January 30, 2013

This is almost certainly more than $217, actually.

The biggest problem with all the “fiscal cliff” struggles and debt haggling had been the sheer volume of money we were talking about. Billions? Trillions? At a certain point, it all becomes vanishingly remote. I have no idea what you should do with $1 billion. If you ask me, I become nervous and irritable. “I don’t know,” I yelp. “Sequester it, I guess.”

But now word is out, according to a speech by the country’s finance minister, Tendai Biti, that Zimbabwe has — how to put this? — reduced its finances to a manageable scale. Once it paid its civil servants, it was down to its last $217.

I have never been in a position to advise a whole country on its finances before, but I know what it is like to have only $217 in your coffers. This is a dollar amount around which I can wrap my head!

Most of my money-saving techniques are better adapted to college students than to entire countries. They rely on ramen, not sequestration. Er, if you find yourself being invited to large international gatherings where you will be expected to split the bill, suddenly announce that you are not a feminist? In fact, none of these techniques are applicable. There is no international equivalent of perching on top of a washing machine on one leg to try to use the building’s only unlocked WiFi to look for jobs.

People faced with $217 in their coffers come up against a few choices. You can shepherd it carefully and husband it. You can pile it all into lottery tickets. Or you can just decide to spend it all on something big that explains your finances to others.

I personally advocate this last approach.

How about this lovely “crochet knitting salad scarf” (a Regretsy.com discovery), this miniature Frank Lloyd Wright doll and this quilted Elvis tote? That’s $217 (USD) exactly! “Why do you have zero dollars?” they ask. “Well,” you say, “I couldn’t NOT buy this Elvis tote, now could I?” They glance at the things in your hand and then their offers of charity become much fewer and farther between. It is the most efficient, polite way of explaining that you are bad at money to people who as yet only suspect that this is the case.

Then again, given that the people who have given Serious Thought to this question think international aid is the most likely path out of this crisis, perhaps this is not the path to pursue. Instead, buy something that demonstrates your underlying competence, something that emphasizes that you know the value of a dollar: say, a nice embossed plaque with “A penny saved is a penny earned” printed on it in golden letters. Or a nice vanity plate with “FRUGAL” on it. Or some cute flats that USED TO BE $493 and are now ONLY $179, so really it is less that you spent $179 than that you saved $314. Really, you made money out of this transaction.

Really, what does it matter what you buy?

After all, once the $217 are gone, there’s a $104 million election on the horizon. Why husband the dollars? You might as well go out with a bang.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.