Austerity Chic

How novelist and performance artist Mike Albo gets by in lean times.

BY Mike Albo

January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET

Still, somehow I found a way to make a mess of my credit history. I received a modest advance for my first novel, foolishly lived like Posh Beckham for six months, maxed out two credit cards, and spent the next four years paying them off. Because of this, my current credit card has a pathetic $600 limit.

It’s probably for the best that I have to live hand to mouth. If I didn’t have boundaries forced upon me, I’d have a drug habit, live in a $2.5 million condo that I bought with an overblown sub-prime mortgage, and be decked out head-to-toe in tacky Ed Hardy clothes like one of those douchebags on Sunset Tan.

Like everyone else, I overspend, using my tiny credit card in my own pathetic way -- sort of like when you see a 3-year-old girl wheeling a doll around in a toy baby carriage and pretending to be her mother. With no more than $2,000 in my bank account in any given week, I will order pricey wines and top-shelf tequilas at trendy, sleek gastro pubs, convincing myself I am a globe-trotting George Clooney.

Of course, my poor spending habits are my fault, but parsimony isn’t exactly encouraged in our culture of constant consumption, even in this toxic climate. Even after the September panic, nothing seems to have changed: Rappers are still bragging about Escalades and Louis Vuitton, starlets still carry giant $30 Starbucks drinks and bling-laden handbags, Tom Ford still has a smug grin.

The only thing that seems different now is how frightened we’re made to feel about not being able to afford anything. The news media promote a sense of apocalyptic doom about the downturn in consumer spending. Check out this excerpt from an article in the business section of The New York Times:

“Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has that name because it is supposed to be the day that gets retailers out of the red ink of losses and into the black ink of profits. But black can also symbolize disaster and mourning, images that may be more appropriate this year.”

Please. Why do we have to feel ashamed for tightening our belts? Is the fact that we’re spending less on Botox, plasma screens, and Xbox really that bad?

One of my poorest years was 2003. I spent the summer months drinking tap water (see tip 2), going to free concerts, reading Walt Whitman in the park, and working on my second novel. It wasn’t easy, but I learned to be happy with what I had. There’s nothing like the confines of poverty to force you to respect yourself and, more important, people who have even less than you.

It’s sort of a relief to see that most everyone is as financially challenged as I am now. It’s like I have a haircut that is finally considered cool. Maybe I am completely delusional, but I feel strangely optimistic about this severe, mysterious recession. Now that we’re all in the red, maybe we can actually break our bad spending habits together.

Tags: Business

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