Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween costumes cost money... UPDATED

...but they don't have to cost much! After much soul-searching, I've decided to go as a can of San Marzano tomatoes. These have been on sale for forever now at Whole Foods such that we now have a lifetime supply, so in terms of costume-making materials, their easily-removable labels came to mind. Three of them are to be a belt around a silver dress, worn over silver leggings - together these will form 'the can'. Red keds and red nails will, if I'm feeling energetic, complete the look.

Photos forthcoming, assuming this does not look too ridiculous.


Photo credit: the party hostess, via Facebook

Friday, October 30, 2009

The best of cheapness

This is not by any means a sustainable answer to how not to spend any money, ever, but it's certainly the best: don't leave the house. Stay home with a 400-plus page autobiographical novel about a French professor's irrepressible love of pretty young things (and yes, this is my homework), and you will find yourself going the frozen-toast, instant-oatmeal route in no time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Money-and-Time debate, continued

When sidewalk guilt-peddlers ask you to donate to Greenpeace, to a cause promoting gay marriage, or to the ACLU, they ask you not for your money, but for your time. "Do you have a minute for the environment?" Not everyone has a dollar to spare, but all among us who can reasonably expect our lifespans to extend more than one minute into the future might want to consider offering the following minute to a cause so much greater than ourselves. In this, they one-up the "a penny for the homeless" folks down the street - "just one penny is all we ask" is still a request for money, which we accept people might have to hold onto and reserve for their own uses, including charity more thought-out than giving to someone who happens to be asking at a major intersection. Time, however, is seen as basically infinite. Sure, "time is money" - but that's only for high-powered lawyers who bill by the hour. I could not, as a grad student, say with a straight face that my time is money. My time is... time. I value it as such.

The Park Slope Food Co-op (an institution I alienated myself from early on and proceeded to walk past daily for two years, living around the corner from it but stubbornly refusing to join, admittedly in part because I imagined they might have a picture of me somewhere in the back as someone not to allow in, a not entirely unfounded fear given that what I wrote was written up in their newsletter) is premised on the idea that time is not money. OK, it's premised on a number of causes and ideas, but fundamental to the project is the notion that one is getting a discount on groceries. As explained in the most recent take-down of the supermarket-that-isn't:
Unlike many co-ops — including the Flatbush Food Coop in Brooklyn, where guests are allowed to shop without joining and members who don’t want to serve work hours can pay a slight markup for items — Park Slope has one of the stiffest work requirements: 2.75 hours every four weeks for each adult member of a household.

It also has some of the best bargains. The organic spinach that costs $2.97 at the co-op fetches $3.99 at the Whole Foods in Union Square; 17 ounces of Bionaturae Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil costs co-op members $7.80 and Whole Foods shoppers $13.99.

After a moment's consideration, it becomes clear that whatever markup there is at Whole Foods (and, by the way, Whole Foods sells perfectly good 365-brand olive oil for far less than the cost of this overly-voweled organic one) comes from the fact that to shop at Whole Foods, you are not required to work at Whole Foods, and can indeed head there after a day of your own job, shop, go home, and be done with it. Now, I could hold forth once again on how the work requirements of the Co-op are largely about yuppie liberal guilt at being served in a regular supermarket by a cashier from a different class and often race background, and how the We Are All Cashiers Now approach actually takes jobs away from would-be cashiers looking for paid work, but that's not the issue here. The issue here is that if you have to work to get a discount on groceries, you are not getting a discount on groceries.

The same is true, apparently, of apple-picking. I don't believe I've ever picked an apple, but Daniel Gross had me convinced to fully despise apple-picking, once he framed his argument as being anti-terroir:
We've been educated (or bullied, depending on your outlook) by foodies like Alice Waters and Dan Barber to adopt the European concept of terroir—the best stuff to consume is the stuff grown in closest proximity. For people in the Northeast, that's fine in the summer, when the Union Square greenmarket bursts with locally grown exotic greens, yellow squash, and heirloom tomatoes of such flavor (and cost) as to make a gourmand weep.

But in the fall, while the region's landscape lights up with foliage, the farm stands' color palette becomes more drab: potatoes, root vegetables, pumpkins, gourds, and, of course, apples. And so, to the pick-your-own orchards we go.

I could hold forth once more on my deep suspicions of terroir and my conviction that it is a fundamentally racist and anti-Semitic ideology, but the issue here is, once again, money and time, so I'll attempt to focus on that angle.

Gross argues that apple-picking is basically a scam for orchards to place the time and labor burdens of their own businesses into the hands of consumers, who must in fact pay for the pleasure of working. Again, coming at this with no apple-picking prior knowledge, I can't say I'm shocked - the same is apparently true of the DIY archeological digs in Israel, and one could argue that the ever-rising price of coffee drinks coinciding with the ever-reduced services we expect coffee-shop workers to perform (pouring in the milk yourself is generally a good thing; attempting to bus your table into a hard-to-locate and already-full tub of dishes at an understaffed coffee bar is not) falls into this same category.

In all of these cases - moments for the environment, volunteer shifts at the Co-op, apples and archeological shards plucked by consumers, tables bused by paying and often even tipping customers - it starts to look like time has a different and if anything more important value than money for the yuppie mired in guilt. By showing his willingness to take the time to do a task a previous generation would have conferred on an underling, the yuppie of today shows his discomfort with the class system, and that he doesn't see himself as too busy and important to stop and be The Worker at a few particularly visible moments, as appropriate. The archeological shards are perhaps a case not so much of yuppie guilt as Diaspora-Zionist guilt, but the principle's the same. Offering time rather than (much) money might ultimately mean a lower commitment, but it's often a more visible one.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Those penny-pinching Jews

Is cheapness a bad thing? If not, why are two Southern politicians accused of anti-Semitism for admiring Jewish frugality?

The answer's easy enough: any mix of a statement about 'the Jews' as an entity mixed with a comment about wealth falls into the realm of Jews-and-money, of classic anti-Semitism, and as such is more or less the equivalent of referring to someone black as "articulate" - what's ostensibly a compliment is, given the context, not quite.

But at the same time, I'm struck by how different this evocation of Jews-and-money is from those politicians of a previous generation (in Europe, say) might have made. These guys want America to be more Jewish - granted according to their own warped idea of what 'Jewish' means. Often, right-wing politicians might have seen 'Jewish' financial acumen as modernity at its most offensive, and sung the praises of small-scale life, a slower pace, dare I say local agriculture. (I just went to the Union Square Greenmarket, where there were I want to say more people taking artsy photographs of the produce than actually shopping for produce.) Yes, things change, although Emile Zola was telling anti-Semites to learn from the Jews' money skillz ages ago.

But are Jews even frugal? Given that four of the six tight fists here are of the Mosaic persuasion, one might say 'yes.' But in my vast experience of Jews and non-Jews - I've got friends who are both, have dated both, and have both in my family - I'm going to have to say, meh. Jewish thrift is a bit like Jews' alleged aversion to alcohol - some relics remain, but that's all. At this point, everyone's heard about how for a long, long time in Europe, Jews were forbidden from owning land and from doing just about anything but peddling/money-lending to earn a living, and so came to have certain skills that turned out to be particularly valuable in the modern world, leading to jealousy, genocide, the works. But sufficient time has past since my family had to peddle anything that I have no special skills in this regard, and I am, it seems no more thrilled by discounted canned tomatoes than certain non-Jews with whom I shop for discounted cans of tomatoes.

But was the Jews-are-frugal stereotype ever even supposed to apply to women? Or is the expectation that The Jew earns and saves, while The Jewess spends and spends? Either way, I don't know what it says about my own prejudices, but when I first read about two South Carolina Republicans thinking Jews are good savers, my first thought was that neither had probably ever interacted with Jews before, regardless.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dollar off delights

The canned tomatoes were on sale! I knew it! At least I returned, with Jo, before it was too late.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Report on DIY dry-cleaning

In the comments of a previous post, I lamented the hidden costs of wool and cashmere sweaters buried in the maintenance problem. You can buy 'em for cheap, but then you have to dry-clean when they're dirty, which, within a couple of years, means about a 500% mark-up on the retail price. In response, one of the commenters helpfully directed my attention to DIY dry-cleaning.

This is not dry-cleaning per se, since it is largely based on soaking the sweaters in water and seems like it wouldn't do much for stains, but my sweaters weren't stained so much as just sweaty, so I figured this method was worth a shot. So I bought a mini bottle of baby shampoo, squeezed some into a huge salad bowl (my sink is too gross for any cleaning to conceivably take place in it), filled it with water, and let my sweaters stew in it like marinating steaks for an hour. Then I toweled them per these instructions, and although drying had to take place on a different towel and took somewhat longer than might be hoped given that my apartment is not only dirty but also freezing, the results look good. The sweaters retained their shape just fine, and no longer smell overworn. Total cost: $2.19, for the baby shampoo. Cheapness success!

My roommate did think this was weird though, so maybe this is one of those thrift achievements not worth bragging about socially.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You know you're cheap when...

... you're at the store and you see that the canned tomatoes you usually buy are on sale, a dollar off the usual price, and - after deciding that you'll also need to call your boyfriend and alert him to this excitement so that he too can bring home many, many cans - proceed to bring to the register more cans than you know full well you could carry home (and you will be carrying them home, because you're too cheap to use that Metrocard)... only to get rung up and see that this sale was not entered into the system... only to stand your ground, while the cashier first attempts a price check and then just goes herself to check the price, only to tell you that it wasn't these cans that were on sale, but some other product. Boo.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Entertain me

My apartment, for reasons that are not worth going into here, lacks both TV (still) and Internet (once more). During the course of a cold that may or may not have come from swine, I got through nearly all the DVDs we own. Netflix offers some entertainment, but on the one-disk-at-a-time plan, this can mean entire weekends DVD-free. Yes, there are free movies at MOMA on Fridays (and brave are those who visit the restrooms once those end), and DVDs that can be borrowed from the public library, but these things require effort. Fixing the TV and Internet situation once and for all would - again, long story - cost an unacceptable $100/month. Going to the movies, however, means paying $12 or whatever ridiculous amount it now is for the privilege of sitting in a pile of foul-smelling artificial-butter popcorn. Reading books for entertainment - how quaint! - is never less appealing than two months before an oral exam. So what's left? Must I up the Netflix to two-at-a-time? Hire a court jester? Stare at walls and use my imagination to project onto them stock sitcom scenarios? Help!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The anti-frugality brigade: the food edition

The food movement can't seem to decide where it stands on frugality. On the one hand, we're told that cooking at home saves money, that we should be buying raw ingredients in bulk and eating virtuous 20-cent meals 'recession friendly' meals rather than the fried deliciousness we now consume. On the other, we're informed that we should shop only the fresh-produce-and-meat aisles of the supermarket, that is, if we absolutely must shop at a supermarket - we should really be setting aside a couple hours each day to farmers' markets, butcher shops, fishmongers, cheesemongers, and other quaintly-titled artisans - and that's before any cooking-time enters into it. We are told that we should - if we care about health, taste, and the environment - spend a larger proportion of our incomes on groceries. Which is it?

What seems like contradictory advice is just lecturing directed at different audiences. The grains-and-lentils bit is meant to argue against the notion that anyone's so poor as to have to eat at McDonalds, while the 'mongers suggestion is aimed at those of us who, the movement wants us to believe, could eat well if only we stopped being so damn cheap.

So, a couple things. Is price even a proxy for health-promotion when it comes to groceries? With restaurant food, it certainly is not - most of what a fancier place serves resembles fast food grease-wise but comes in larger portions. For better taste, to an extent, although attempts to gussy up basic foods - English muffins, potato chips, candy bars - tend to produce inferior results to the low-end brands. What about for sustainability? Shouldn't local foods that are in season - and, in theory, that taste best - be the ones that cost less? I can see how, as it stands, some better food choices cost more than some worse ones. But shouldn't we be striving for a situation in which good foods cost less? Isn't asking the middle-class-and-up consumer to spend a greater proportion of his income on groceries - 'like they do in France' - asking not only something unrealistic, but also something that will make those same groceries a major burden on the less wealthy?

But more to the point: is denouncing consumer frugality really the best road to go down? The food movement has come under so much criticism for ignorance of the poor that, to its credit, it has, I think, become a bit more self-aware when it comes to those for whom 'where does each ingredient come from?' artisinal grocery shopping is logistically inconceivable. But consumers with somewhat more choice in the matter are blamed for wanting to keep costs low, as though thrift is in itself suspect, at least when it comes to food. Which it is, if we're looking at all who sell food-movement-approved establishments as particularly worthy charities, not as places where consumers, you know, consume.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

If you have to ask

Everyone knows that baked goods are cheaper to make at home than to purchase on the outside, that the markup on a brownie is far greater than that on, say, steak. But baking takes time, and sometimes you're outside and want a cookie or whatever, and you must make peace with the fact that you're paying vastly more than the ingredients and labor seem they could possibly add up to. This much I can accept.

What I can't accept are baked goods that are price upon request. Many, many New York bakeries and coffee bars decline to affix prices to individual items, or to list prices on a menu of some sort. The idea here is that baked goods are, even if being sold for exorbitant amounts, inherently 'from the heart', and that the homey experience of a pastry would lose something if crude and cold numbers entered one's line of sight. Such establishments assume most people will be too ashamed to ask, because to ask is to admit that you're the sort of person who'd get that muffin if it were $1.75, but that $2.25 isn't going to work for you.

Well, I am that sort of person, so today, at a bakery in Tribeca, I asked the man behind the mini-cake counter how much the cake I was interested in cost. I also asked what it was, because the display lacked labels altogether, not just those involving price. I learned that what I wanted was an opera cake, and that it cost somewhere between $4 and $5.25 - the guy didn't know for sure and apologized for having not put up labels, but did not offer to find out where on the spectrum this particular cake fell. He was, however, quite confident that $5-ish was the most a cake could possibly cost.

Now, normally this would send me running in the opposite direction, but a) the cake was to be split, so I could think of the price as half whichever amount, and b) more to the point, we were at this bakery in the first place because we'd just gone to a brunch place, seen that French toast there cost $11.50, and, disappointed, decided to just buy some bread and stuff and have lunch at home. The cake was meant to compensate, and even $5.25 for two seemed less ridiculous than $23 plus tax, tip, overpriced restaurant coffee...

So we're at the register, and the woman ringing me up enters the amount for the cake: $6. I started to try to correct her, but realized I didn't know how much the cake cost, and she looked at me like I was insane when I started telling her about how we'd received an estimate on the cake from the man behind the cake counter, and that $6 fell above our estimate. Who gets an estimate on a pastry? The cashier then told me that the man I'd asked didn't know what he was talking about, in a tone that implied that I'd been quite foolish to look to that guy - that is, the guy working in the pastry area - for such information. Yes, what was I thinking?

This is where I should have said forget it. But a momentary lapse of judgment later, there I was with a baguette and a $6 cake, both of which we proceeded to take with us grocery shopping. During which I mentioned to my boyfriend, oh, maybe 20 times (his estimate - accurate, I think) that I could not believe I'd bought this cake, and that now we couldn't even enjoy the cake, given the circumstances under which it was purchased, not to mention the price.

(I realize, given the experience, that although I'm unlikely to return to said bakery after this incident, I have not given its name, an omission that normally comes when I think there's a good chance I will want to return somewhere and do not want to burn the bridge entirely. I mean, they have really good croissants, and until I find an alternate source...)

It's moments like this that I think about that time in class when my students and I all discuss our weekend plans, so as to facilitate use of the future tense. And I think, trust me, kids, you don't want to know.