The Frugal Divorcée

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

But no. Aside from not being disciplined enough to adhere to a budget worthy of being marveled at by others ($535!!! $535!!! Dill!!! Dill!!!), I have a major character failing: a blue state/liberal arts/humanities bent. Never mind that I don’t like Dockers, candy factories (which the Economides praise as free, fun field trips for the kids—sure they are!), or large, sweaty chubs of meat. Never mind that America’s Cheapest Family lives in Scottsdale, and also apparently does not drink, whereas not-so-royal-purple me could not quite manage one fate without the help of the other. True, burning with a hard, Keatsian, gemlike flame is not necessarily incompatible with frugality. Look at Henry Harrison, of Jonathan Ames’s The Extra Man. What I have yet to see any reviewers or commentators dwell on is Harrison’s most telling quality, his old-world (even anachronistic) thrift. Harrison is not just conservative politically (to the right of the pope), he is conservative financially—no credit cards! Oh no, Harrison affords the good life in Manhattan by wisely taking in a boarder, second-acting operas, crashing museum openings, escorting 90-something dowagers to the Russian Tea Room. He doesn’t fritter money away on frivolities such as personal dry cleaning or professional pest treatments (a flea infestation is managed with cologne splashed around the ankles). Harrison is still stymied by the car—yes, in the end, in the cities, we are stymied by cars—but at least he correctly owns an unsightly beater and has no car payments. Eccentric as it all is, nothing about Harrison’s world feels that odd to me, having grown up in my own madcap, tightwad Chinese-German immigrant family who second-acted operas, had ballet lessons in the living room, and car-camped across Europe, occasionally staying in one-star Spanish hotels featuring the lone squat toilet shared by the entire floor. Even today, my Shanghainese father takes in boarders in his $1.5 million home in Malibu, sleeps in the dining room, and eats Dumpster sushi over the blare of (see how free?) PBS.

Perhaps this brand of impoverished gentility is the squalid extreme of what writer Vince Passaro lauded as “the kind of life that was once held up as the most respectable alternative [to ‘smug Izod-and-golf-shoe wealth’]—frugal, humble, and smart.” Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell, as Passaro was dismissing affordable bohemian life as a modern impossibility in perhaps the most famous essay on the subject, his infamous (oh, the vitriolic mail!) 1998 Harper’s piece, “Who’ll Stop the Drain? Reflections on the Art of Going Broke.” In this guiltily-mesmerizing-as-a-car-accident essay, Passaro had the temerity to detail precisely how he and his wife had genteelly gone broke ($63,000 in debt! $1,300 in monthly minimums to credit cards alone!) in New York on a household income of close to $100,000 a year. Amazingly, said debt was due not to astronomical real-estate values (their rent-stabilized apartment was about $900 a month), but to the cost of raising three children. Passaro’s curious problem, he admits, was that his style of fatherhood was not so much yuppie-scum-like as aesthetic, à la Henry James Sr.—in other words, “steadily consuming the inheritance, never caring, wanting to give his children not objects so much as the world itself and the mysteries that lie beyond the world.”

One could question why this approach must necessitate blowing $36,000 a year on three private- (okay, parochial-) school tuitions and a steady clip of music and sports lessons, including “baseball and soccer and basketball and skating and swimming,” I for one being not quite sure how basketball and shin guards qualify as a Jamesian mystery. Hell, I even question why we seem to consider farmers’ markets Jamesian mysteries. “Look, Mom, no pesticides!” my older (newly pickily and pricily vegetarian, like so many of our California rabble—no simple chubs of meat for them!) daughter cooed a few weekends ago, kicking her slender leg out as she lovingly cradled a teeny $5 basketlet of yellow raspberries. “Farmers’ market?” I replied. “Never again! Consider this your annual trip to Disneyland!” But although I’ve already eagerly picked up a woven-hemp bushel of them, I can’t rightly cast the first stone at these Uffizi-loving New York renters with a Brooks Brothers balance. Here on the Left Coast, I too have made life choices that step far off the path of frugality. After 20 years of cohabitation (with a wonderfully frugal man!), I got divorced; I am now “dating” (what a word) a charming person whose attention to personal finance is, shall we say, seasonal; a freelance writer, I continue to live in overpriced Los Angeles (where I know few peers who do not violate the fiscal rule of thumb that you should never take on a mortgage more than twice your annual income).

Never mind my trees-before-the-forest angsting over dill (dill! a forest of dill!)—all these willful lifestyle decisions tag me as financial dead meat, according to the fascinating classic The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko. Contrary to glitzy media images of sports stars swilling Cristal or rappers driving Rolls Corniches, Stanley and Danko’s meticulous research reveals a picture of the typical millionaire as less American Express than American Gothic. Statistically speaking, the typical millionaire is the exact opposite of anyone in the urban creative class, with Puritan values (and Amish, what about Amish?). He (and American millionaires are mostly males) is nearing 60; he has been married to the same coupon-clipping woman for some 40 years (a key to retaining wealth is being married to an even more frugal spouse); he drives a 10-year-old hunk of “Detroit metal” (typical millionaires spent about $25,000 on their last car, and 37 percent of those cars were used); he dwells in a household with very low overhead; he takes his pleasures cheap (says one representative millionaire: “I drink scotch and two kinds of beer. Free and BUDWEISER!”); his home is typically not in a trendy (and hence overly expensive) neighborhood (Trotwood, Ohio, anyone? Boiled-omelet brunch time!). Other intriguing facts: millionaires are typically first-generation rich—by the second or third generation, the wealth tends to have dissipated. Overrepresented among millionaires? Earners of Scottish ancestry!

Even worse news for folks like me: the businesses demonstrated to make people rich by way of ownership are “dull-normal,” which include—and here we quote from the authors’ scrupulous tables—bowling centers, drugstores, coal mines, ambulance services, cafeterias, diesel-engine-rebuilding firms, doughnut-machine manufacturers, heat-transfer-equipment manufacturers, janitorial-services contractors, long-term-care facilities, meat-processing plants, mobile-home parks, pest-control companies, and sandblasting businesses. (I was reading this information while on hold to change the mailing address for my This American Life royalty statements. The breathless gamine said, “If you’re calling about an artist currently signed to Rhino Records press 3,” and I experienced a romantic upswell at the magical phrase artist currently signed to Rhino Records—only partially diminished by the fact that my current royalty statement totals 27 cents.) Then again, here was the silver lining: a fair number of the millionaires studied amassed their wealth on a household income of $80,000 or less. As a rule, and focus now, “people accumulate significant wealth by minimizing their realized/taxable income and maximizing their unrealized/nontaxable income.” Partly for that reason—perhaps counterintuitively—physicians are not effective wealth accumulators. Many years of higher education put one at a disadvantage, because one starts later in the workforce, burdened with loans while laboring in a high tax bracket; and of course, the authors write dispassionately, “as a rule, doctors have exceptionally high levels of domestic overhead.” The mind reels!

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Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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