Austerity Chic

By Mike Albo

Originally published on Advocate.com January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET

Are you reeling from the recession? Join the club. Here are four penny-pinching tips:

(1) A jar of Marshmallow Fluff for $1.49 makes a fine dessert.

(2) Squeeze lemon juice into your tap water and it will taste high-end.

(3) Don’t blow your wad on pricey porn. Try XTube for a cheap thrill.

(4) Predrink and pre-eat before going out so that you don’t overspend.

I always resort to these tactics when I realize I don’t have a cent in my HSBC account, which is often. Maybe I’ll actually stick to them this time, during our new financially calamitous age.

Then again, I always say this to myself. Every year, no matter how little I have, I end up living beyond my means, bitterly learn my lesson at tax time, and then swing back to my penny-pinching tips before starting the whole cycle over a few months later. I’m like a chicken with no short-term memory, pecking at an electrical fence until it’s fried. Or maybe I’m just American.

You’d think I’d act differently by now. I’ve been in my own personal recession for the past 18 years. All the way through the dot-com ’90s, when people were making millions for creating websites devoted to pets and shoes, I was poor. After 9/11, when we headed into our “let’s go shopping” era and Juicy Couture jumpsuits were considered “investments,” I was still frequenting Salvation Army stores. Even during the housing boom, when anyone could get a loan—including dead people—I could barely get a MasterCard.

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.