The Frugal Divorcée

How to survive—and even thrive—in the new age of austerity
John Cuneo

I admit I’d had pride in the supposed superiority of my natural thrift.

I admit I’d had a habit of looking down on my slower-witted and weaker-willed peers. I jotted down mental notes of their failings, took pleasure in their flaws.

I admit I may have been tired on that Thursday morning and perhaps not at the top of my game.

I admit I am powerless in the face of a random and meaningless cosmos.

I admit that—God help me—without intending to, with only the purest of intentions, I took my nine-year-old Volvo wagon in for a routine oil change and emerged with a bill for … $535!

Five hundred and thirty-five dollars!!! Although technically it was an oil change plus two changed-out hoses at $95 apiece, with four hours of labor charged for water- and oil-system repressurization and tire rotation. I’ve been with these guys since 2001, on my friend Keith’s recommendation, and I’ve trusted them through 109,000 miles. But why, why, why $535??? Good God! I kick myself! I gnash my teeth! My stomach lining burns! I can feel, viscerally, the weight of the $535 that is never coming back (and that’s just the principal, not all the interest that won’t be compounding decade after decade). It’s not tax deductible … not exactly … although, hey—here the battered head lifts, the rheumy eyes narrow—now comes the sneaky question: could it be? Up on the brain scan pops the menu of my annual tax deductions, which I reflexively begin to rake through, as if it were an oft-worried-over Zen garden (rake, rake, rake). My car repairs are not tax deductible, of course, unlike automotive depreciation or whatever is based on mileage … I’ve debated this many times with my beleaguered tax preparer (gray Bozo hair, somber bassoon voice, my 1099s fluttering around him in what seems a continual invisible breeze).

Even knowing the answer, I still feel compelled to rake over the shifting sands of my shabby little accounts (rake, rake, rake), the mental raking nervous and automatic and habitual, but then, I must say, occasionally wonderfully meditative. Lying in bed at night, I sometimes draw solace—I sometimes extract a slim meniscus of peace from the floating belly of darkness—from the notion that come morning, I will take my white, egg-shaped mug of coffee to my (IKEA, as-is) wooden dining-room table and, with freshly sharpened pencil (shoved joyously into the electric sharpener—Zzzzz! Zzzzz! Zzzzz!), after perhaps a Sudoku, or two, or three, draw up a heady, new, ever more accurate Quicken Deluxe household budget! (Sudoku puzzles litter every corner of the house—I have one going for every mood of the day … Light, Easy, Medium, Diabolical.)

And understand that I am not alone in my obsession with frugality these days (although, sadly, obsession does not mean achievement—I deserve the title skinflint only in the self-mocking way Carrie Fisher calls herself “a failed anorexic”). Look around you: our entire nation is in a frenzy of fiscal self-examination; we hang our formerly private budgets out conspicuously, like laundry flapping in the sun, newly eco-friendly (in the way that dead lawns are suddenly progressive, brown being the new green). There’s no use pretending anymore: the mask has fallen; our financial system has imploded; we did it to ourselves; up above America floats an ozone layer of consumer debt; we’ve run up $11 billion a year in credit-card late fees alone; furniture stores are in foreclosure; in restaurants, waiters stand as motionless as birds on a line in winter. And perhaps the most significant cultural ramification of the Great Recession: Suze Orman has spawned a hundred imitators. On AM radio in Los Angeles, on Spanish, Mandarin, sports, and Christian shows, I increasingly hear personal-finance gurus hectoring terrified couples, Laura Schlessinger–style, about their numbskull $350 car payments and interest-only mortgages, because, as we’re told time and again, the chickens have come home to roost.

Which is not to say that this sawbuck-swirling auto-da-fé doesn’t have a festive undercurrent. Indeed, if you read (what remains of) the newspaper or visit (while they’re still standing) your local Barnes & Noble, you’ll see a new brand of frugality afoot, as flagrant and in-your-face as glittery-’80s-Rolex conspicuous consumption once was. From every corner of this blasted red-white-and-blue (and brown, aka the new green!) foreclosurescape creep the unapologetically cheerful new titles: The Cheapskate Next Door, America’s Cheapest Family, The Scavengers’ Manifesto, The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving, Possum Living, The Joy of Less, Frugillionaire. Some of these get-cheap-quick guides are quasi-self-published; some are read by many but bought by few (as the authors themselves note with pride), because cheapskates love exchanging used books and browsing free public libraries … and that is okay! As Ultimate Cheapskate Jeff Yeager approvingly notes in The Cheapskate Next Door, with a cheerful wave from his used, paid-for-with-cash pickup truck—the one in whose cup holder he has placed a cup of water filled to the brim in order to dissuade himself from indulging in jackrabbit-start-filled, fuel-inefficient driving—“C’est la cheapskate!”

These tiresomely Ben Franklin–quoting Americans are having the time of their lives; in this wreck of an economy, all eyes turn—finally—to them; they are exuberantly letting their freak flag fly. “Open your mind,” intone the authors of The Scavengers’ Manifesto, above what one imagines is the groovy drizzling beat of tabla. “Scavenging means learning to be flexible. Spontaneous. Adventurous … Never wore a poncho before or listened to Turkish techno music? … Lose the squeamishness and learn.” Welcoming guests to her home—a string of scrap-lumber pergolas derided as her suburban neighborhood eyesore—Dumpster-diving Jacquie Phelan giddily exclaims in The Cheapskate Next Door: “Welcome to the Taj Mahovel!” The more you look, the more you see the New Frugals crossing ever more cultural and geographical lines. To the left, you have tattooed 20-something abandoned-house-squatting Buffalo freegans boasting to The New York Times Magazine that they haven’t worn underwear in eight years. In the middle, you have Net-surfing, Doris Day–like “Coupon Moms” with downloadable grocery savings cross-referenced by state (as seen on Oprah!). To the right, you have—no joke—the Amish, whose homes burst with charming antiques less poetically inherited than opportunistically scooped up from local estate sales (no fools, the Amish themselves admit to being hawkeyed collectors of hard goods calculated to increase in value).

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