Betty Duffy

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Spending Bug

I’m always trying to out-poor people. If you think you drive a clunker, you should see my car: the big dent in the side where I ran into my own mailbox, the portions of the steering wheel that my dog ate, the steel wheel I purchased at a junkyard when the aluminum wheel developed a slow leak. That does not even touch on the air-conditioner (it doesn’t work), the windshield wipers (barely work), or the struts (they don’t work). My car has an accelerator and it has a brake. It drives, and it only has 90,000 miles on it, which is why, barring accidental death, I take pride in the thought of driving it for another ten years or so. That’s how poor I am.

Also, I shop at Goodwill. You like my jeans? They cost $1.99. My shirt? $1.99. My shoes? Yes, they, too, are second-hand. That’s just the kind of gal I am—poor. So don’t ask me for money.

That’s why this year’s Christmas feels so shameful to me. We spent a lot of money.

The week before Christmas, my husband and I borrowed my Dad’s truck to deliver some furniture to a client. There’s nothing like driving someone else’s truck to make you feel the need for your own, so when we saw a pick-up truck for sale in someone’s front yard, we pulled over and checked out the stats: Four-wheel drive, extended cab, long bed, lo miles and a 5K price-tag.

We test drove it. We settled a price. We made arrangements to pick it up the following day, because we had business to take care of that night. But my husband was anxious. He wanted to go back and drive it home before the guy changed his mind. And lo, when we drove back the following day, as agreed, we discovered that the guy really had changed his mind. Apparently, his son had spoken up and asked for his rightful inheritance.

I, for one, was relieved. It was the right deal at the wrong time. But my husband was on fire: “You’ve got to act fast on these things.” More ammunition to be impulsive in the future.

As though either of us needed ammunition. Friday night, I bid on Ebay, and won a pair of very nice boots. They’re gorgeous, the boots I’ve wanted since I was nineteen, and counting over the years the numerous imitations I’ve purchased, I might have saved money had I bought the real thing years ago. They are ‘young’ boots cut for a slender leg and a dewy face and it occurred to me that I don’t have much time left to wear such a boot, so I bid, and then I had to tell my husband, who said, “Merry Christmas, and happy birthday, too.”

But I didn’t feel too bad about it because by then, my husband was researching trucks in earnest. His “almost” purchase had whetted his appetite, and his price margin had increased from 5K to “Maybe we should just get a new truck and get rid of your mini van. If it has two bench seats it would fit you and all the kids, no problem.” And I pictured myself stepping out of a shiny F150 in my new boots, and couldn’t protest too much.

The flood gates had opened. If we had enough money to buy a truck and nice boots, we probably had enough money to get the kids more than underwear for Christmas. Each purchase provided a tacit approval of the next. Several years ago, we did the debt sno-ball, paid off our school loans and our car, but now the opposite was happening. If we continued opening our wallet, people might start confusing us for rich people.

Hans Keilson, in “Death of the Adversary” wrote about little boys watching planes during World War II, and how awe-inspiring the machines were even though they were nothing like the ocean-crossing jets of his adulthood. “A greater capacity for enthusiasm corresponded to a smaller capacity for performance” (54). If only the same had been true for us…

On the side of the road, we had found a good deal on a truck, but we thought about it too hard and missed out. Once we realized what we’d missed, we became trigger happy and impressed by everything. Convinced that every car-dealer wanted to give us a good deal, because it’s Christmas, and we have a lot of kids, and we’re such nice people, we settled on a truck that was quite a bit more, and not much younger than the first. Determined not to miss out on it this time, we paid cash, and drove it off the lot.

Surely, this is the end of the road, then. The sno-ball reaches the bottom of the hill and peters out, right?

The other day at my mom’s I pulled on my new boot and instantly felt a pinch on my leg. I’d been stung. I opened up the boot and a wrinkled wasp fell out onto the floor. I hopped around on one foot cursing, “Why does my mother let these wasps into her house? Why does she let them in my boot?” even though, rationally, I know it’s not my mother’s fault that a wasp took refuge from the cold in the warm crevices of her home. Tiny predators are always looking for a way inside, and even the smallest crack can allow passage.

This morning my leg is a hot itchy welt—hard where the rest of my leg is soft--and I have to say, I sort of like having a little bit of venom in me.


The Cottage Child said...

“Why does my mother let these wasps into her house?" made me sputter my (5th cup of) coffee. My attitude of gratitude is hovering in that range at the moment. exactly what you're talking about - I'm too embarrassed to discuss what my husband and I were considering this week, I'll just say we were saved only by a bout of the stomach bug. Blessings come in many forms, who knew kid barf was one of them?

karyn said...

I find that I vacillate wildly between these two states - sometimes I'm so proud of how frugal we are, how we raise four kids on a teacher's salary, how great I know how to shop, blah, blah. I start thinking I'm embracing Lady Poverty like Saint Francis! Then I swing the other way thinking I deserve to eat out, I deserve to buy these fun toys for the kids, I deserve new books....Now, if only I could understand the impetus for these swings.

We also provide housing for wasps, despite the fact that our girls scream about them all the time...

Sally Thomas said...

I know what you mean, re all of this. We swing on that psycho-financial pendulum all the time, too, with those exact same patterns (though I haven't broken down and bought boots yet, so ha ha ha! Except I'm sure I'm too old for the boots you describe, so wa wa wa.).

The younger kids will ask that eternal, awful question, "Are we rich or poor?" And not that I really want to get into the conversation anyway, but I often think the only answer is, "Neither. Both. Heck if I know."

You "scrimp and pinch" -- I love that phrase from the Ramona books -- and then you let yourself go out to dinner, or buy a truck or a house, and it's like the floodgates open. Spend! Spend! And when this happens to me, I really do feel as though I'm on a rollercoaster, with the exact same sick exhilaration, or exhilarated sickness, whichever it is.

That's why I took the "frugal" button down off my blog: whom am I kidding, except myself?

(Congrats on the boots, though. Seriously. I love boots. And I've never had the guts to buy any)

BettyDuffy said...

Yes, "sick exhilaration." That's exactly what it is. I smile when I think about the new car. It really is a treat to be in a car that's not falling apart everywhere, one you can trust. But in the back of my mind is the diminishment of our savings, and how far we've backtracked in just a few days. Anyway, it's done. I could spend hours rationalizing it. Money's made to be spent and all. But I'm a stingy person--and I think that's what's at the heart of my sickness here. I am loose with some things and so tight with others. I could stand to grow in generosity, for instance.

Rae said...

Excellently said (er, written) to the point that I was trying to out-poor you in my mind by the second paragraph. :-)

I don't have much experience, but so far it has seemed to me that marriage means that financial snowballs (in either direction) are suddenly being made in snowstorms rather than nice sunny days.

And if it turns out that your boots hospitality for wasps really does cure you of your stinginess, do let me know. I'm in need of a bit of a cure myself.

Sue Elvis said...

I really enjoyed your post. I got so caught up in your story.

A few weeks ago I saw a Tiny Tears baby doll for sale on Ebay. My favourite doll was a Tiny Tears doll but she was lost in a flood many years ago. I almost bid and then thought that I couldn't justify spending the money. I was just being nostalgic and trying to reclaim my childhood. But a bit of me wishes I'd thrown caution to the wind. Sometimes it's worth being a bit wild instead of always being sensible...

Marie said...

My friend and I used to laugh about trying to out-poor each other. She had had a run of trying to out-rich a group of friends and then we both fell into the other side of the coin.

I was ashamed the other day when a friend asked me if I wanted her to put me on the list for Christmas charity. I had to tell her no because while we're poor, we're optionally poor, if you know what I mean. It shamed me because I realized I had been trying to get into the cool poor people club with my friend, and when she took me seriously I had to out myself as a poser.

Loved this post, loved the wasp.

BettyDuffy said...

Marie! glad you're alive. Was worried, or more, impressed when you disappeared from the internet like that. I tried that once and came back the next day. How's it going?

Marie said...

It's going well, thanks.
I tried versions of unplugging my computer from the internet, etc., but nothing seemed to fly. I still find myself composing blog entries when stuff happens, so until that goes away it's better for my soul to read about bootwasps. Thanks for remembering me!

Margie said...

My husband is nearing 24 mos of unemployment, and I can out-poor most people, too, especially with my Double Exposure clothes (Jr League castoffs). But this Christmas I felt like spending, especially for the kids, was profligate, even though the stuff came from Big Lots and Half-Price Books. With half-consciousness, we opened the spending gates last fall when a new job appeared imminent. Even though the potential position dissipated by December, it was hard to stem the flood once the dam had sprung a leak.

I am relieved that 1) the credit card bill was far less than I had believed it would be, and 2) that a new year gives us a chance at a do-over. I've already clipped a couple of bean soup recipes from the newspaper, and am grateful to focus again on what we have, rather than what we lack.