My name is Heidi and I’m a crazy bag lady.
I’m a crazy bag lady because I recently returned six cans of tuna fish to Save A Lot. I pulled six cans out of my enormous purse, stacked them in front of the cashier and shamelessly asked for my money back.
Henry squawked. The people in line behind me squawked. Ohnoshedidn’t. Tuna fish in a purse? Those cans better not be opened.
I was that woman. The one who plods into a bargain basement grocery store with a baby on her hip and a purse full of tuna fish.
Upon pulling the cans out of my purse, I explained to the cashier (and to anyone behind me muttering bag lady under their breath) that I had mistakenly purchased albacore instead of chunk light.
Ten dollars is a lot of money for tuna fish your husband won’t eat.
I never felt more like my grandmothers, although I’m pretty sure even they’d suck up $10 and move on. Not me. I was the penny-pinching old bat; the one who wears her hair in a babushka and carries change in a margarine container.
“There’s paperwork,” the cashier said flatly, handing me a form on which I had to write my name, phone number and address.
Seriously? I thought. Paperwork? Fine. Bring it on. If I’m not too proud to return the fancy kind of tuna to the poor kind of grocery store, then I’m not too proud to create a paper trail.
This should come as no surprise to you: I don’t live large. Never have.
I come from blue collar stock; the kind of people my husband describes as “salt of the earth,” which is ironic given the metaphor comes from Jesus, whom I was raised without.
New money. Old money. It’s all someone else’s money to me. Writing, though I hoped it would one day catapult me into a new socioeconomic stratosphere, has yet to buy me a Stephen King-sized house or a J.K. Rowling-sized movie deal.
Until Oprah comes knocking, our family is forced to live within our means. It’s basic math. You make more money, you spend more money. You make less money, you spend less money. The common denominator: envy. A bigger income can buy you better things, but it doesn’t make you envy any less.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
To some people I’m virtually a monk. To my parents, who refuse to get a debit card, I’m a diva. Just last week I bought a $70 kayak cart; something my father could have built out of PVC pipe and wagon wheels.
Also: I hate talking about money.
I’m talking about it because Jennifer asked me to in the previous post. She wants to know the super duper secret to my thriftiness.
I’m not sure what to tell her. Am I good at cutting corners? Sure, but that doesn’t make me Suze Orman — although we do have similar hair.
When I began this post, I started writing a straight advice column. A hundred words in, I got bored with my advice and started over. My recommendations felt sanctimonious and obvious.
So I turned to my less-thrifty other-half and asked, “What’s the super duper secret to my thriftiness?”
To which he replied, “You’re thrifty?”
To which I said, “I’m so stealthily thrifty you don’t even realize it. It’s my secret super power.”
“I thought your secret super power was pulling things out of the oven with your bare hands.”
Since I had a hard time articulating my frugality, I broke it down into a simple equation:
Common Sense + Creativity + Humble Wants + Resourcefulness = Less Day-to-Day Spending
I don’t just cut corners. I turn corners into triangles, and then I turn the triangles into coasters and the coasters into little soap dishes.
For those of you who like lists, I shall make a list explaining how a few basic lifestyle choices have helped save us money.
Here goes it. (Please hold your disgust.) I still wear clothes from high school. (Remember those 6th grade shorts?) The high school pile has dwindled over the years, as it should. Now I’m working on purging my closet of clothes from eight years ago. This is not a cute habit. My sister PK has more than once threatened to turn me over to What Not To Wear. I find her criticism to be both constructive and insulting, though not insulting enough to retire my wardrobe.
I get away with a lot in the wardrobe department. I work primarily from home and therefore require very few big girl clothes. I hate to shop, but when I do, I hit up H&M, TJ Maxx and the occasional J.Crew outlet. (Note: the last time I shopped at J.Crew was three years ago.) I like to believe I buy clothes with staying power: shorts, tank tops, jeans, sundresses. I wear these pieces for so long they go out of style then come back in style. (Hipster girls are wearing my 6th grade shorts. WTF? Have you seen this look?)
When I have interviews I wear a dress. It’s easy and doesn’t require matching a TOP to a BOTTOM. Caring for a child has zapped my patience for fashion. I’d rather slip on a dress and be on with it. A few months after I had Hank, I bought seven new dresses. I wear these frocks on rotation.
I feel like the only girl in the world who doesn’t care about shoes. I wear mine until the heels fall off and the soles flap like a mouthy puppet. I wear other people’s clothes –– my sister’s, my girlfriend’s, my neighbor’s, even Joe’s. I’ve got no shame.
When I bought maternity clothes, I made sure to buy only loose-fitting, non-maternity clothes that I could still wear after Henry was born. I couldn’t stand the thought of wearing something for only four months then retiring it to Goodwill or worse yet, storage. So yeah, I’m still rocking the shirts and dresses I wore when I was nine months pregnant. No one seems to notice. Or maybe they do and they’re secretly taping me for TLC.
With the exception of two new pairs of fabulous Stride Rite shoes from Grandma B., Henry dresses almost exclusively in clothes from Goodwill. Half of the labels are Baby Gap, Old Navy, Children’s Place and that ubiquitous Carter’s brand. My mother is Henry’s personal thrift store shopper. It’s her secret super power. Since Hank was born, she’s made a habit of stalking every Goodwill — or “Goodies,” as she calls them — within a 30-mile radius of her home. Every few months we receive a cumbersome UPS delivery, the contents of which cost less than the postage.
I’m a vegetarian. We’re (typically) cheaper to feed at restaurants. I also only order water, which is not to suggest that I don’t drink booze. I love booze. The thing is: when I go out to eat, I go out to EAT. When I go out to drink, I go out to DRINK. I find the buzz comes on cheaper when you separate these two pleasures.
Jennifer asked how I might feed a family of four on $15 a week. I have no idea. We spend five times that on groceries. I spend about $150 every two weeks at a variety of grocery stores, including Fresh Market, Publix, Save A Lot and Target. I go where the deals are. Black beans from Save A Lot taste the same as black beans from upper-crusty Fresh Market. The same goes for butter, vegetable oil, paper towels, frozen peas … you catch my drift.
But what about organic food, you ask? Surely I eat organic quinoa and hummus? Yeah. No. Sometimes. But no. And what about Henry? Surely Henry eats only locally-grown, pesticide-free produce? Yeah. No.
Listen: we do what we can. After I left my job, I thought Save A Lot would save the day. I was raised on SAL food. Navigating my first Florida SAL, I felt like I was paying homage to my roots. This nostalgia was quickly shattered when I got cat-called by a cluster of derelicts in the meat department and suspiciously eyed by an armed security guard at the front of the store. I reconsidered SAL shopping when, that same night, I broke open my gums on the store’s 75-cent toothbrush.
My hard and fast rule for spending wisely at the grocery store is this: stick to the outside aisles. Everything that’s good for you is stocked along the perimeter of the store. As soon as you wander into the center aisles, you start craving dumbass things. Like Fruit Roll-Ups.
Oh and Jennifer — the pug has had some serious urinary issues, so we’ve had to stop production on the homemade chow. He gets prescription dog food now. It’s not ideal. Since going off the home-cooked diet he’s gained five pounds, putting him at a stout 30 lbs. (30 lbs!)
I confess. I go to a trendy salon. The haircut’s not cheap, as I’ve discussed before. But I tell ya, here’s how I save: I get it cut short, REAL SHORT so I can go two months or longer between cuts. I also tell the stylist not to STYLE it, which immediately cuts $10 off the $40 price tag. Plus, I refuse to buy hair goop. I use Joe’s instead. It works better than the girlie stuff and I only use it when my hair is “too clean.” Day-old hair doesn’t need product. It greases up naturally. 🙂
I’m spoiled. I live in a safe, walkable, centrally-located neighborhood two miles from downtown St. Pete. If I’ve got somewhere to go and it’s within walking distance, I walk. If it’s within biking distance, I bike. I’ve got all the gear to bring Henry (iBert bike seat, Cadillac jog stroller), so I see no reason to drive.
This lifestyle choice dictates how we spend the majority of our day. Sometimes we’ll take off on a bike ride and not return for HOURS. We go to parks, swimming pools, the beach, bookstores, ice cream stands, the post office, the pharmacy, coffee shops, taverns … (Yes, I’ve biked Henry to bars — once for lemonade and once for pizza.) I like to stuff a few bucks in my pocket for a treat.
My biggest fitness expense? Exorbitant triathlon registration fees. I had to pass on my favorite race last month because I couldn’t justify forking over $100 to sweat for an hour and a half. Who sets these prices? And why are they so high?
I can’t claim to never spend money on frivolous things. (Sorry $70 kayak cart. I didn’t need you.) I also can’t claim to be an extreme couponer. (Sorry BOGO Go-Gurt coupon. I’ll never need you.)
And I certainly can’t claim to not be embarrassed by my cash refund on tuna.
I can tell you, however, that my stinginess paid off. Two days later, when Hank and I were on a bike ride, I used that $10 to pay for a swim at the public pool, followed by a gourmet cup of gelato.
The look on Henry’s face when I spooned the first bite of hazelnut into his open mouth was, for lack of a better word, priceless.