Friday, May 28, 2010

Luxury canned tomatoes

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

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shoes and scapes

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

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

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Counting pennies in public

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How neurosis promotes cheapness

Some anecdotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context is everything

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

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Esprit. Who knew?

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

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

Monday, April 12, 2010

Failure to shop as pathology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

There's always a catch

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 29, 2010

Recipes overanalyzed

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

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

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


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

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

Cheap clothes too toxic, let's hit Barneys!

Oh no! We as a country are buying more clothes, yet paying less overall for them. We've already established the tragedy that is allowing those who are not super-wealthy to own more than one outfit, or to dress roughly according to the decade in which they live. Wouldn't it be so much better if the only clothes produced were made from vintage designer scarves ("'For one thing, it’s not mass-produced'"), and the rest of us were offered potato sacks in one-size-fits-all?

Apparently the chic-masses-scare-the-rich argument isn't enough, nor even is the landfill one, nor the think-of-the-little-hands-behind-that-dress one. Surely we are all going to get cancer from mysterious particles attached to our $5 t-shirts.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Perhaps the staff at a certain coffee place decided that it was more annoying to dig up all those pennies than it was fun to make customers feel stingy for wanting even the tiniest bit of change. The iced coffee at this mini-chain is now, alert the presses, $2.50. If it hits $2.51, it's thermos time.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Does the health care bill cover dentists?

Because my grad school health insurance does not. And it's been about a year since my last cleaning, so I've had some minor stirrings of concern about how I can avoid paying the $100 upfront cost of a cleaning, plus who knows how much for x-rays since my last ones are back in Virginia and filling any cavities that may have appeared. Here are the options:
1) The dental school: Apparently, dental students offer discounted "training cleanings" that very much resemble the experience of getting a discounted haircut from a stylist-in-training at a nice salon--it takes four hours, and then a professional has to jump in at the end and repair the damage. Also, no possibility of rectifying any cavities or other tooth distress.
2) The cheap "new patient special" at this place in Porter Square: Note the one-star review. Also the problem whereby money saved now means I can never go back again.
3) What's a few years without a cleaning anyway? I mean, nothing is aching or bleeding. So I should be ok, right?

Stay tuned for cheapness needs new glasses but doesn't have any insurance for that either.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Biggest small cheapness fail ever

I was so very impressed with myself that this nail polish I wanted that cost $8 in the store, but that was sold out just about everywhere, was $6.75, shipping included, on Ebay - new, even, apparently. I don't usually shop online, but made an exception. Because I don't usually shop online, I remembered to change my billing address, but somehow missed that Ebay had my old shipping address, in Brooklyn, in a building whose front door is, on a good day, locked. I emailed the seller (also in Brooklyn), but it was too late. I caved and ordered another, realizing that my time is worth quite little, but not so little that I'll spend an hour on the train and another half-hour on foot to attempt to break into my own old building to get $7 worth of nail polish that for all I know either isn't there yet or has already been taken. So, uh, free mint-green Essie for the lucky residents of 7th and Union, I suppose.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Cheapness Studies Guide to Tribeca

Of all the posh Manhattan neighborhoods, Tribeca has a way of out-poshing them all. Sure, the Upper East Side has its socialites, but it also has recent college grads living far from the subway, its fallen-aristocrat types in inherited apartments, etc., etc. The Upper West Side? Wealthy people schlepping around so many plastic bags you'd never guess their apartments were worth that. East Village? Pricey but filthy. West Village? Magnolia-seeking tourists and adolescent fans of Christopher Street make the intimidating townhouse-owners (intimidating-townhouse owners?) seem few and far between. SoHo? No doubt it costs a ton to live there, but most of us are too busy using it as a mall to consider that it's also residential.

But Tribeca is for the rich. It holds no attraction for tourists, and its shops are more amenities for the super-wealthy than places the peons can go for new jeans and tees. The women have that casual-yet-polished, gym-honed look one expects to see in L.A., not New York, but with a stylish edge that comes from being one unpleasant trip across Canal away from SoHo.

The Tribeca I remember from high school was wealthy, sure, but it was more just these few loft-lined blocks and Nobu, Chanterelle, who knows. Now it seems to cover a much larger area, and the trust-fund-artists-who-try-to-look-poor seem to have been replaced by perhaps similarly artistic types who nevertheless don't have that concern. There were once many high-school-student-budget-friendly establishments (Taylors, Downtown Delicious), but these seem to have disappeared. So after moving to a neighborhood next to Tribeca, one whose main drag is, I suppose, Tribeca, I was relieved to learn that other options remain or have arrived in recent years.

So fear not, frugal visitors and (should they exist) Tribecans. The guide is below. Note that it is mostly about food establishments. If I bought things other than food on a regular basis, I wouldn't be able to afford the places I recommend here. I hope this will be just the first in a series of Cheapness Neighborhood Guides, for NY and beyond. We shall see.

Try these:

Bouley Bakery: On the one hand, hmm. On the other, the pain au chocolat... and canelles... And coffee there is what, $1.35? So it's not the best coffee in the city. They might very well have the best croissants in the city, at least since Payard closed, and if you can ignore the flakes of croissant caked onto the velvet banquettes and simply appreciate the charming atmosphere and, well, velvet banquettes, why not?

Takahachi: Fresh, amazing Japanese food under $50 for two, with drinks (and by "drinks" I of course mean one hot sake), assuming you're not someone who needs to leave a sushi place feeling stuffed. More specifically, the $3 vegetable rolls and $1-for-two vegetable tempura make the place the ultimate bargain for those who didn't want fish in the first place. Remarkable considering the neighborhood and the cuisine, but still a stretch for the frugal grad student. On the other hand, it's enough to make six nights a week of pasta worth it after all.

Whole Foods: Yes, Whole Foods. It's not technically in Tribeca, but it calls itself the Tribeca Whole Foods. Not only is this, relatively speaking, the 'cheap' supermarket (a depressing process of elimination, I realize - have I mentioned my feelings regarding Gristedes?), but the cafe upstairs has affogatto, i.e. a large serving of the ice cream flavor of your choice plus two shots of espresso, for either $4 or $4.50. Consider one can easily pay this for two shots of espresso that don't come poured over ice cream, not a bad deal whatsoever. And remember that any supermarket with a bulk section has that in its favor.

Housing Works: The Chambers Street branch is where I got a pair of $5 A.P.C. jeans that would probably close comfortably if it weren't for the above-mentioned entries. Basically, though, it's the best thrift shop around. Tribecan cast-offs are the greatest.

...and not these:

Kaffe 16somethingorother across from the Whole Foods: Curious if you can spend $3.50-ish on a cup of regular coffee? You can, there, last I checked. It is seriously a coffee place without an inexpensive option. The unexciting-looking baked goods hover at the same ridiculous price point. Yes, it's good to know that the beans were shade-grown by someone who makes more than my stipend, but the same is promised from places that mark up their coffee by far more reasonable amounts.

Every single restaurant on Greenwich: Jo and I took a walk down that street, looking for a place to get dinner, and while it's indeed lined with restaurants, they're all those giant loft-like spaces with elaborate bars and model-banker couples, or just people so head-to-toe expensively attended to that even before glancing at the menu to see that appetizers began at $12, we sort of realized this wasn't for us.

Century 21: OK, not in Tribeca, but closer to it than my apartment is, and also on that walk to campus. After comparing the selection and prices on various undergarments there and at the pricey-seeming Calvin Klein underwear boutique in SoHo, I realized that I'd pretty much been suffering needlessly in a mob of overexcited tourists - and at a store where you can't even try on the bras - for all these years. Maybe they have bargains somewhere in that store, but it turns out the stuff I'd been getting 'for less' all these years is, alas, cheap to begin with.

Furniture stores, art galleries, furniture stores that look like art galleries, Issey Miyake, realtors: Need I explain?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gratuitous upgrades

As I've held forth about since forever on this blog, I don't much believe in 'quality' when it comes to everyday clothes. They pretty much last till they don't, with many factors (stains, trends, weight fluctuations) affecting clothes' longevity far more than the hand-stitching or lack thereof. I own two pairs of jeans, each of which cost precisely $29.50 (do Uniqlo and Levi's have some kind of arrangement? I kid...), and honestly cannot see how any aspect of my life, including the all-important happiness-with-jeans aspect, would improve had I gone with a $150 alternative.

But! I do, unfortunately, believe that there are other arenas where quality is perceptible. Shoes are an ambiguous case - pay a bit more for certain types, and comfort improves, immediate deterioration becomes less likely; pay a ton, and there's a good chance you're hobbling around in heel-less eight-inch platforms. Food, cosmetics (except for nail polish, which need never exceed $8), shampoo, conditioner... These are tough. The trick is basically not to know that better is out there, because once you do, getting the cheap version will feel like a sacrifice.

Two examples, both of which are goopy and ridiculous:

$30 Japanese conditioner.

$2.60 Icelandic (but, oddly enough, locally produced - way to market to everyone!) vanilla yogurt cups.

I ought to have tried neither. Alas, too late. Both are so definitively superior to their reasonably-priced equivalents that it's impossible to claim no difference exist. The only answer - and perhaps the best cheapness advice I'm capable of providing, period - is that if a more expensive version exists of something you buy regularly, accept that it might be better, much better, but don't buy it in the first place.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How not to be cheap

Do not pick the day of a 6-mile run as the one to try that Japanese restaurant in Tribeca you've been so curious about. Even if said restaurant is shockingly affordable by Japanese food and Tribeca standards. In fact, going near any meal that is not a huge plate of pasta prepared in one's own kitchen is, on such a day, a cheapness disaster.

However! $1 for two decent-sized pieces of vegetable tempura! (Of which I had... more than two.) A Cheapness Studies Guide to New York's Priciest Neighborhood may be coming soon.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Counting pennies

The iced coffee I like best near campus, or anywhere for that matter, used to cost $2.25. Then it went up to $2.26, which was a convenient way to get rid of pennies, or an annoying way to acquire pennies, depending. (The place accepts credit cards even for tiny amounts, which indeed presents a way out of the dilemma I'm about to describe.) Then, all of a sudden, perhaps having noticed that their iced coffee was kind of a bargain compared to everything else they sell, up it leaped to $2.49.

This, I immediately decided, was not a fluke derived from the price-plus-tax, but rather a calculated attempt by the establishment in question to collect mini-tips from customers who otherwise wouldn't tip, or (as is my case) only tip at to-go establishments when ordering something more complicated than coffee poured into a cup. Who would be so crass - or put so little value on their time - as to wait for that penny? Unlike $2.99, $2.49 means you've probably already put in the time to find 50 cents in change, at which point you've already been holding up the line, wasting your time and that of the cashier, for ages.

My time might be 'worth' more than that of the average humanities grad student, thanks to NYU's new funding arrangements, but it's still not worth a whole heck of a lot, so my usual method is to pay with two dollar bills and two quarters, receive the penny, and dream of the day when I'll have accumulated four pennies in time to pay with two bills, a quarter, two dimes, and... you see where I'm going with this. So it was oh just a little bit awkward when, recently, the woman ringing me up asked, "Do you want your penny?" Because, um, I did want my penny, because pennies are currency, not everywhere takes credit cards, and some items do not cost something that's a multiple of 5. And because when I tip (again, fancy-espresso-drinks, along with, obvs, restaurants and bars), I tip more than a penny. So I said yes, that I did want the penny, in a polite yet confident tone. Nevertheless, I may never be able to show my face in that coffee shop again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cheapness done wrong UPDATED

OMG girls, what we should totally do is channel our obsession with eating nothing whatsoever and then feeling all bad about it when we slip up and down a cheesecake into one great big no-shopping "diet." Wouldn't it be awesome if we could apply that purity impulse that once drove mankind towards religion and sexual restraint (or at least guilt) but makes us think just one chocolate truffle will make us obese to another clichéd women's pleasure: buying new clothes? Like, we can declare a teensy purchase at J.Crew "sinful," then collectively pat ourselves on the back for going a whole five minutes without buying anything other than accessories. We can merge the language of paraphrased-Christianity and fad-diets and create something uniquely painful to read, it will be super!

So I guess it's clear where I stand on "The Great American Apparel Diet." (Unfortunate name, but at least it's not The Great Forever 21 Diet.) But the whole thing's not totally off-base. If you're buying clothes about which you're not 100% enthusiastic, in designer-denim-induced-debt, buy less. And when possible, avoid purchases that already have it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time written all over them. Much as I have a momentary desire for these, it's unclear what buying them would accomplish, other than help the Japanese economy, and ultimately, post-second-round-as-thrift, add to the trendy-purchase landfill.

But does the whole thing need to be dressed up as cutesy 'diet'? (It's effectively the reverse of the Worst Advice Ever.) Despite occasional nods to wholesome alternatives to browsing H&M, the goal here seems not to be to abandon shopping for something more productive, but rather to give it up so as to blog self-righteously about how one was able to Resist the siren call of the H&M downstairs.

Still, as pleasures go, if you're not spending beyond your means, where exactly is the harm in buying some clothes, sometimes? Is keeping store employees employed not enough to cancel out the environmental and child-labor disaster that is, in 9 out of 10 circumstances, your new tank top? If your concerns are purely ecological, couldn't you just go used-only and shop away? But yes, given that people do not tend to shop exclusively in thrift stores except out of need or hipsterdom (or Finnishness - the Finns love their used clothes, apparently), there is an impact on the planet to take into account. But this is true of nearly all human experience. Should we all get standard-issue potato sacks and abandon Consumerism along with personal style? Has taking an all-or-nothing stance benefited Americans as food-dieters, and if not, why (other than the obvs - to sell books) embrace it for shopping 'dieters' as well?


See also Jezebel on this.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Today's cheapness accomplishments

-A lovely neighbor (with a charming Bichon!) giving away her sofabed ended up leading to a new piece of furniture in my apartment. The bureaucratic procedure involved in moving a couch from one apartment to another in a non-shack-like apartment building such as this one made me almost lose hope, but the $60 (including a tip) moving fee meant a $60 couch that, like, unfolds and everything. If we had cable, Jo and I could, in theory, each spread out on our own couch to watch it. Whee!

-Lunch at home (because of couch-related confusion) involved a too-long-frozen bagel, testing the limits of the toaster's 'bagel' and 'defrost' capacities, but keeping the total meal in the $1-ish range.

-A stamp-card meant we'd 'earned' a free half-pound of Oren's Viennese Roast. Huzzah!

-After learning that the stylist who gave me the infamous $85 haircut switched salons, losing me one free bang trim (I think? does this carry over from salon to salon? would it be worth going to Williamsburg to find out?), I took matters into my own scissors and, while technically it's not even or anything, I much prefer the style of the self-inflicted cut to the ones I've had done professionally.

-I walked right by the coffee place with the iced coffee I like so much that used to cost $2.25 but is now $2.49 (?) and resisted temptation. The freezing weather may have helped in this regard.

And now for today's cheapness failures.

-Sure, the couch was only $60 in moving fees. But we already had a couch. This was kind of gratuitous, in that it's a studio apartment. A studio apartment we may never leave, now that we each have a couch.

-Breakfast out at a certain Tribeca bakery-market thing, which I've finally come around to having croissants and coffee at (but no more!) despite the startlingly severe and repeated Health Dept. warnings against said establishment, cost more than oatmeal at home would have.

-This evening, tempted by a $22/lb cheese, I asked for a quarter pound of it, only to find myself with more like 0.38, and post-couch-situation, not up for making a fuss. So, I spent too much on cheese.

-Did I mention the dangers of dining in Chelsea Market? The Thai food itself is a bargain, but the place happens to be surrounded by ever more delicious and pricey options. The $2 piece of Sarabeth's lemon pound cake that will be breakfast was among the cheaper baked goods in the whole of Chelsea Market, but was nevertheless an impulse buy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Getting it for less

Nothing shocking here, but still something to address in the cheapness and clothing discussion. (Via.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

A limited defense of slow fashion

This is really Phoebe's topic on which I am basically unqualified to opine since I've never even read anything that used the term "slow fashion" that wasn't written by Phoebe, and my main guide to fashion at the moment is what the undergrads wear to the library. (I've been noticing a lot of sweatpants sloppily tucked into Uggs--this may be worse even than mom jeans.) HOWEVER. Last week, I had an eye-opening conversion experience to (what I think, based on Phoebe's descriptions is) slow fashion.

What happened was that I tried to consign my old clothes. This involved schlepping two huge shopping bags of stuff on the subway. Not only did I look like a homeless person en route, I was subsequently subjected to a 20-minute scrutiny of all my garments which felt distinctly like an intense personal scrutiny of my taste and judgment. Probably two-thirds of my stuff got rejected, but I did learn a very important lesson, and it is this: buying expensive clothes pays, at least when it comes time to consign them. Every single item with a J.Crew or Banana Republic label was accepted, and almost everything from H&M and Old Navy was denied (and that was, sadly, the majority of my offering). (Additional question: Who actually buys H&M from consignment stores?)

Moreover, even the deformed pricey clothes made the cut, including a J.Crew sweater I tragically ruined through machine washing (back before I discovered thrifty home dry-cleaning), rendering it at least two sizes smaller than the original and not quite proportional. And while this did give the saleswoman momentary pause, it did not ultimately lead to item rejection, whereas several mint-condition (on account of my having immediately reconsidered the error of my choice) H&M items did not get a second look.

The obvious conclusion of the day's adventure was that, if I want my clothes to have any resale value, I should henceforth shop exclusively at J.Crew, a view to which, like the many women who use "slow fashion" as a post-facto justification of their preference for expensive clothes, I can be quite amenable. Now, I understand that this logic is subject to some exceptions. For one thing, not every garment can have resale value. Underwear, exercise clothes, tights and leggings--basically anything that goes unnoticed or unseen by the general public will continue to be purchased at purveyors of fast fashion. Another problem is that the math doesn't strictly support the theory of recouping initial outlay on expensive clothes by consigning them. If I buy a $70 sweater at J.Crew and consign it two years later, I'll only get about $15 for it. It requires quite a bit of cost-per-wear imagination to believe that I wore the heck out of the remaining $55 in the intervening two years, though it's quite possible that, being a vain person, I would enjoy it more than a $25 sweater. But again, what would it mean to say my pleasure is worth exactly $55? And it's not as though J.Crew is the cost ceiling for slow fashion--the gulf between purchase price and resale value only widens from there. Finally, I suppose frequent consignment undermines the purpose of slow fashion, which seems to consist in wearing every $200 blouse for the at least 30 years.

Still, I think there is something to be said for this plan. Usually, expensive stuff is nicer--it fits better and looks better. (How long it lasts is rarely relevant given that I don't wear anything for 20 years, and so don't work as hard as I could on making my clothes last.) Since I have a monthly shopping budget to which I mostly adhere, it is quite likely that I would buy less stuff if I bought more expensive things less often. Plus, I would really like an excuse to shop only at J.Crew at this point in my life while I am trying to fight the sweatpants-in-Uggs powers and hang on to what I can of my hard-won and now receding pre-grad school adulthood.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Spanx of denim

The writer who brought us surrogacy chic, who famously posed flat-bellied and high-heeled alongside the barefoot woman carrying her child, then again with the child, as an of-color, uniformed servant looked on, has seen the error in her ways, and is now addressing a more serious topic: after having another baby, this time the traditional way, her midsection isn't what it once was. Crisis! The woman needs a new pair of jeans.

Afraid that the mere fact of biological motherhood will cause her to suddenly appear in one of Kmart's less inspired creations, Alex Kuczynski decides the time has come to do as any other wayward 15-year-old would in her situation: make a cutesy remark about how the father of her children will totes leave her now that she's gotten huge; watch "Tyra"; and look for designer jeans.

And designer jeans she finds. Starting at a mere $178, you too can experience what Kuczynski charmingly describes as "trompe l’oeil-anorexia," otherwise known as jeans that fade to lighter down the middle of each leg, otherwise known as... jeans. They're all dyed like this. OK, not all, but it's harder to find jeans that don't share this feature than ones that do. (A glance down at my own legs reveals the same technique on a $30 pair.) This, along with the subtle addition of a certain percent stretchy material, has more or less defined jeans since forever.

It doesn't offend me that Kuczynski's all about the $200 denim, so much as that she's purporting to be an expert on Fashion, yet is on this bandwagon several years too late. The 'premium' look is the default, to be acquired inexpensively either new wherever jeans are sold or used in their brand-name form. Meanwhile, the jeans featured in the SNL "Mom Jeans" sketch she links to - high-waisted, pleated, and almost aggressively unflattering - are in fact so-very-now among not only moms but hipsters and fashion types. Oh, the trend is being mocked, but that just means that everyone is now out secretly buying a pair (see: leggings).

However, as this is Cheapness Studies, I'll attempt a more general point along those lines, which is that whatever anyone says, no, jeans are not an 'investment.' Buy whichever you like, at a price you're comfortable with, but by all means don't announce - to yourself or anyone else - your intentions of wearing them 'for years.' Other garments, if you must, but not jeans. Their capacity to stop fitting/look out-of-style within minutes has to exceed that of any other garment, perhaps making the very concept of jeans something a true advocate of cheapness would urge against.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Local grad student brings down H&M

Here at Cheapness Studies, I've defended 'fast fashion,' or chains like H&M (and my own house of worship, Uniqlo), which are often accused of being inherently wasteful, encouraging us to buy according to 15-minute trends, thus creating landfills entirely made up of harem pants and jeggings. My argument: cheapness means buying cheap clothes, but pretending they cost a fortune. Do this - that is, buy fewer clothes from the chains, and take better care of them - and you will find that the clothes They told you would fall apart instantly keep just fine, year after year.

But! H&M is apparently the devil after all, but not for the reason usually given, i.e. the low quality of their goods. A CUNY grad student discovered that the store on 34th Street destroys unworn clothes so that if they're not bought by H&M customers, no one can have them. And, as the NYT sums up: "It is winter. A third of the city is poor. And unworn clothing is being destroyed nightly."

Of course, if 'slow-fashion' stores are to blame for the same practice, blaming H&M for not charging more for its clothes (see passage in this post and accompanying comments, along with prior comments at Racked) seems a bit beside the point. It's quite possible to condemn H&M's behavior without attributing it to their clothes being cheap, if even expensive goods get this treatment.

Where does all the waste come from? No doubt landfills see more H&M than Prada. But per shopper, who buys more, the woman with a shopping cart at Old Navy or the one with a personal shopper at Bergdorfs? Fast fashion means more waste overall, but more options for those with less. Are fast-fashion stores really purveyors of disposable goods any more than places slightly more upscale? In total, no doubt, because there are so many more of them, but per person? The near-infinite presence of new-looking H&M at both vintage and thrift stores suggests such chains are, in fact, used by some well-off (or non-frugal) women as a source of so-very-now get-ups, but, because this is not how I myself shop at such stores, and I'm neither impoverished nor a cheapness saint, I question whether this is the normal approach to them.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Cheapness resolutions

2009 was a good year on the cheapness front. I rarely get breakfast out, and I managed to move into a new, much nicer apartment with the same rent as the old hovel. I've discovered bulk foods (OK, not quite discovered, but found sources that are not as inconvenient as Sahadi's) and a new way of making canned tomatoes into amazing pasta sauce (hint: lots of red pepper flakes and garlic). I've found one shade of nail polish I like, thus eliminating Duane Reade impulse purchases.

But there's always room for improvement, and on that note, in order of most to least realistic:

-Less Uniqlo. Not no Uniqlo, which would be futile, but when the new +J line comes out later this month, I will look, but not feel the compulsion to buy, particularly because I'm not in the market for a pastel-colored puffy vest.

-One cheese at a time, two at most. More simply does not get finished. (The cheddar, Parmesan, and Stilton currently in the fridge are, believe it or not, an improvement. Sometimes I'll count and realize I've reached seven.)

-No more monthly Metrocards once the snowy season ends - an hour-long walk to school is still quite doable, and through the less-obnoxious streets of Tribeca and SoHo, preferably combined with an NPR or Slate podcast, a painless form of exercise.

-No coffee beverages purchased outside. (Why do I even pretend? However much coffee I have at home, I'll want more later, and there are currently at least four good coffee options near campus. A thermos... makes sense, but between library books and teaching materials would go where exactly? And I'm not getting the $3-plus drinks anyway, so guilting myself out of this would be a tough one.)

-Make my own pastries. (Here, the time-is-money issue arises, as does my recent rediscovery of a patisserie oh so conveniently located between a subway I can take and my office. Since I will be taking the subway.)