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Slumming With the Poor: Welcome to My Universe

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“The mantra is cut, cut, cut — magazine and cable subscriptions, credit cards, fancy coffee drinks and your own hair.”

So noted an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago, one of the endless stories about how Americans are “coping” with hard times. To immediately dispense with apologies and caveats, let me say right up front that I am well aware that good people are suffering from the capitalist meltdown, and I feel for them. I’m even somewhat sympathetic towards the upper-middle-class folks who lost half their retirement funds in the stock market, especially since I know some of them.

old women outsideWho am I to feel “sympathy”? you might ask. Aren’t I suffering too? As a matter of fact, in times of economic depression two classes of people remain untouchable: the very rich—celebrities like Barbra Streisand and tycoons like Donald Trump, say–and the very poor, comprised of the perpetual underclass and struggling artists. I fit the latter category. I’ve been living po’ for so many years I’m used to it, and unless the government goes belly up I’ll go on as always.

The collapse of the stock market? I don’t own stock. The car industry? I don’t have a car. The price fluctuations of gas? Ditto. The job market? I don’t work—not in what They call the job market anyway. Mortgage foreclosures? When I tried to buy a house, I couldn’t get a loan, not even sub-prime. Frozen credit? My credit froze up years ago.

What knocks me out are the middle and upper-class people whose situations, for whatever reasons, haven’t changed either, yet they’ve jumped onto the frugality bandwagon just to be trendy. These people are going gleefully frugal. The Frugalistas, for instance, are a group of fashionistas who are finding ways to cut down on the biggest line item in their budgets – clothing – without sacrificing style. Housewife/ mothers who always rejoiced in being thrifty but were afraid to admit it are coming out of the closet in droves. One Virginia group, the Frugal and Fabulous Moms, tells prospective members: “If you are a coupon-clipping, deal-seeking, stylish and fabulous mom that loves a great deal, then this group is for you!”

The Today Show reported a belated interest in the hippie ethos I once subscribed to; people who’ve never seen a shovel before are growing vegetables, canning and freezing. When I hear these stories, I can’t help but think about the people I’ve met in the real frugality universe. One of the planets in this universe is the one-shot job market, where for a day or a week you staff a convention or conference; or, the most coveted one-shot job of all, participate in a focus group. Naturally, we swap information and tips of the trade, telling each other what’s hot and happening on thewoman in food store planet. During one such conversation a woman missing a front tooth told me that she and her mother had recently scored when they got chosen to be “jurists” on a mock trial that lasted ten days. With a faraway dreamy look in her eyes she said, “We went grocery shopping every day

that week.” It was like she’d won the lottery. I understood.

I myself could very well be ridiculed by that woman the same way I ridicule the privileged: my poverty wasn’t handed down as a birthright, but comes from my insistence on being a writer. Still, I’ve been in this universe long enough to feel a kinship with its inhabitants, whatever their origins. When I heard an NPR commentary on tent cities that said “the recession isn’t creating homelessness, but making the homeless more visible,” I couldn’t help but mutter bitterly, Right. Nobody ever noticed me asleep in my car in Tina’s driveway, an adventure that lasted half of one summer.

“I’m enjoying this,” said Becky Martin, 52, who has cut up her ten credit cards, borrows movies from the library instead of renting them, and grows her own fruits and vegetables — even though her family is comfortable.” These stories get me yelling at the tv or radio. But I didn’t go entirely over the edge until I started keeping notes on the latest methods of getting by, and realized my lifelong lifestyle is where it’s at. Herewith, a compendium of Recession Tips.

Recession Tip #1: Instead of paper napkins use organic cloth ones.

When I visit a house where they have paper napkins, paper towels, tissues, and toilet paper, I think I’m in the lap of luxury. For most of my life I’ve bought only two of these four interchangeable items, usually toilet paper and paper towels. This year I succumbed to tissues: my old nosetissues began objecting to the others. As for napkins, I either use cloth, paper towels, or napkins taken in bulk from coffee shops (ditto on straws).

Recession Tip #2: How to buy a good wine for under $25.

As a friend of mine who buys everything second-hand (and looks like she shops at Bloomingdale’s) said, “You can buy wine for under $25? How remarkable!

Recession Tip #3: Don’t buy books and movies–borrow from the library.library

I have library cards for Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. I belong to Book Mooch, an online book swap club. I confess, however, that I’ve always bought some books new, far too many: it’s my weakness.

Recession Tip #4: Sell old books, CDs and DVDs to stores that buy them.

There have been times in my life when the only thing standing between me and starvation were those books I buy too many of. I’ve learned not to mark them up or bend their pages so I can sell them back to buyers.  And a computer crash would render me music-less–my LPs and CDs are long since gone.

Recession Tip #5: Organize a clothing swap with friends.

Half the clothes in my closet come from relatives and friends.

Recession Tip #6: Wash and re-use plastic bags.

Do people really need to be told this?!?  Plastic bags are another thing I’ve never bought; I re-use produce bags. And by the way, I’ve never bought garbage bags either—I re-use the paper and plastic ones they pack my food in at the market. (Lest you think I’m environmentally incorrect, I do  bring along a cloth bag; some accumulation of shopping bags is inevitable.)

Recession Tip #7: No more salons: cut and color your own hair.

What’s a salon?

Recession Tip #8: Cut down on restaurant meals. Bring lunch to work.brown bag lunch

I eat three meals a day at home unless I’m out somewhere starving and unprepared (i.e., without rice cakes or cheese in my purse). I get crazy if I spend money on a meal that turns out to be inedible.

Recession Tip #9: Less entertaining. Less clubbing. Less booze.

No comment.

Recession Tip #10: Instead of immediately buying things you think you need, keep a running list. In a week or two you might decide you don’t need it after all.

Ah, the lists! At any given time I have dozens of them going, organized into categories like Household, Clothes, and Stuff for Grandkids. The difference between my lists and those of the frugalistas, though, is that most of mine are Wish Lists, and might remain so.

One last item not on the Tip List: I hear that some people are being forced to give up their pets—they can no longer afford to feed and care for them. I truly empathize: for years I’ve been literally aching for a dog–but not only am I worried one of us might starve, dogs aren’t allowed in my building. I researched the enlightened California law on “therapy dogs,” and got my doctor to sign a letter stating I need one for my mental health—but I’m scared my landlord would find a way to throw me out anyway, law or no law. My rent is on the low end of average, and considering the big picture, I’d be screwed if I had to find a new place. What with my bad credit and low income, I practically had to get down on my knees to move in here five years ago.

And that’s the real difference between frugalistas and the poor: Choice. The poor have fewer options, less space to move around in, or to change what we don’t like in our lives. I come from middle-class roots, so I know the difference.

Having worked and reworked the courage-to-change part of the Serenity Prayer in my youth, I’m now working on the serenity-to-accept.

Grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Are we equal yet?


One response »

  1. I found a comment meant for this post pasted in the wrong place: (MS)

    Uta | November 3, 2012 at 8:32 p11

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