfection. A client, that is, such as myself. It occurred to me that, if this was being pushed on me despite my short hair, the $45/$70 disparity is probably just a PC way of saying what the salon feels is the difference between a men's and women's haircut, regardless of length. Hmm.

So it wasn't that I was wrong about an even haircut resulting from a cut without a blowdry - that much was achieved. Where I erred was in assuming the hairdresser would just go with it once I said that this was what I wanted, minor imperfections being the price I was willing to pay. She kept repeating that I really should get the blow-dry as well, on and on until finally I just explained outright that I'm a student and $45 is possible for me in a way that $70 is not. She either didn't hear or didn't choose to acknowledge this the first time, so after several more urgings to get a blow-out, I repeated my occupation status. She seemed suspicious and wanted to know where I studied. When I said which school (not specifying the program or anything), she held forth about how very smart I must be, which, no hard feelings to my university, surprised me. No one refers euphemistically to going to school 'in Greenwich Village.' I was getting suspicious.

So anyhow, you don't want someone cutting your hair who's angry at you, and by requesting no-blow, I'd set things up to go in this direction. Hoping to mend things, I said very early on in the cut, before much change was detectable, how lovely it looked. This seemed to work, in that superficial way things do when the baseline hostility level's already been established.

Onto the haircut itself: everything about it, other than the price, reminded me why I'd left salons behind in the first place. As someone with hair that's thick not in a Pantene-commercial way, but in an I-can't-fall-asleep-with-it-wet-without-looking-like-I-need-to-be-committed way, I don't especially enjoy when a straight-and-fine-haired hairdresser spends the whole time telling me that I have so much hair, while taking every opportunity to thin it out with special scissors for people with so much hair. Yes, yes, a ton of hair, I'm well aware, yes, it's better than not enough hair, but no, I really have no response to the thickness of my hair being pointed out every time I get my hair cut. (One hairdresser once referred to the thickness of my hair, which was making a blow-dry - included in that cut - take forever by saying 'so hairy', while giggling. That was the best, by far.)

I could tell, as my hair was being cut, that the back was not so much being evened out as turning into a classic men's haircut. Not what I'd asked for at all, but not totally unreasonable for an angled bob, and perhaps pleasant for summer. It was when the hairdresser gelled the back into a bangs-free version of this that I got concerned. Had my cheapness gone that far?

Long story short, after shampooing out the gel and styling the results in a way that did not involve anything being 'spiked', it looks like no hat will be necessary. Beyond that, I'll say no more.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You Need a New One

Most of thrift is about balancing what you need or want to buy with how much money you've got to spend. But there's an extra category: the things you neither need nor want to replace nor wished to buy in the first place, but that Society tells you you really ought to 'invest' in. Not making these purchases, They inform you, means that you are socially-inept, unhygienic, or just stingy to the point of ignoring your own needs. You might be OK using the same soap for your face and body, wearing the same dress to the office and a bar, and these are things no one would even know about if you didn't tell them, but if you did tell them, They would be horrified. Teenagers, who famously care what others think, are particularly susceptible to the You Need a New One message, but they're hardly alone.

So, some categories to watch out for:

Specialization: To an extent, this is something we're all guilty of. Using different products for shampoo and soap, say, or different outfits for formal and casual occasions. But there are degrees. This is particularly relevant when it comes to kitchen utensils. Anything designed just for a banana, a tomato, etc., can probably be skipped.

Replacements: It's clear enough why 'I needed a new one' is so often summoned as the reason for a purchase. It's not that you wanted a new pair of shoes, but that a particular pair wore out and needs replacement. (I, for one, cannot buy shoes without going through these motions.) But let's get real: not everything that wears out needs replacing, and not everything wears out when They say it does. A commenter here insisted recently that running shoes must be replaced after a certain number of miles and/or years. To me this sounded unnecessary, and I may not be as off as all that. Says one expert, a marathon winner and running-shoe salesman: "I know the shoe companies say 500 miles. I never go by things like that. I go by feel. When you’re on a run and you land on a rock and you feel it on your foot, when that happens you know your shoes have lost a lot of their cushioning or support and you might be wise to invest in another pair of shoes." Indeed. My running shoes are as hideous as can be, and are quite old, but until something changes perceptibly in the fit, no change is necessary.

Personal maintenance: As the recession lifestyle articles courageously reported, it is in fact possible to paint your own nails, rather than go to a salon. This did not surprise anyone other than women from Magical Lifestyle-Journalism Land. But forget about the lavish and the urban. Many basic expectations are, in fact, unnecessary. As MSI has investigated, a daily shampoo is at most a necessity according to season. And, a hint for those of us whose 'ethnic' hair is coarser and thus less societally-desirable than 'white' hair typically is - our hair takes forever to get greasy, so barring intense workouts or extreme heat, we can go the every-other-day (or, dare I say, every-two-day) route year-round. Yes, our hair gets interesting in the rain, but not having to shampoo every five minutes in order to avoid clumping at the scalp is a blessing indeed.

And, more generally, when it comes to beauty products, if you don't already use it, and 'it' isn't deodorant, toothpaste, or eyeliner, best not to start now.

: Massages, yoga, days at the spa, months in the wilderness. I sympathize with the need to break up arduous tasks (like, say, returning 26 books to the library, from one's apartment in another borough, all in one go) with treats (say, iced coffee). But the notion that everyone These Days is just so stressed, that Life Today is so fast-paced that we all need to decompress, and that this decompression must manifest itself in ways more involved than parking one's self for a solid three hours in front of reality TV, has gotten out-of-hand. So while I don't advocate denying one's self the small indulgences that make life bearable, I think we'd all be wise to consider the restorative powers of staring at a wall or, failing that, a gossip website, before signing up for anything for which the promised de-stressing will be accompanied by a stress-inducing bill.

In other words, spending 'for others' has its place - going out with friends, gifts - but spending on yourself should not, with some obvious exceptions, take Society into account.

Bringing back the victory garden, indoors

I've been considering how I could go about growing my own herbs for some time now, even before FLG suggested it. It wouldn't really be a move towards actual cost savings in the way not washing my hair would, since I don't currently buy fresh herbs very often. It would a kind of hypothetical cheapness, since I could be paying more if I were paying anything. Plus, I like projects, and basil.

The problem is two-fold, however. First, the garden needs to be indoors so that I can eat basil all year. Second, it needs to be cat-proof. I've considered two options in this direction:
1. I could grow it under artificial lights in my closet. The downside of this is that the LED lamps cost at least $50 (not thrifty), and also that I couldn't use my closet for more useful ends, like clothing storage. Plus, I'd have to constantly explain to people about the "herbs" I'm growing in there.
2. A chicken-wire covering for the plants so that the sun can reach them, but the cat's teeth can't. Chicken wire is only a few bucks, so the cost wouldn't be a huge issue, but it's possible that space constraints in my new apartment will be. How can I convince my roommates that the best use of half our living room floor is for a chicken-wire domed indoor farm?

On a related note, I was recently hunting for Amazon cart filler to get my order up to $25 and qualify for free shipping, and I realized this is always a bad idea to do at the last minute when you just need to stick something--anything--in there to avoid a shipping charge. I typically select ridiculous things like cat toys and muffin pan liners because I don't have time to take stock of all the little things I actually do need. So, to remedy this problem, I started a shopping list on Amazon dedicated specifically to cart filler items that I need generally but not urgently. Now, whenever I think, "Oh, I could really use an X at times like these," I add it to the list. So that next time I need to add $4.70 to my cart, I will remember to buy a tape measure or a flashlight or, now, chicken wire for my basil farm.

Monday, June 22, 2009

When cheapness goes too far: or, tales of my weekend

Like my co-blogger, I'm in the process of moving apartments. Technically this means putting stuff into storage, running off to lower-rent lands, and returning come the fall, in the hopes of finding a recession-priced townhouse in the West Village, by which I mean studio apartment within walking distance of NYU. While we have hired (Brooklyn's least expensive!) movers for the furniture, the storage space happens to be on the same bus route as our apartment, and it was cheaper to 'claim' the storage space early, so we figured we might as well start the move ourselves. For whatever reason, the fact that a street fair blocked the entirety of that bus route did not stop us from thinking this course of action made sense. My arms are now in fine shape indeed. Jo suggested I try weight training, but to go to the campus gym in the summer now costs $50, so boxes it is.

Speaking of carrying things, here's another area where frugality adversely impacted my quality of life. After carrying around a backpack with every-expanding holes at the bottom and an ever-thickening layer of filth (as happens to things you put regularly on the floor of the subway) for some time, it occurred to me that perhaps the bag had had it's day. Which it had, so I threw it out. What I didn't do was buy a replacement. Because that would require the exchange of money for stuff, stuff that isn't fun in any way, and I figured that through some combination of tote bags and reused plastic shopping bags, I could get through the great Library Book Shift of 2009. I figured wrong. Thank you, Brooklyn Industries, for having one of your periodic bag sales just in time.


In news of thrift on a larger scale, colleges are now cutting back on 'extras'. Predictably, in that the linked-to story is a lifestyle piece in the New York Times, and one that allows comments, after reading about some rather extreme college perks (how many schools ever had HBO in student rooms?) you get to hear from the ranks of those convinced that bratty Kids These Days demand luxuries beyond what they, when young, would have dared ask for.

But is it really the kids who demand these perks? I agree that there's been a trend in abandoning austerity-for-character-building's-sake, and that we no longer as a society believe one must be in a permanent state of physical discomfort, ala British boarding school of yore, in order to get an education. But I simply don't believe the undergrads care about the landscaping, the 'free' laundry, the fancy gyms, and so forth. These are things colleges do to one-up one another. Sure, there's some sense, if a student looks at nine schools with Perk A, that if the tenth lacks that perk, it's perhaps a worse-funded or less-brand-name institution. But it would have never occurred to individual undergrads to ask for most of what's now offered, to set the spartan-to-lavish scale where it's currently at.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Moving expenses

Right now, I have no profound theoretical things to say about thrift because I'm busy trying to figure out the very practical problem of transporting myself, Sebastian, our stuff, and my cat from our (more or less) happy homes in Washington to our new, chillier homes in Boston in the next month. This is proving to be incredibly expensive.

I managed to find what looks like a decent apartment through a friend, which has saved me the hypothetical money and stress involved in flying out to Boston and scrambling to find a place and sign a lease within a few days, then paying a broker's fee for it. Sebastian, however, has not found a place, so I'm still flying out to Boston next week to help him look for one. Money not saved.

Then there is the problem of schlepping our stuff. I've done a long-distance move once before, from Chicago to Washington the summer after I finished college. That one was somewhat less complicated though thanks to my lack of worldly possessions and angry feline companion. This time, we have probably a small apartment's worth of furniture between us, and the cat can't fly on planes (IMPORTANT THRIFT ADVICE: Pets use up valuable resources and cause endless headaches. Don't get them until you are established and can be reasonably certain that you'll never move anywhere again.) Hiring movers and driving ourselves and the cat is one option, but last time Seb hired movers to move his stuff, they were expensive and lost so much of it that it was impossible to re-assemble half the furniture on arrival.

The other option is renting a large-ish truck and driving it the eight hours ourselves. We lean in this direction. So here is my question: What is the thriftiest way to move? Which truck rentals are the cheapest? Where can I get cheap boxes (that will hold heavy things--not the liquor store boxes mentioned earlier)? What is the best way to find an apartment in three days? Which furniture should I keep and which should I sell? How can I make this process as smooth as possible so that Sebastian and I don't kill each other before we even arrive? Any ideas?

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.

Friday, June 12, 2009

That which seems like it would be cheap, but isn't

Everyone (here, presumably) wants a formula to save money. If only it were always as easy as yesterday, when my boyfriend and I were about to spend $40 ordering moving boxes online, after an extensive search for cheaper options... only to get home to find that the store downstairs was throwing out more (clean, dry, what are the chances?) boxes than we knew what to do with. Yes, I'm pleased.

But it's rarely so straightforward. Just as the theoretically no-fail diet plan, 'don't eat as much', has yet to replace the more involved ones ('cut out carbs'), 'don't spend so much' fails to have the allure of the much catchier 'cut out lattes'. In my experience, however, the quick fixes... it's not necessarily that they don't work, but they still need to be applied with caution. 'Do X, not Y' is not, on its own, enough. For example:

-Cooking/bringing lunch: Usually true, but it depends what you're cooking/bringing and what you're eating out. Pizza and falafel (and vegetarian sushi, and soup, and bagels, and so on) are not necessarily unhealthy meals, and are typically cheaper options than cooking anything with special ingredients, anything that you haven't cooked before and thus may not turn out edible, etc. Cooking for one or two, unless it's something you know will keep and will turn out well enough for you to want to eat the thing again, is not always as efficient as getting something single-portioned on the outside.

-Dressing casually: To be low-maintenance is to be a jeans-and-t-shirt sort. But the arrival of chains like H&M and Forever 21, with cheap, fashionable dresses, coincided with the trend in pricey 'basics'. Assuming nothing's on sale, the frilly dress may be $30; the jeans $200, the t-shirt, made out of that ultrafine material that has made women's t-shirts in recent years less durable the higher the price, $40. (This is only true, however, for women: to my knowledge, men's suits remain the gargantuan expenditures they've always been.)

-Running: The only free sport. Kind of. To not injure yourself, you (allegedly, but I fell for it) need the special sneakers someone claiming running expertise recommends for someone with your exact foot-shape. But good news is, unless you run a whole lot, they will last forever, because your size won't change and they were never in style. The real issue is the increased food and shampoo consumption running requires. No, cost-wise, jogging is not skiing, but it's not free, either. Not if you make the mistake, as I have, of ending jogs at Whole Foods. (Which is, by the way, the most yuppie combination of activities known to man. There's nothing like waiting on that line in your gym clothes.)

-Making your own damn coffee: While this is drastically cheaper per cup than even Bouley Market's miraculous $1.35 cup in Tribeca, New York's priciest neighborhood, coffee out is often a substitute for more costly on-the-outside expenditures. Meeting friends for coffee is cheaper than getting drinks or a meal. Got an hour to kill in SoHo? Better to spend that time reading in Starbucks (where, granted, you don't really have to buy anything) than at the Banana Republic down the street.

-Brooklyn: Yes, this one's very NYC-specific. Contrary to what one might think after reading about the trustafarian Williamsbourgeoise, rents are often lower in Brooklyn than in Manhattan, or at least that's how I ended up in Park Slope and not somewhere less hippie-influenced and closer to school. But now, popping up everywhere are precious little gourmet shops promising sustainable, local, and artisinal, and these are the only places with good cheese for miles, and they know it, allowing them to charge far more than the Manhattan institutions - Fairway, Zabars, even Citarella. So, this one is not only NYC-specific, but also specific to those who buy a lot of cheese. That said, that still leaves, I'd imagine, close to a million people.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Alas, it takes more than a glue gun and Bedazzler for DIY wealth.

I love Etsy for getting cheap pretty handmade earrings and cool fabric handbags. I get things like pure silver earrings for $13 and well-designed fabric hobo bags that would cost more if I were into designer It bags made of leather, or even brand-name fabric handbags. Thus, I would have celebrated Etsy as a way to be thrifty with respect to a few things, especially if you're into unique designs that are handmade. But it's not a great way to make money, given the profit margins and the fact that a tightwad like me balks at spending $35 on a crocheted headband. Keep in mind, I've spent 3 months and $30 on merino wool yarn for a scarf to give to my boyfriend, so I understand I'm paying for better materials (sometimes) and labor and the very idea of craftwork. But even if this is a nifty new way to buy and sell fine craftwork, it doesn't seem, given the economies of scale, a great way to make a living. I hope that the craft makers, artisans, etc. are not relying on my very sporadic (okay, I have only bought from them twice) meager purchases to stay afloat In This Economy. It seems as though that's not a great business model or career plan, and possibly "peddles a false feminist fantasy":

I have a theory, and it begins with the demographics. The average age of an Etsy seller, according to the site’s 2008 survey, is 35—women’s prime childrearing years. Nearly 60 percent have college degrees, and 55 percent are married. The average household income is $62,000—well above the national mean. In other words, the seller is often a married woman with (or about to have) young children, with a higher-than-average household income, and a good education. These should, in sum, be highly employable women. So, what are they doing, often pursuing hobbies, or working only part-time, on Etsy?

I think for many women the site holds out the hope of successfully combining meaningful work with motherhood in a way that more high-powered careers in the law, business, or sciences seldom allow. In other words, what Etsy is really peddling isn’t only handicrafts, but also the feminist promise that you can have a family and create hip arts and crafts from home during flexible, reasonable hours while still having a respectable, fulfilling, and remunerative career. The problem is that on Etsy, as in much of life, the promise is a fantasy. There’s little evidence that most sellers on the site make much money. This, I suspect, explains the absence of men. They are immune to the allure of this fantasy. They have evaluated the site on purely economic terms and found it wanting.

On the site’s user forums, newbies are forever asking if it’s possible to create stand-alone careers on Etsy. They get some encouragement but the answer from most veterans is no. “Technically ... yes,” krugsecologic says, “but I’m a stay at home mom—so REALLY that’s my full-time job. So this is not my family’s only source of income ... thankfully:).” Indeed, many posters admit that their husbands are the main breadwinners, and their work on Etsy amounts to little more than a glorified hobby. (Less than a quarter of the site’s sellers describe themselves as full-time artisans.) Kymsart777 is more blunt: “I would be on welfare! LOL … I wish!” And meringueshop advises flatly: “very few people ... make a full time income from Etsy.” Yet the same thread gets started again and again. (“I'd love to be able to quit my day job and do this for a living” writes beachflowerdesigns, a mother from the Midwest. “I'm going to keep trying though!”) This is the dream that women express over and over on the site.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with women choosing to work part-time or for less than they could earn in other professions. But like those flyers you sometimes see tacked up on lampposts, or late-night television ads, Etsy actively fosters the delusion that any woman with pluck and ingenuity can earn a viable living without leaving her home. Etsy has a business model that’s akin to the lottery’s. It preys on the hopes and dreams of working moms and other women, while delivering genuine financial success to only the very, very few.

After decades of being encouraged to forego the unpaid “women’s work” of our mothers and grandmothers, we are tired of being divorced from our hands and from the genuine pleasures such work can afford. This is the female version of Shop Class as Soulcraft, the recent book by Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-mechanic. Women, too, hunger for concrete, manual labor that has an element of individual agency and pleasure beyond the abstract, purely cerebral work found in the cubicle or corner office. It’s become satisfying again to sew, cook, and garden. But unlike our mothers and grandmothers, who were content to knit booties for relatives, younger women want to be recognized and compensated for their talents. Crawford has mastered specialized motorcycle repair not just because it makes him happy, but also because it’s work that’s embedded in a particular place and context, with a corresponding pay scale.

It's interesting that the author of this article frames this as a problem endemic to those seeking work/life balance. I don't disagree with her characterization, but that's because I'm not looking at a particularly rigorous study of Etsy's sellers and their motivations. The author at least supports her argument with some statistics about the gender composition and age and occupational status of Etsy's sellers, but for all I know the author cherry-picked the quotes about how the sellers are only able to break even/sustain their avocational livelihood because of their spouse's income. In any case, if we take this theory of Etsy's economic ghetto of SAHMs, it's kind of sad that in the quest for work/life balance, one part of the equation gives too much ground to the other. At another site under the Slate umbrella, telecommuting is disparaged as being too hard on small businesses, and because:

I firmly believe that you should expect employees to show up for work, whenever possible, no matter what kind of company.

The reasons for this have nothing to do with checking that people are actually working. It's about efficient communications, building company culture and camaraderie, and sharing the daily bits of work and personal experiences that create a shared sense of purpose.

Academics have the benefit of more flexible hours than most, with the ability to work from home if necessary (even if the vast number of meetings, service/committee work and the general value of being in your office and roaming the halls talking to your peers and students generally make it so that you're usually at school). But much research by the likes of Joan Williams and the Work/Life Law Center shows that people are not generallly more productive the more hours they spend at work beyond a certain number, and this over-valuation of "face time" hurts women, particularly young mothers.

Still, if this article is to be believed, the solution to institutional problems with family leave isn't to quit your job, become an "artisan" and break out your glue gun, hoping that you can sell your crafty wares and become a self-supporting hipster. If anything, I'm not even sure that the vision is a "feminist fantasy," as the article argues. Is it every feminist's fantasy to spend hours doing traditional women's work and getting paid for it? Keep in mind, I spend hours upon hours baking, knitting, and craft making (or at least I used to, then I realized that no one needs yet another decoupaged photo frame or pencil cup). I like my hobbies, but I don't think it is or will be my fantasy to knit for a living as I stay at home with my baby (I guess one never knows though, this academia thing often feels wearying, and so occasionally knitting does sound better). If that is your feminist fantasy, great! But feminist fantasies are not monolithic. But in general, despite the pleasures of flow and working with one's hands, the time it takes to knit a scarf or handmake something, and the cost of good raw materials, it seems that the most one can expect is to break even, given the low profit margins. That's not exactly my fantasy of a livelihood, mainly because it isn't a sustainable one. And yes, I am sort of annoyed by the tweeness of it all, that such a fantasy about the best career centers around beads and yarn, which seems to be a fantasy limited to hipsters of a certain socioeconomic class and education level who supported financially through other means.

A better perspective on women and work and making it In This Economy: the American Prospect's series on "When Opting Out Isn't An Option."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Waist size, price tag

In the wise words of Miss Self-Important, on the eternal question of why women who write (sometimes) about clothes are taken less seriously than men who write (sometimes) about sports:

As far as I can tell, Megan McArdle is no less serious a blogger (insofar as one can be a serious blogger) than, say, Ezra Klein, who blogs on many of the same topics. But most people do not speculate about what size his pants are and whether he can get a date in his comments section.

And, more to the point:

Fashion is closely tied to bodies and love lives, and all the other subjects that are inappropriate for public discussion. Blogging about fashion usually means blogging about your fashion--it indirectly reveals things about your body, your income, your friends--in sum, your private life. And when the snipers come out, it makes some sense that they'll take aim not at the shoes, but at you, since you have armed them with all the relevant information and personal insults hurt more.

True, true. This explanation helped me understand why, though on my home blog I upfront call myself a Zionist, the greatest fury my online writings have ever provoked have been times I've written what I thought were innocuous posts about clothes. Even writing about clothing in general, your words will, fairly or unfairly, be read as statements about your own shopping habits and proportions.

One response would be to directly reveal all of this. Which is precisely what Virginia Postrel, the writer most cited as the 'exception' woman who can write about clothes and still be seen as serious, does in the lede of her 2007 story on jeans and vanity sizing: "As a teenager, I squeezed into size-12 jeans. Over the past three decades, I’ve put on about 20 pounds, mostly below the waist. I now wear a size 6."

Once that's out there (and self-deprecatingly so - imagine the fury if she'd opened with, 'I'm a size six, and finding jeans is so hard'), the speculation can end. We know the author's size, as well as her weight history, allowing us to move onto the more universal question of sizing generally.

But, as always, money complicates things. The only time Postrel mentions cost is to point out that custom-fit jeans are, at $900, "pricey." No one would disagree there; the danger is in making any sort of statement about what a pair should cost. (As I learned after mentioning my joy at finding a flattering $30 pair, only to learn that $15 was the socially-acceptable limit.)

So, questions, for my co-bloggers and others:

-Is it possible to talk about cheapness and clothes without inviting comments on our imagined incomes or sizes? Is there a proper way to deflect these, other than, 'No, you may not have the code to my bank account, nor my size at H&M.' I know that it's possible to blog about clothing without blogging about your own clothing (far more interesting is to blog about Zana Bayne's clothing), is it always really about you, in a way that other topics are not?

-Are size and income always off-limits? Obviously complaining about how the Chanel boutique is out of the dress you want in a size zero will get you as much understanding as confessing to being a Williamsburg hipster whose parents pay for her loft, but I'm not, of course, referring to extreme cases. This being a cheapness blog, the cost of clothes relative to funds already has come up, and surely will once more. And for all I know, my major complaint about clothing - that jeans These Days are cut to show the top of the underwear or worse, is in fact a statement about my size, and women with some other build (smaller? bigger? differently-proportioned?) don't experience this.

-Gender! Obviously. The relationship between cheapness and clothes relates at least as much to gender as it does to class. Female spending is more conspicuous because we often wear our most frivolous purchases. (I'm wearing the offending not-quite-$30 jeans right now.) But must every mention of clothes, by a woman, be accompanied by a discussion of the nonsense men also purchase, or can that just be assumed?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Status and spending acculturation

Helen has an interesting post arguing in part that elite schools are primarily "a training ground for America's future elite and only incidentally a place to train future intellectuals," and in light of this, these schools should take more seriously their mission to give "middle-class kids instruction in how to act rich—these habits of self-presentation have as much to do with future success as talent does."
If we accept that a Yale education is primarily cultural rather than academic, then the kind of acculturation that should take place there depends on what habits we would like our ruling class to have...Yale emphasizes the ways that it broadens students’ horizons, but never the ways it narrows them. When Yale offers free fellowships to study in China or subsidizes a trip to New York to catch a Broadway show, it bills these luxuries as instruction in how to be open-minded and well-cultured. In fact, these trips are, more than anything, instruction in how to be wealthy.

When Yale sells these tourist’s-eye-view glimpses as a genuine education in worldliness, it leaves students thinking of themselves as in the ruling class but not of it. Really, they're just as insular as any elite.
I think there is much to be said for this claim, though I suspect my fellow-cheapsters will disagree, and that it does relate in a narrow kind of way to the problem of thrift. I didn't attend a particularly exclusive or high-status school by East Coast terms (though it was certainly expensive), but I did attend a school that was, in terms of the students who populated it and what they aspired to, significantly higher class than my prior upbringing. I have no great claims to the standard pre-college deprivations--my family was neither poor nor uneducated, nor were most people I grew up with--but my parents did comment after my second or third year in college that my time there seemed to have influenced my tastes, and not towards greater thrift.

Before college, I had never bought a pair of jeans over $25 and I thought Starbuck's was where the rich drank their fancy, inscrutable cocktails. In college, I still liked that sentiment, but a real "deal" was a pair of $70 jeans marked down to $40, not the shapeless, stretchy $25 ones from Target. Clearly this attitude shift was not the result of a higher income--I was just as poor in college as before it, and more if I considered the cost of my education as personal debt, which I mostly did not. I'm pretty certain that some combination of my friends' spending habits and the sense of status-raising promise (probably entitlement) that everyone at Chicago imbibed dramatically changed my own expectations about money and how to spend it in a way very similar to the kind of class acculturation Helen describes. I still wanted to be thrifty, but I desperately did not want to be trashy, which I took to be anything lower class than the class our graduation from Chicago implied we would join. (Do you see how ambiguous this status game is? Status acculturation seems to go hand-in-hand with status anxiety. Endlessly elusive and self-absorbing.) I wanted to live in a way that anticipated how I expected to live once all the promises of my expensive education were borne out and I was 45 and paid private school tuition for my children and owned a row-house in Lincoln Park, where I walked my labradoodle.

Of course there were obvious limitations to what could be done, and everyone at the same time relished the image of their faux-poverty by eating at places like Depot and decorating their apartments with curbside furniture finds (this was before the Great American Bedbug Infestation). But that was all for ironic show. The real thrift, such as there was in college, was channeled into finding a good price on a nice interview suit that would last a few years. (Miss Self-Important hadn't gotten that far in the acculturation process yet though, and decided that buying the pieces separately at two different sales would be wiser. This proved false. Now her suit does not match.)

This status acculturation process continues apace after college, where I live in comfortable entry-level with no dependents affluence. Recently, a friend sent me an invitation to Gilt, which sends me daily sales on designer clothes I would never buy. They are substantially discounted, but only in the sense in which a previously $800 dress on sale for $250 dollars can be considered to be discounted. Nonetheless, I look at the sales each day, and I am starting to believe that maybe a $160 dress, marked down from $425, is not such a bad deal. After all, I have seen them every day for weeks already and these are the cheapest of the cheap. To which my friend Alex replies, "I think it's a reasonable amount for a nice dress, but more than you would have spent a few months ago. This is how people get acclimated to spending money such that the NYTimes articles about discount designer shopping become relevant to you." That's terrible, I reply. "Yeah, I stopped looking."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Faux-poverty =/= cheapness

There's something that needs to be cleared up early on in the Cheapness Studies experiment, and that's the difference between The Cheap and the Fashionably Faux-Poor, otherwise known as hipsters. It can be easy to confuse the two, because both are sets whose spending is or seems in conflict with their wealth or social class. Both can be found rummaging in thrift-store bins, scouring used-book sales, and, alas, cutting their own hair. And the 'it's hip to be frugal' lifestyle pieces that keep popping up further confuse matters - if thrift is in, are The Cheap just one more set of hipsters obeying Hipster Rule #1, which is of course to deny one's own hipsterdom?

Before things get blurrier still, some ways to tell cheapness apart from its evil cousin, faux-poverty:

-Dress: Faux-poverty is always for show, whereas cheapness can be but doesn't have to be - some exercise cheapness discretion from the confines of a cheapness closet, while others shout their cheapness from the rooftops. But an openly cheap person will, for example, buy a designer dress on sale, hoping to use her money as efficiently as possible for an upcoming event that requires such an item. When someone points out in a tsk-tsk tone that the item's designer, the dress's cheap owner will mention, with pride, the steep discount. Whereas the faux-poor do not buy designer clothes, however low in price, and will in fact be willing to spend more than the cheap do on their sale items for clothes whose faux-poor cred is self-evident - 'it's thrifted' or, for the very ironic, 'it's from a Walmart down South', being your key words.

-Financial responsibility: While cheapness is not always about money saved, and can merely be entered into for it's own sake, it is done with the idea, however buried in one's mind, that one must be saving for something. Faux-poverty, meanwhile, is not about savings, but about a perpetual state of being 'so broke.' And sometimes the faux-poor are as broke as they claim, because they can spend huge amounts of well-hidden money on intentionally-'distressed' jeans, gritty-looking lofts, hand-rolled cigarettes, drinks at expensive but 'downtown' bars, and so on. They're not getting blow-outs or manicures, flat-screens or yachts, but they might well be spending, all the same. If someone faux-poor also happens to spend very little - and this has been known to happen - it's just a coincidence.

-Class: Faux-poverty is a statement about authentic membership in (some fantasy version of) the working class. Thus the overalls, flannel, mullets, and tattoos, and the preference for converted industrial spaces and homes 'down by the docks'. For the faux-poor, nothing could be worse than for it to be revealed that you grew up in Greenwich, CT, and attended the finest Northeastern boarding schools, and not on scholarship. (Witness every last Williamsburg resident telling all who'll listen that they don't, unlike everyone else in Williamsburg, get their rent paid by their parents.) Meanwhile, to be faux-poor, by definition, you did not grow up poor.

Whereas there's no requirement, for the cheap, to have any particular family background. While cheapness and economic self-sufficiency go hand in hand, and while poverty does not, of course, allow freely choosing not to buy the new fancy car, that's about where the relationship to class status ends. A person can be cheap because he grew up poor and can't imagine spending freely, or because he grew up rich and watched his parents save to get that way. There's no one route to what amounts to the same result. Cheapness is not about sneering at those who, as luck would have it, were born to wealthy families - if anyone's sneered at by the cheap, it's those who spend thoughtlessly. Who your parents are is sort of besides the point, except insofar as cheapness can be instilled in one's offspring.

-Chic: Cheapness isn't chic. Think of when, on Seinfeld, Jerry says, in reference to George spotting a dime on the floor while without his glasses, "Maybe cheapness is a sense." George Costanza? Not chic. (Referencing Seinfeld in 2009: even less chic.)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cheapness goes to the market

In some thread, somewhere, about local-sustainable and all that, someone asked a question I thought needed to be asked: why does food from farmers' markets, which cut out the middle-man, and which promise only to grow what's appropriate for the region/season, end up costing so much more than even groceries from upscale chains? I go often to these markets, and... yeah. Asparagus at $4 a small bunch, bell peppers at $4.50 a pound, newly-trendy scraps from the garlic plant, $6/lb, and so on. And, either because this food really is fresher than equivalents elsewhere or because I've been brainwashed by the great Alice Waters hovering like so over Park Slope, I recently bought some, not tons, of all of the above.

So are the prices just a question of economies of scale (as in, the food at markets actually does cost more to produce), of look-what-the-rich-urbanites-will-pay-for-'rustic', or something similarly obvious? Is the idea that the desk-job-having urban consumer feels guilty questioning the price of items the farmer must have worked really hard to grow/slaughter, when it's the farmer himself (or someone we assume to be a farmer) selling the goods? I'm not hating - I remain a fan of the farmers' markets, and happily give them whatever they ask so long as the resulting extravagance will at least end up garnishing a 40-cent mound of pasta. But I am curious about the reason why even the stands not promising 'organics' make Whole Foods seem the more sensible option. So if you know, by all means...

(The new and much-hyped gourmet market that just opened on Flatbush, where the ice cream is $9 a pint but 'housemade'? On that, I'm not conflicted in the least.)

Credit cards are a cheapster's best friend

As Phoebe pointed out earlier, the "financial advice for recent grads" is an editorial genre fraught with peril. It's usually about 90 percent totally obvious advice (newsflash: cooking at home is cheaper than restaurants), 5 percent useful for people who've never considered the concept of money (don't take out loans to buy depreciating assets like a new laptop even though you may think a laptop is really useful), and 5 percent wrong, like this advice to avoid credit cards lest they tempt you into financial sins.

The view that credit cards are evil conduits to oblivious profligacy is not that uncommon. Recently, I've tried to convince two different friends who were trying to save money that credit cards would help them do that, and both were very suspicious. But it's true--if you follow the one iron law of credit cards, you can in fact save money, have an easier time taking out loans on appreciating assets later, and get all kinds of nice perks like cash back and restaurant coupons* for your virtue. That rule, as I'm sure you all know, is to pay off your full balance every month, always, no matter what.

When you buy your peace-of-mind-saving latte for $3.29 at the beginning of the month and don't have to pay for it until the end of the grace period 30-60 days later, that $3.29 has accrued an additional couple cents for you in an interest-bearing savings account, and by the time you have to withdraw it to pay, it is itself worth slightly less than the original amount you paid for the latte thanks to inflation. A credit card is a convenient, brief interest-free loan that rewards you for responsible repayment with an occasional dinner at Olive Garden. Hurray!

Obviously, a credit card can be your undoing if you're already a profligate spender and just need a ready means of payment to behave like a maniac, or if you break the iron rule and start carrying even modest balances. But I suspect that for the dispositionally tight-fisted with a mortal fear of debt, that's not really a problem. I try to put everything on my card unless I'm somewhere that's cash-only. But I've never been tempted to purchase a pony or a Marc Jacobs dress with it.

Sometimes I do think that credit cards are an evil force, since their business model requires some people to break the iron rule of immediate repayment and go into debt, which may, in sum, make us a more profligate culture, though a much more transactionally fluid one. Am I contributing to financial irresponsibility and a massive culture of debt in order to feast on unlimited salad and breadsticks? No doubt some of Mastercard's debtors would be in some kind of debt anyway, but probably not all. Or does the benefit of immense financial convenience outweigh these costs? In the meantime, yes.

*One thing though about the rewards: beware the free airfare offers. They often require you to book through their travel agents and charge "booking fees" to redeem them. I prefer 1-2% cash back schemes, since even free Olive Garden breadsticks, nice though they may be, are not as good as cash moneys. Also, CapitalOne allows you to customize the image on the card, so that you can become that ridiculous person who has a photo of her cat on her credit card.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Pasta, undressed

One of the most popular searches leading people to my home blog is, no-quotes, 'what to put on pasta.' Every time I see this, I think, how boring are people? Unlike those searching for 'hipster porn', 'sheygetz jewish woman', and 'is watermelon fattening', the pasta folks have perhaps not the most fertile imaginations.

Or so I thought, until I found myself with what looked like as many bags of pasta as days left in my apartment. This was months ago - once discovering the 99-cent bags at Whole Foods, and weaning myself off the marginally superior but once-$2-then-suddenly-much-more DeCecco boxes, I started hording the bags. And kept doing so. (My boyfriend warned me I might be going overboard, but did I listen?) And now, I have officially run out of things to put on pasta. I have tried everything. Every pasta dish I've ever seen on a menu and thought, 'that looks interesting,' I've made. (Turns out broccoli rabe, at least as I made it, is of no use.) Every interesting-looking Greenmarket vegetable has found itself on a bowl of pasta, as have non-vegetarian toppings of all kinds. Every possible variant of tomato sauce has made its way from cans of tomatoes to the pan. Every food I eat otherwise, with the notable exceptions of oatmeal, pizza, and Twix, has made its way onto a mound of pasta, such that there are no longer dishes that don't 'take' pasta, cheeses that don't 'go' with pasta, pasta, pasta, pasta....

So, I'm stuck. To preempt a reasonable suggestion - giving the remaining bags to charity upon moving out, as we'll probably have to do with some other stuff in the cabinets - I should note that the way our kitchen's laid out, with no ventilation (no window or vent), and with storage above the cabinets, all the bags are covered in a thick layer of kitchen grease. The contents of the bags are, I think but don't know, still viable, and I've been treating them as such, but to someone who didn't know the back story, the bags to not look or feel as though they contain edible food. The pasta is ours or it's garbage.

This is where I ask, after all, for suggestions for what to put on pasta. Linguine, to be precise. An Alice Waters pasta cookbook I consulted was of little use - some suggestions were excellent but obvious in their minimalism (although the fact that putting a few basic, fresh ingredients on pasta seems obvious owes a lot to Waters's influence); others were tailored to a climate with a bit more produce variety; and still more violated the Cheapness Studies credo - I'm all for what goes on the pasta being a higher price-per-pound than the heap of starch below, but a pasta recipe that begins with shucking oysters or requires the addition of caviar or truffles, however delicious the results, misses the point.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Anyone ever purchased $1 makeup from teh internets?

I came across ELF cosmetics, and it looks all pretty and non-sketchy and all their makeup is $1. That could be a major savings over Sephora, but all the reviews I've found have been hugely varied. Some people say it's pretty high quality and reliable, other say it's a scam and they don't ship your stuff. Anyone had any experience? The lipgloss tempts.

The other problem here seems to be that shipping is $7, so in order to make it worthwhile, I'd have to buy about $30 worth of cosmetics which, even if I used tons of it all the time to begin with, would be hard given that everything is $1. The paradoxes of internet cheapness...

The 'beware the latte' brigade

Responding to Miss Self-Important's inaugural post, PG writes:

I'd say it's also almost always ok to spend on things that will contribute significantly to your emotional well-being on a daily basis. For me, that's getting a cleaning service every few weeks -- it's worth the money not ever to have to deal with arguing over who has let gunk accumulate in the microwave, or whose turn it is to scrub the toilet. For other people, that can be anything from pet-ownership to yoga classes. The main thing is that it relieve the stress of daily life, not just create an occasional high.

Indeed! This was what so frustrated me about that article that came out a while back advising The Youth to give up their regular trips to Starbucks and the like, because over time, you'll save big. (Of course, this, like all 'who knew?' savings tips, presumes a switch from near-daily latte consumption to total elimination - results would be far less dramatic for those who fail to start at one extreme or end up at the other.) But suppose that latte is the difference between you enjoying the period from 4pm to the end of the workday and you napping at your desk? Or at the library, as I'd have done yesterday, had I not sprung for a cappuccino that was, somewhat embarrassingly, more expensive than my lunch. (Yes, I'm lucky to go to school near a Two Boots, where a top-notch slice is $2.50.) Is the joy of saving money in increments of $2 or $3 so great that it's worth cutting back in one especially noticeable area? Or is the point to condemn immediate gratification for the sake of condemning immediate gratification, without consideration for the actual cost/benefit of the latte in question?

The larger point here is... what PG said, but also that, while thrift generally can be encouraged, urging the elimination across-the-board of one particular expenditure - unless it's, say, bathing in caviar - is rarely helpful, and is likely to just be unnecessarily judgmental. Doing so fails to account for the different roles The Latte plays in different people's lives - for some it's just one more thing that could easily be eliminated, and for others (ahem, humanities grad students), it's one indulgence in an otherwise ascetic lifestyle. Sometimes people need an excuse to step outside of their offices or the library for a couple minutes. Starbucks exists to give non-smokers that excuse.

Time is money, but how much?

Belle mentions the money value of time below, which brings to mind something a commenter on my blog (who may or may not be my real-life neighbor?) wrote when I said I waited on the train platform an extra 10 minutes to save 50 cents:
If you wait ten minutes to save fifty cents, you are saying your time is worth $3.00 an hour. So every hour you spend not-working-at-Hardees, when you could be making $7.15, is a loss of $4.15.
This is the problem of the opportunity cost of time (OCT), which as I understood it from Econ 101, means the monetary value of time as determined by the price of doing the next most valuable thing. The OCT made a lot of sense when I first heard about it because it was all about the hypothetical future in which I would surely be commanding the salary of a bazillionaire, and so the opportunity cost of my time would indeed be quite high and I would be justified in contracting out nearly all of my daily functioning to services.

But now, having fallen short of the bazillion mark in my actual salary, I wonder if the OCT argument is not actually a goad to irresponsible spending, workaholism, and the overvaluation of the worth of one's labor? It's almost always introduced as an explanation for why you should not scrimp in some way--don't wait 10 minutes to save 50 cents on train fare, don't go to the grocery store two miles away because it has a better deal on eggs, don't clip coupons. These are wastes of time that you could be spending earning tons of money. Because just think! You are a person with lots of education and social capital, and so every hour of your time is worth so much! Or, at the very least, your current hourly wage!

Well, what does that mean, actually? The OCT implies that, at any given moment, instead of doing slothful activity X, I could be earning money. How can I determine how much? If degrees and social capital were enough to justify conserving time over money since those degrees could hypothetically be parlayed into high-wage employment, then Belle should be paying people to peel grapes for her. Even if the calculation should be based on one's actual hourly earnings, how do we extrapolate to the time not spent at work? I make a decent wage while I'm working, but barring a few hours of overtime a week that I'm not actually allowed to take, I can't make more if I work more hours. So even if I can determine the exact monetary value of my time at work, what is it outside of work? Zero? The amount of money I could potentially make at the second job I don't have but should get so that I am optimizing the money value of my time every minute of the day? What about when I'm on an annual stipend that doesn't dictate how many hours I spend working? Is it the stipend divided by all the hours in a year during which I could potentially be studying, which makes the OCT probably a fraction of a cent, or the stipend divided by all the hours I actually spend studying, which I can't predict in advance and so has no use as a standard for deciding how much to scrimp?

But even if the actual OCT is just an approximation, the rational thing to do in most such dilemmas--since they involve such miniscule amounts of money--is spend more money and save more time. Only the extremely unproductive should value their time so little as to spend 30 extra minutes walking to a store to save 30 cents on a carton of eggs. And who wants to be someone so unproductive that their time is worth 60 cents an hour? What kind of useless slug of a human being is only worth 1/14 of minimum wage? Obviously you should buy the more expensive eggs. But isn't that a vast overvaluation of most people's time, given that they can't possibly work all the time instead of buying eggs? And if they did always opt to pay money instead of spend time on the assumption that their time was worth at least the wage of a hypothetical second job, wouldn't that, over the long run, be an unwise strategy?

This view of the value of time seems to privilege allocating all of one's time to financially remunerative labor over doing pretty much anything else. But in Econ 101, I also learned that subjective utility has value too, so one might say in defense of OCT that Belle is still making a wise decision about her OCT when she bakes (successful) lemon bars, since she derives more utility from occasionally employing her time in the service of lemon bar preparation than from working for money non-stop. Ok, but since we can't quantify utility, what does that really mean, except that the theory of OCT has nothing to say about how any given person should employ either his time or his money? If I derive great personal satisfaction from saving 30 cents on eggs, I should walk 30, even 60 minutes to do it. Is that rational?

Moreover, I wonder if thinking in terms of OCT doesn't in some ways erode the kind of inherently thrifty mindset that works to save small amounts as much as possible because many small amounts saved over a long time add up? Maybe some individual instances of such savings are absurd or irrational, but the general attitude, consistently employed, tends to increase rather than diminish one's savings.

Anyway, Belle, you are the expert on this. What is your view?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Free donuts tomorrow!

Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts are giving away free donuts tomorrow in honor of National Donut Day. Well, you have to buy a drink to get in on the DD deal. I assume this does not just apply to DC, so I am not being parochial.

Keep in mind though, donuts make you fat, and being fat is expensive.

Via FLG.

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!

Cheapness as virtue or neurosis?

Thanks, Rita, for getting things started!

In terms of cheapness tips, I promise to refrain, whenever possible, from pointing out how much money can be saved through restricting your shopping to Uniqlo, Sahadi's, and a certain fruit stand on Court and Pacific in Cobble Hill. Even though that, plus 99-cent bags of Whole Foods pasta, more or less defines my own cheapness as it manifests itself on a day-to-day-basis.

I second all Rita's suggestions for what this blog should cover. Some other possibilities, in no particular order:

-Where Cheapness Studies meets Gender Studies: does male influence inhibit shopping? Think 'I Love Lucy' and the never-ending stream of new hats that must be hidden from Ricky. Do men spend as much, but on different things (flat-screens, steaks, whatever else stereotype would have it), or is it just easier to be cheap as a man?

-Does the stereotype of Jews being cheap push Jews towards ostentatious indifference to money/generosity in public settings/on dates, etc.? To add a gendered analysis: does the stereotype of Jewish women as spending heaps of (their father's/husband's) money on personal upkeep cause Jewish women who fancy themselves (ourselves) not JAPs to be particularly thrifty when it comes to beauty routines, not only eschewing professional manicures (and in some extreme cases, professional haircuts), but doing so, on some level, to make a point? Insert applicable comparable cases (immigrants, as Rita suggests; the Dutch) as needed.

-And finally, what do we think of Michael Pollan's suggestion that we ('we' as in slop-eating Americans) start spending a greater proportion of our incomes on food? Should we be like the French, who of course spend 1,000 euros a head per day on breakfast alone?

Rita's question, "what am I saving for?" is a tough one. I tend to think saving is basically like dieting - we should all watch what we eat and spend, but taken too far, whether what's counted are calories or pennies, things can get messy. Also, as with dieting, sometimes what matters is less the results (more money, less top-of-the-jeans bulge) and more the sense of virtuousness refusing whatever it is you want can provide. While I seem to have long since grown out of the calorie concern, I do tend to be a fan of not spending any money, ever (although I agree with Rita on the gift/going-out-within-reason exception). Either way, the $6-but-tiny chocolate-domed pastries at (pardon the NYC-specific reference) Bouley Market are, most of the time, at least, out-of-bounds. The $2.75 cannelles at Joyce, however, will be my financial downfall.

The telos of saving

First, on an introductory and mission statementy note, we have not actually discussed what this blog is going to cover, aside from Phoebe's general suggestion that it should be about "how not to spend any money, ever." That's a pretty good starting point, since that is my only slightly exaggerated view of the purpose of financial management.

However, since a lot of the everyday ways not to spend money are geographically contingent--the rock-bottom cocktail prices during happy hour at this bar, or the strawberries at that ethnic market--and we all live far away from each other, I propose we keep the money-saving discoveries general, or at least generally applicable to our specific bourgie lives in America's most expensive cities. This means no promoting Uniqlo because, from Phoebe's descriptions, I'd be practically living in it if only they had a location in DC. But we might ponder whether discount store clothes are worth it, or actually cost more in angst (bad fit, rapid disintegration and replacement, poorly paid labor) than is indicated by their price.

I would also be in favor of blogging about broader cultural thriftiness (or spendthriftiness) and ideas about value and savings. Why does finding a bargain feel like a brilliant victory over the world that must be shared with anyone willing to listen? Why do people like Ed Andrews get subprime mortgages? Is thrift moral? Are poor people not thrifty, or are we unfairly castigating their spending habits? Are immigrants super-thrifty, or do they just have insider information that people outside the ethnic clan can't get?

My first question, however, is the one I posted at my blog: putting aside ambiguities about how best to save and assuming that thrift is good, what am I saving for? In the abstract, I am saving for 1) emergencies, 2) a hypothetical future family, and 3) a possibly insane feeling of satisfaction I get when I look at my balance in Mint (which, apropos of the blog's purpose to suggest ways to save, is absolutely the best free money management application ever). None of these purposes lend themselves to determining how much money I need to be saving though. The answer to that question by all these standards is just "more"--more in case of emergencies, more for my hypothetical future family, more for my insane ledger-lust. But this can only result in my feeling guilty over every single expenditure, since it could have contributed to the pile of "more."

So what I would like the unified theory of thrift to eventually address is not only the morality of saving, but also how to decide when and how much it's ok to spend. So far, the only suggestion I have come up with is that it's almost always ok to spend on gifts for other people (unless you agree with this view of gift-giving), and on time out with other people (unless it results in a $100 bar tab). So even my tentative hypotheses suffer from a lack of concrete boundaries.