Monday, April 24, 2006

Money Talks

So, when we left Quinn, she was pondering her degree of consumption….

I didn’t want this to be about budgeting my money, because my problem wasn’t so much overspending at it was unconsciously consuming. I wanted to take control of when I spent, and why.

As luck would have it, just about the time I was excoriating myself for frittering away money, a book was published on just this topic. “Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping”. The title isn’t entirely accurate; obviously, she did have to buy food and life-sustaining supplies. But she cut out everything which wasn’t absolutely necessary, and she made that rule pretty draconian; when was the last time you considered a box of Q-tips a luxury purchase?

I was fascinated. How clean! How rigid! How utterly unrealistic for me!

I must do this.

The smallest vestige of what should have been my reasoning abilities spoke up. A year where I would have to forgo afternoon pick-me-ups? I might be able to live through a year without a spontaneous carbohydrate and caffeine infusion, but I don’t think anyone who deals with me socially would want to see what that looks like. Not to mention Daughter’s ongoing needs. What if she outgrows her leotard in month seven? Am I prepared to watch her battle public wedgies for another five months? It was decided; I could not do a year.

How about a month? Maybe. But that would mean buying a month’s worth of food in advance, and since the house lacks anything resembling adequate shelf space, I’d have to either take over the garage or create stylish end tables from stacked cans of pinto beans. Also, I’m one of those modern gals who never learned how to properly plan meals in advance. I wouldn’t buy enough of some foods and too much of others. We’d all be eating hearts of palm for breakfast by week two.

A week, I could do. A week would show me what a life lived more lightly upon the earth might feel like without putting Daughter at risk of a vitamin deficiency. Also, in a week, I could conduct this little experiment without telling anyone. I already had a bad feeling I wasn’t going to be able to make it longer than forty-eight hours without exchanging money for goods and services, and I didn’t want to be asked “So, how’s that ‘Not buying stuff’ thing going?” as I was lurking in Krispy Kreme. Thus it was decided; I wouldn’t buy a single thing for a week.

There were two exceptions:

One. Daughter’s health is in peril? I buy whatever she needs. But, “Peril” could not be defined as “If she doesn’t stop whining about sparkly Barbie pencils, I’m not going to be responsible for my actions”. This had to be immediate antibiotics or something of equal magnitude.

Two. Anything to which I had previously committed, I spend the money. This rule was included because I tend to be lavish with promises to help everybody’s school fund-raiser. A month later, having completely forgotten about the conversation, I am being handed a catalogue of frog-themed ceramics.

Other than that, the wallet wasn’t to open for seven days. I chose to start on a Tuesday morning, because I had a lunch date with a friend on Monday and I couldn’t remember who owed whom the lunch. And while that technically would have fallen under “Previous commitment honored”, I didn’t want to start the experiment, only to spend money four hours later. I knew I was going to need at least one cold-turkey day. At the end of lunch, my friend said carelessly, “I think this one’s mine”, and I knew with terrible certainty that I wasn’t paying for lunch, which meant I could start the experiment…at that exact moment. I had gassed up the car that morning, the groceries were in place. My Life of Lack could begin.

I got home and grabbed the mail, and flipped through it as I listened to answering machine messages. Suddenly, my eye caught the vision of a preppy woman in a messy ponytail, smiling broadly at me. Aaaaaagh! The J. Crew catalogue! Against my will, I flipped through it hungrily. The pictures seared my eyes like cinders.

Flip-flops with animal embroidery!

Flat-front shorts! In three lengths! And eight colors!

Khaki pants like mine, only six years younger!

I was a little dizzy. It’s not as if I hadn’t seen this stuff before. J. Crew sends me a catalogue three times a week, and they’ve been teasing me with the simple joys of flip-flops with whales on the straps since January. And, let’s face it; any pair of pants which has been made without alteration for over a decade shouldn’t thrill the soul. But the mere fact I had cut myself off from the option of buying them this week made me twitchy.

I threw the catalogue in the recycling bin quickly. I threw away the Lands End catalogue the next day, and the new J. Crew catalogue the day after that. By day four, I was to be found pining over the Staples insert in the paper, crooning with childish glee, “Ooooo…Post-Its! In colors!”

Turns out, I was a little more addicted to purchasing stuff than I realized. Here are some things I learned during the week:

1. I can make tea at home and carry it around. I am perfectly capable of making a quesadilla at home and eating it for lunch. What I missed during that week was the pleasant, albeit brief and relatively expensive sensation of having someone else do stuff for me. I supervise teeth brushing and I monitor homework. I make lunches and drive field trips. In short, I am a mother, and I love this time of my life. But it isn’t a life flush with selfish hedonism and, darn it, every now and then I like asking someone (politely) to make something for me, having it made, and consuming it. Considering that my quality of life is better than, oh, 99.9999987% of the world’s human maternal population, I am also aware that feeling this way makes me a total jackass.

2. Nearly all socializing in my life involves consumption: “Come with me to Target”; “Meet me at Starbucks before the kids get out of school”; or “Let’s take the girls to see a movie”. I could certainly invite friends over to have a beverage of some kind at my house, but I don’t think to do that. This is partially because everyone I know is always on the go and partially because, with a dog and a cat living in the house, the pet hair forms a kind of smog.

3. I’ve been told fasting is awful for the first few days, and then incredibly liberating; you aren’t hungry at all. Likewise, there were some really freeing moments during Frugal Fest. Last month, Daughter started making noises about wanting to join a soccer team. I was torn; I don’t want to be a soccer mom, but team sports are good for girls, millions of Europeans can’t be wrong, blah blah blah. I wrote to the local AYSO chapter, and was on their mailing list to be contacted when the new teams were being set up. During the week, I got an email; come to a local school on Saturday, bring a check for eighty dollars, and Daughter would be mere months away from standing in wet grass on a weekday afternoon and quite a few Saturday mornings.

I waffled. This wasn’t a prior commitment exactly, because I hadn’t promised the AYSO I would put her in; I had just requested information. On the other hand, I didn’t want Daughter, years from now, wailing to a therapist about how a soul-destroying lack of team sports in her life. I found Daughter in her room, constructing what appeared to be a Polly Pockets Junior League meeting.

With something approaching a casual tone, I said, “Do you remember wanting to play soccer?”

Daughter looked up.


“Why do you want to play soccer?”

Daughter then launched into a rambling explanation; this can be summarized as “I’d get special shoes, I’d have a picture of me with the team and I saw a soccer ball once and I liked the black squares.”

I said, “You’d have to give up some other after-school activity. Which one do you want to give up?”

Daughter frowned.

“I don’t want to give up any of them. I just want the shoes.”

I walked out of her room clear in mind and purpose. Daughter might play soccer, possibly next year. No harm in continuing the experiment.

I made it to Monday morning. Technically, I should have made it to noon on Monday, but there were mitigating circumstances. Your Honor, I had to talk to Blue Cross.

As I dropped Daughter at school, I got right on the cell phone, attached my earpiece to my skull and spent a completely dispiriting forty minutes arguing the definition of the phrase “Elective surgery”. After talking to the third indifferent drone to whom I had been shunted, I stared out the windshield and saw…a bakery. There, in the front window, I saw them placing apple turnovers on a tray. I swore I could see wiggly waves of freshly-baked heat undulating off of them.

I caved.

I stumbled in, pointed to the turnovers and murmured, “One, please”. The bag was warm, the paper around the turnover translucent with jelly from the cooked apples. I bit in, and felt the crust disintegrate under my teeth. In that moment, voluntary consumption did exactly what it was supposed to do; I found the energy to continue life’s battle. I lived to fight Blue Cross another day.

The fact remains, though, that I did enjoy not buying things. Or, rather, I didn’t like the way I felt, but I didn’t like it in the same way that I don’t like doing lots of things which are better for me in the long run (Flax seeds, I’m looking at you). So, I am going to continue this exercise for a while. I haven’t decided yet whether it’s going to be No buying two days a week, or No buying every other day, but it’s going to be something.

And the next time I think to run my mouth about how other people should live, I really wish one of you would hit me.


Blogger houseband00 said...

Hi Quinn,

I always ask myself these two questions when I am contemplating a purchase:

First is:
1. Do I need it?

and if you really want to dissuade yourself:
2. Do I need it NOW!?

Hope that helps =)

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, okay, houseband, if that works for you, cool.

My problem is never whether I need it (most likely not) or even do I need it NOW (99% unlikely), but rather, how satisfying is it to buy and am I in a mood to be satisfied? For this reason, I have a rather unhealthy love of places like Nordstrom's, where service is King, or Target, where deals are to be had.

When you have a seven month old baby and are looking for a flat place to push a stroller around on a rainy day...the mall is a sadly reasonable option.

But I really should try the day without spending...

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just caught up with you again. Excellent writing. I really love to read your stuff. Thanks for putting it out there.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

I run into guilt on the rebound.

All those people, out of work, just because I would not buy!

And, I recycle what other people throw out, and soon it just may cost me the love of a good man...

Good Man - "Why do other people give us their cans and jars?"

Me - "Because I can make cool stuff out of them!" (you idiot!).

Good Man - "What will you do with this cool stuff which hasn't yet appeared even though we have many many boxes of our own and other people's cans and jars?"

Me - "I'm thinking of the PERFECT way to use them! Really. It will be great, you will see!" (you idiot, you have no faith in me).

Good Man - "I just don't understand why we have to collect OTHER PEOPLE'S trash."

Me - "I don't know either. But I do know that I HAVE to do it, or else I feel all itchy."

Good Man - "I'd rather you just scratched."

12:35 PM  
Blogger wen said...

Loved the blog and I really like the idea of money fasting for a while. I do it sometimes (and sometimes I just cut back). It's amazing how many messages we get each day to buy things--some of them very satisfying of course!

10:37 AM  

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