I'm Not Buying Recession Chic

By Kelly Marages
Sunday, March 15, 2009

A few years ago, I was sitting in a meeting at work when my boss started talking about "those weird little people who heat up their Tupperware in the microwave at lunchtime." That afternoon, as I surreptitiously snuck forkfuls of leftover Taco salad into my mouth from my own plastic container -- thank God it didn't have to be heated! -- I vowed to stop brown-bagging whenever I could.

This was no small feat, financially or psychologically. I come from a long line of lunch-packers, my grandfather having gone so far as to reuse one paper bag for months, perhaps years, at a time. I also lived in an expensive city (New York) and worked in an ostentatious business (magazine publishing) on a pretty small salary. And yet, as I became more relaxed with my new $9-a-day lunch habit, I rationalized it as a status symbol or a career move. I was a person who bought my lunch every day; therefore, I was someone to be taken seriously.

Now, of course, such a scenario is laughable (if it wasn't already then). These days, it's precisely parading that plastic container around the office at midday that shows that you're resourceful, that you're rolling with the times, that you're cool in a do-it-yourself recession-y kind of way.

In fact, frugal living is the new glamorous -- haven't you heard? The haves have finally been granted access to the one club the have-nots had owned exclusively, and they've turned it into a fabulous party. Enter the "recessionista." Whereas a year ago this person may have attended the gala du jour in a brand new designer frock, she's now wearing one recycled from the back of her closet. She is learning to cook at home -- maybe even from vintage Depression-era recipes! And she's conspicuous about her non-conspicuous, discount-store, coupon-carrying consumption. She's a cousin, perhaps, to the type of person who totes a "This is Not a Plastic Bag" bag, except that, rather than crusading sanctimoniously for the environment, she's crusading for her own cultural relevance.

I doubt that I'm the only one who has trouble taking all this seriously. And to be honest, I find myself bitterly thinking "Hey, get off my turf!" far more frequently than I'd care to admit.

Perhaps it's because, coming of age in the recession of the early '90s on the wrong side of Connecticut (sounds silly, I know, but such a place does exist), I've always been conscious of money -- having it, not having it, the tendency of those who don't have much to size up those who have a lot. Perhaps it's also because, justly or unjustly, I partly blame the CEO and banker-types for getting us into this mess to start with. So the fact that they're jumping onto the penny-pinching bandwagon just at the moment when we actually really need them to spend makes the recessionista trend particularly painful.

That ridiculous term itself -- recessionista -- started appearing this past fall. Banks had collapsed, bailouts had come through, layoffs were escalating. And there were the magazines, the newspapers, the news stations proclaiming that you could still be a fashionista, even in these tough times. Just follow a few key tips. And while you're at it, pick up these dresses and shoes and bags and electronic wine bottle openers -- they're all a steal at under $150.

The advice doesn't stop there. We've been told to go shopping in our closets. Cute -- but what does it mean? That I should take a shirt and pair it with some pants or a skirt that I haven't already matched it to? Call me crazy, but isn't that just called getting dressed? Or does it mean I should -- heavens, no! -- re-wear an outfit that I've worn before?

The real problem is that, the more ubiquitous this advice becomes, the trendier it seems, and the more people who don't really need to worry about spending stop spending. The Consumer Confidence Index plummeted to 25.0 last month, down from 76.4 in February 2008. And though that 25.0 represents an all-time low, "we've been hitting a new all-time low for a few months in a row now," says Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center, which compiles the reports. "People are in savings mode." The factors that will raise the confidence level? People's willingness to spend both in the present and six months into the future. In other words, if we -- the rich included -- don't get over our consumptive guilt, our economy will continue to tank.

This all gets complicated as we struggle to both save enough to preserve ourselves and spend enough to keep the country going. Perhaps that's why the advice we're being barraged with is so incongruous to our current situation. Watching the local news one recent night, I caught a segment on how to save money but still look fabulous. The reporter was suggesting layaway. Really? I remember my mother putting clothes for my sister and brother and me on layaway at TJ Maxx when we were young -- clothes we needed since we were fast-growing kids. And yes, it may make sense for children's clothes or such big-ticket items as lawn mowers and appliances, but for the latest in spring fashions? Either you don't have the money so you don't buy those non-essentials, or you do have the money, so you do.

Then there are the things to file under the category "Ridiculous Pronouncements from People Who Used To Have Gobs of Money." I read a roundup of first-person accounts in a magazine recently about what it feels like to be laid off. This is the kind of article that can be helpful, or even just voyeuristic -- making some feel better for still having their jobs, allowing others to enjoy that I'm-not-alone feeling. But in the end, I can't imagine that many readers got through it without getting angry. One woman, a former finance exec, talked about eating leftovers. "We never did that before," she said.

I'm no Suze Orman, but maybe that's why this woman -- and many of us -- are having financial freakouts right now. And maybe, with the kind of faux advice we're getting every day, that's why we'll continue to have them.

Take restaurant reviews. The favorite topic these days? Recession specials -- where to get a good meal for less. Often, these are gourmet meals whose prices have simply begun to deflate to levels approaching normal. Thanks for the advice. But how about this: If you can't afford to eat out, don't do it. Or when you just have to, for whatever psychological or physical reason, go someplace you can afford.

The funny thing is, most of us know this. And the fact that this advice is so common-sensical points out that we're not all in this together. The ship may be going down, sure, but some of us are locked in steerage while others are floating away on the lifeboats. And the fact that those sailing away on the rafts are play-thrashing as if they're drowning, too, adds insult to the recession-inflicted injuries.

If anything, the division of wealth is clearer now. Before, I didn't feel disadvantaged, and most of the time, I still don't. I have some money in my savings account, a nice rented apartment and what I think is a pretty good lifestyle. But when I read that a burger that costs nearly 20 bucks is considered cheap, I start to feel like Oliver Twist -- holding out my hands for seconds of foie gras rather than porridge.

The recession-chic advice isn't for the people who actually need it. It's for the people who put their summer homes on the market, not those who've lost the only home they had. Because those are the people who have been reheating their Tupperware in the microwave for years. And when it comes down to it, if you need to be told that packing your lunch saves money, you're probably not someone who needs to pack your lunch. So please don't pretend that you are.

For those of us in the middle who were hovering just a tad too far above our means, perhaps this chic hyperbole can, at the very least, serve as a good reminder of gravity. Recently, I finished a loaf of bread before it went stale for the first time in years, thanks to my resurrected peanut butter sandwich habit. My brown-bagging grandfather, were he still alive, would be proud. Then he'd ask me why, gosh darnit, I hadn't been packing my lunch all along. Did I think I was rich or something?


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