"Would you like anything to drink with that?" The question should not throw me into paroxysms of despair at 7:30 on a Thursday night at IHOP, but it does.
Bad enough that we're eating out -- albeit with coupon in hand -- instead of dining on macaroni and cheese at home. Were we to compound our guilt by buying drinks, too? My boyfriend's eyes flicker to mine. He wants a Coke, but can't bring himself to order it because it's my turn to pay. Earlier this week he joked, "I wish you could get as passionate when you're talking about me as you get when you talk about saving a couple of bucks."
I laughed it off. He's used to all my frugal affectations: the hoarding of ketchup packets, the obsession with outlet malls. But tonight I wonder, what's the matter with me? I'm young. I get decent pay. Why can't I bring myself to buy my boyfriend a Coke at IHOP?
In my more defensive moments, I rationalize my cheapness by telling Nick that my penny-pinching is purely hereditary, like Type II diabetes, the product of being raised by grandparents who were world-class practitioners of the frugal arts. In fact, they were so frugal they'd consider stinginess a virtue.
Our ancestral home in Utica, N.Y., is a shrine to the gods of scrimping and saving, adorned with mismatching garage sale items and furniture that went out of date with the Partridge family.
Even today, my grandfather can't resist a good bargain, the chance to show off his skill at saving money. I knew that my grandfather was in the clutches of something insidious when he returned from a garage sale a few months ago with a computer keyboard that he had bought for one dollar. Just one dollar! What a good deal. No matter that he doesn't have a computer.
The kicker? My grandparents aren't even remotely working-class. As a physician, my grandfather probably made enough money to donate keyboards to half the disadvantaged people in Utica. But 50 years after grandpa's hard work had drawn him out of a life of poverty in South Africa, the mentality of near-destitution haunted our family. So my grandfather wore the same tired brown polyester suit for more than a decade, and my grandmother bought her reading glasses from the local drug store.
Whether they intended it or not, their values overtook my own. How can I plan a trip to Florida knowing my grandparents won't even eat dinner at Arby's without a senior citizen's discount? It has gotten to the point, I think, where my grandparents actually enjoy playing the role of financial martyrs. And although saving has never created the same undying fervor in me, I am my grandparents' granddaughter, and the thrift instinct does not let me out of its claws so easily. I often find myself rationalizing self-deprivation. After all, preoccupation with money is normal. According to a recent fiscal fitness survey by Phoenix Home Life Mutual Life Insurance Co., 85 percent of Americans worry about money, and we're not talking about just sons and daughters of the Depression era. I like to think that I'm part of a new breed of Americans that recognizes the sacrifices of fiscal responsibility.
Other times, I fear that I'm just another example of a new breed of financial neurotics. At what point does cost-cutting stop being virtuous and become a psychologically paralyzing act of abnegation? What about the classmate of mine who denies himself pain reliever because he's worried that the costly medications might just be an expensive placebo? Then there's my friend whose husband won't let her buy beer when they go out. Then there's myself, keeper of the Sunday insert section.
And yet, I am an imperfect miser. I am prone to binge shopping.
Often, this generates a guilty regurgitation of returns as my living-beneath-my-means body rejects the pleasures of wealth. The rest of the time I revel in the rebellion against the memories of my cheapskate childhood, every expenditure a triumph of will against a disease I can't escape. I remember the day in sixth grade when I asked my grandmother for money to buy my friend a present and she told me to give her something I already had. Unable to think of an argument that would loosen my grandmother's purse strings, I put together a grab bag of old items in a brown paper lunch bag.
My friend's mother exclaimed how "creative" I was to have thought of this and thanked me for putting so much thought into the present, but all I could think about was how cheap my present looked. How tawdry this frugality was. I didn't feel economical, or even efficient. I felt stingy.
Growing up with the fear of being an expenditure away from welfare, I was shocked to receive my first paycheck and realize that I had hundreds of dollars sitting in my bank account -- and more to come. Suddenly, the phrase disposable income wasn't an oxymoron.
Still, it's difficult to find the guts to buy things for myself: It takes too much energy to keep the beast of guilt at bay. Instead, I've learned the joys of buying things for other people. Signing the bill after the first time I treated a friend to all-you-can-eat sushi, I half expected to be struck by lightning, or at least turned instantly into a bag lady. But I felt nothing but an incredible surge of magnanimity. I had bought my friend unlimited unagi. And it struck me then that my grandfather's equation is dreadfully wrong. Spending isn't wasting. Spending is giving. And the giver is gifted too.
My boyfriend and I stare at each other as our waitress repeats her request. "Drinks?" she asks, impatiently. Nick can hear the cash register in my mind ringing, calculating the $1.95 for a fountain drink against the Safeway price for a marked-down 12-pack of soda. So he opens his mouth to say no, when I interrupt him. "Yes," I say. "Could we have a Coke and a nonalcoholic pina colada, please?"
When my drink comes I savor the maraschino cherry garnish, bringing back memories of the time when my best friend in high school got two cherries with her sundae by mistake, and let me have her extra one. I ration the drink carefully throughout my meal so I can have the last sip as a kind of mini-dessert. I sigh, the end-of-meal satisfaction momentarily dispelling all petty distractions. My boyfriend calls it a food orgasm. I just call it happiness.