Cheap Thrills

A story of American women in financial jeopardy

But no. Still doing a skillful three-card monte behind her Dance of the Seven Feminist Rhetorical Veils, Perle insisted, “I’ve talked to women who make $30,000 a year and women who pull in $300,000 annually who feel equally hungry and equally insecure.”

All right, then. Barring women of genuinely modest means—those who make less than $30,000 a year, who drive ten-year-old cars or take the bus, who rent apartments, who have tumbled terrifyingly into the health-insurance abyss, who, for goodness’ sake, are reading this very magazine between laminated covers at the public library—herewith my modest proposal.

What if, instead of trying to change the still-male-dominated worlds of government and business and contemporary work culture from the top down, we American Women in Financial Jeopardy went the other way? To fill our womanly coffers with the cash we need, what if—in a group strike à la Lysistrata—we all just said no to … buying stuff we don’t need?

That would stick it to the Man!

Wait, no, think about it—clearly, it’s the synergistic forces of capitalism, corporations, and consumerism that are driving our lives down into a spiraling hell. But, looking at it another way, we’re actually pressing our Manolo Blahniks to the accelerator. We women make the lion’s share of household purchases in this country. We ourselves drive billions of dollars a year in sales. Without the army of us and our Visa cards … ?

Because the fact is—not to take anything away from the women who make $300,000 a year and still feel hungry—we do happen to live, as you may have noticed, in a country of choking abundance. Our 99-cent stores are Wonders of the World. Food is so cheap, even our pets are obese. The bears in our parks practically require cholesterol medicine. Do you understand? Even our trash is fattening! Things need shaking up when American women feel endangered even as Yosemite bears lumber around belching, their eyes glazed with surfeit, their pelts covered in Oreo crumbs.

Yeah, I see us women piling into our SUVs, our Volvos, our minivans—hell, even our cute little lime-green VW Bugs—and driving out to the desert … Grrrls doing it for themselves, all together. We could get off the grid! We’ll dump the cars, change into sarongs … go barefoot … drop out … unplug … start our own Burning Woman festival! At the very least, we could burn our bras! Which would probably take a full month, because by now we have so damn many of them. (Over the years, from Victoria’s Secret alone, I’ve bought Angel bras, T-shirt bras, Wonder bras, Miracle bras—I have so many bras, I could make my own giant bra ball.)

I grant it will be difficult to get the word out about this burgeoning new women’s movement. There will be no glossy new Condé Nast magazine celebrating us. There will be no sitcoms about us, standing around, not drinking Diet Coke. Could we get on Dr. Phil? Oprah? “Women Who’ve Stopped Spending.” I can’t picture it. I don’t even see us blogging on about the thrills of buying nothing—our posts would be blocked (if adorably, one little hand up) by Baby Gap (and look at that striped wool mitten with the pom-pom!).

But perhaps humbly, on these pages, I can share one woman’s story: my own. After all, I did promise you a journey deep into my pocketbook. Although I do hate to open it. Because I happen to be, yes … the world’s cheapest woman.

Let me explain how I got this way—how I became this utter marvel—at age forty-four, in Los Angeles. To start with, professionally speaking, frugality is an absolute necessity. My guitarist husband, Mike, and writer me are the old-fashioned kind of bohemians. Not ’fro-haired hipsters gyrating in iPod ads but the sort who, starting January 1 of every year, literally don’t know where their next dime is coming from. That’s right: we’re the kind of creative free spirits who buy their own health insurance ($500 a month). Over the eighteen years we’ve lived together, my annual income has ranged wildly, from $9,000 to (in the one surreal year of mirage-like TV pilots) $250,000. We pay cash for everything, including cars. Our house is paid off—not so amazing when you realize we bought it for $239,000 seventeen years ago. Of course it’s also 1,300 square feet, and now that we have two daughters, there are four of us in residence.

But here again, the silver lining. The financial upside of living in a too-small house is that you stop buying things, because there’s no place to put them. Thanks to our girls, free stuff keeps coming to us anyway, stuff upon stuff. Joyous gifts of clothes, books, toys … The other weekend, I spent three hours on my knees scooping up what I call “piñata chum,” the candies and jacks and half-broken tops and balls and SpongeBob stickers that continually trail in from birthday parties of children I cannot even name. A tiny living space is the perfect cure for materialism when brute objects get in the way of such basic human needs as being able to find your mail or sit down while eating.

Of course, one could argue that I’m lucky—I’m genetically inclined toward thrift, coming as I do from an insanely cheap immigrant family. It’s true that by now my siblings and I simply enable each other. I’ll give as Christmas gifts publishers’ galleys I got in the mail. (If they’re good, why not?) My sister recently topped that by placing under the tree a book she’d checked out from the San Francisco public library, with the stipulation that my brother finish it quickly so she could return it. But the master of parsimony remains my eighty-five-year-old, Shanghai-born, retired-scientist dad. He doesn’t just Dumpster dive; he’ll go to his local Starbucks and pour the latte dregs of others into a discarded Starbucks cup and then quaff the whole lukewarm mess right there, while enjoying his also- stolen-from-Starbucks New York Times (to class things up a bit, I guess).

I grant that at a certain point such behavior moves from thrift to eccentricity, even health hazard (never mind how my dad fertilizes his lawn; although I must say, for eighty-five, the man has an astonishing immune system). In my twenties and thirties, I openly rebelled against all this Sanford and Son–like penny-pinching. Spreading my wings, forging my own identity, I was fascinated with the taboo of luxury, of buying expensive things. And so (particularly in the $250,000 year of mirage-like TV deals), I threw down! Instead of cheesy white $5 plastic chairs from Home Depot, how about some quality outdoor pieces made of Brazilian teak—$1,500? Well, it turned out that the two lounge chairs, like fussy pedigreed dogs, required constant grooming (oiling, actually), and—as I like to say in California—I am my own Mexican. I found myself becoming the full-time employee of the fussy teak chairs. I’d spend my afternoons scanning the sky worriedly. Was rain coming? Should I—with much shin bumping and lower-back wrenching—move the chairs into the shed? With then another oiling? I was becoming a slave, a Slave of Teak—and it irked me.

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Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.

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