Certainly there are plenty of images one cannot shake, once one has Dumpster-dived one’s way through the new, beet-green-splattered (beet greens were free, found near a crashed delivery truck on the side of the road!) frugillionaire lit. I mean, who but a crazy (or is it crazy-as-a-fox?) person like Wanda Adams of Trotwood, Ohio, would invite friends to a whimsical boiled-omelet brunch?
Give everyone their own quart-size ziplock bag with their name written on it in permanent marker. Guests crack a couple of eggs into their bags, add a dash of milk, and choose their own omelet ingredients from a large selection … of leftovers from the fridge … the more bizarre the better … Drop all [the bags] in a large pot of boiling water for fourteen minutes …
Et voilà! And yet nothing is as memorable as the Economides family on vacation. Wearing seven matching outfits (so no one gets lost), eagerly anticipating staying not in a hotel but in student dorms abandoned over the summer (unbelievable cut rates), they realized the only must-have travel item that wouldn’t fit into their airplane luggage was … drumroll … the family Crock-Pot. And so their 18-day trip to Washington, D.C., began with a sweep of pre-Googled thrift stores to purchase a used Crock-Pot ($5! Shazam!), which they immediately filled with cans of SpaghettiOs for a festive ending to their day. (As to their tips on Paris? One can only imagine: “C’est la cheapskate!”)
America’s Cheapest Family: they are the very opposite of hip, and I wish I were one of them!
Why? Because I am the sort of failed cheapskate who pores over this amazing treasure bin of ideas with what Ultimate Cheapskate Yeager calls “TE”—“Tightwad Envy.” (Why oh why don’t I have the sort of open-minded friends who would thrill to the wacky fun of a boiled-omelet brunch? Why, instead of skillfully laddering my produce, do I sometimes just leave it out on the counter and forget about it completely? Dill, dill … Why oh why did I buy that now-rubbery and useless $1.50 sprig of dill last week? Do I have so much money that I can simply throw it away?) Like America’s more successful cheapskates, I too suffer from what Yeager calls “SAD”—“Spending Anxiety Disorder.”
[SAD] was a favorite topic of conversation with the cheapskates I interviewed: how they feel when they spend money and, specifically, when they pay full price for something. They often described physical symptoms, like “dizziness,” “light-headedness,” and even “nausea,” when talking about spending large sums of money or spending money unnecessarily.
They even talk of “early-onset SAD,” sharing memories of being a pint-size cheapskate—so poignant!
Struggling with my finances, nudging toward 50, I sometimes daydream about being happily married to a matching frugaholic husband in a matching Christmas-red tracksuit with matching walkie-talkies as we troll Ralphs, excitedly comparing triple coupons. (Did I mention that Steve gave Annette her very own custom-made coupon box? You see, her coupon wallet had become too small—coupons were falling out. She was thrilled!) How satisfying it would be to have a von Trapp family–like army of homeschooled children whistling as they spin their chore wheels—doing the dishes, folding the laundry, mowing the lawn—while I meticulously reward them in 25-cent increments, according to a complex yet motivating point system, dropped in three glass jars (spending, saving, tithing). Oh, what I could do with a 27-cubic-foot freezer!
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.