Ok, Henry, this one's for you. You may be one of the only bipolars in existence who does not go on wild spending sprees while in a manic/hypommanic state of mind, due to your inborn, hard-wired frugality...
Today is Friday; by far the very best day of the week. Why, you ask? Is it because the weekend is here? Well, no, not exactly. My boyfriend BG and I have an entirely different reason to say TGIF.
You see, Friday is when the new sales flyers come out at BG's local Associated/Morton Williams supermarket. As we enter the automatic doors of the store, our hearts flutter in anticipation. Our breathing is rapid and shallow. Silently, as I fetch a cart, BG solemnly removes two new flyers from the pile above the ATM machine. I take a long, deep breath, trying to maintain my composure for a moment. But the two of us are instantly transported by the thrilling novelty of it all, maniacally scanning the hot-off-the-presses flyer for sales, sales, sales! while careening crazily down each aisle with our cart.
Generic instant coffee, 8 ounce jar, $1.99--normally 5.99! OK, grab about 10 of those babies. If anyone comes near you when you're plundering the aisle, just shove them out of the way.
Name brand toilet paper, normally 69 cents a roll, now five for 2 dollars--or 40 cents each! Yes, we're on a roll now, too, baby...
Brand name ice cream of the week, typically 6 bucks regular price, now 2.99 a half gallon. Tuna fish--generic for the cat, two for a dollar. Name brand for us: 99 cents each. Stock up, boys...
Let's see, we need some soda or something. How about the 2-liter Pepsi, on sale this week for 99 cents? (Coke and Pepsi usually take turns each week being the sale item). Nah, f#uck that noise--look here! This brand-name canister of ice tea mix makes 28 quarts and is on sale for four dollars off the regular price! That's gotta be the coup of the week!
Exhausted and sated, we shlep our treasures home. But we are still hungry for more bargains; fresh, undiscovered sales. So for another hit of immediate bargain-hunting gratification, the next day it's off to the local 99 cent store.
The Bronx has more 99 cent stores and cell-phone storefronts than probably anywhere else in the known universe. Problem is, some of those 99 cent stores are deceptive--they're 99 cents AND UP. At our fave, though, almost everything is 99 cents or less--excluding milk and frozen goods, which are usually $1.19. And the selection! For a mere twenty bucks, we can come out of there with enough food and provisions to amply prepare ourselves for nuclear Armageddon.
At this wondrous store, you can find everyday items for 99 cents that you would pay way more for on the "outside"--and some things you can't even find anywhere else. Every week or so, the stock guys are busily unloading floor to ceiling cartons of new goodies--and you're never sure what's going to be on the shelves next. Delicious pies, pound packages of bologia, Brie, cookies, bags of hard candy, beans in sauce, salsa, pickles, Dijon mustard. (No tofu or fresh veggies, but after all, this ain't no health food store). Plus for a dollar, you can get a perfectly wonderful birthday card, a can opener, a set of steak knives, paint rollers and brushes, food containers, night lights, brand name soaps, toothpastes, shampoos, conditioners, and oh so much more.
Shortly after BG and I met, we went grocery shopping together for the first time. I noted how carefully he scanned the sale sheet and only bought sale items. Meanwhile I heedlessly went for the stuff I wanted, regardless of price. "Don't buy it just because it's on sale," I reprimanded him. Oh, what a naieve, untutored fool I was.
The Bronx definitely doesn't have the cachet of Manhattan, and does have its hazards (see, for example, "The Crackhead Next Door," ) but the cost of living is a heck of a lot lower. The stores don't have to pay those fancy-schmancy Manhattan rents, and they pass the savings on to you. Plus, the demographics of this working class 'hood don't lend themselves to Starbucks, Barnes and Nobles, Bloomies, or Piaget. There are, however, many many jewelry stores, cell phone distributors, cheap clothing outlets, dirt cheap fruit and vegetable stands, and weird appliance places. The closest thing to a department store is a place called El Mundo (The World) which has rock-bottom clothing, furniture, appliances, and home furnishings.
BG comes from a proud line of frugal folk. He grew up poor, and his parents made him get a paper route when he was about 7, to help with the bills. He worked as a bag boy or clerk in high school so he could buy his own clothes. The usual dinner fare was hot dogs or peanut butter sandwiches--even those cheapo TV dinners were only for "rich people." The favorite phrases in the BG household were "wasteful" and "perfectly good" (as in "two dollar sneakers in a day glo color? Perfectly good." ) At nineteen, he became the youngest manager of a fast food chicken chain ever. He always held down a job which involved hard work and modest pay. And though for many years, he didn't even have a bank account due in large part to his drug habit, he never considered stealing or borrowing large sums of money or anything else underhanded. He told one therapist who asked him how much he stole to support his heroin use, "Doc, let me put it to you this way. Some people work for nice clothes. Some work for a big house, or to send their kids to college, or for a big fancy car, or to join the local country club. I worked for drugs. When I ran out of money, I didn't do the drugs. End of story." The therapist looked at him as if he had two heads.
My spending habits, on the other hand, were more up and down. When my father died, his savings and life insurance policy left me with about 50 or sixty grand. When I graduated college, I had access to all that dough. When my ex-boyfriend and I moved in together to a modest one-bedroom walkup on the Upper East Side, we did the town right. Restaurants, clubs, cabs, coke (including freebase), clothing, a trip to London. After years of this, my savings were tapped out, and we moved on to credit cards to sustain us in the lifestyle to which we had become accustomed.
Before we knew it, we had run up about 60 grand of debt between us. We had multiple credit cards, including joint accounts. We had credit cards that included a checking account line where you could pay other bills. Before the end came, we were borrowing from Peter to pay Paul: sending a check from one credit card line to pay the minimum on another credit card. Finally, just before we could no longer sustain this juggling act, we came to our senses and went to a budget/credit counseling service.
For fifty bucks a month, the service did up a budget for us, and determined how much of our paychecks we would give to them each month to distribute to each of our creditors. They negotiated with them to eliminate or lower the crippling interest rates.
Once our monthly payment was made, we had the very bare minimum to live on. In order to survive, I cooked constantly--making us dinners and leftovers to bring in for lunch. Instead of soda, we bought packets of Kool Aid at 10 for a dollar and made up gallons of the stuff. No money for movies, clubs, or restaurants. It took us about 5 years to pay it all off, and unlike bankruptcy, our credit was not completely ruined for seven years.
Before we got into that mess, I also went through some hypomanic periods where I spent quite recklessly. I laid down a 3 grand deposit towards a lavish wedding reception in a fancy Union Square restaurant (the wedding was off as soon as I descended into a severe depression). I made my would-be bridesmaids buy hundred-buck gowns that they later couldn't get reimbursed for. More recently, I almost purchased a second coop I couldn't really afford.
After this last credit card fiasco, I learned my lesson. I had secretly come to enjoy the weekend schleps to several supermarkets, cooking a 99 cent bag of beans by soaking them overnight, sorting out the rocks, and making huge pots of red beans and rice which could last for days. I chopped fresh carrots and potatoes, and got the Purdue Oven Stuffers when they were on sale, or cheap chicken legs. For the first time in my life, I really got the inkling of what the value of a dollar was.
Not long after the debt was cancelled, I met BG. Thanks to his cheapster ways, my bank account and wallet soon plumped up quite nicely.
But my ex never learned his lesson, which is why as I write this he has blown a 30 grand inheritance from his parents he got a few years back, and has accrued an additional 30 grand in debt. He lost his job awhile back, his unemployment has expired,he has not found a new job yet, and is totally broke. The coop is piled floor to ceiling with DVD's which he compulsively orders from E-bay but never watches, in large part because trying to pull one of them out from the middle of the stack would set off an avalanche. He already injured an eye when a pile of DVD's "attacked" him one night. I am currently paying the entire coop maintenance each month, as well as giving him some money for food, his phone/cable/internet, and other "necessities."
When I met BG, I still loved going to different restaurants--Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, you name it, I ate it. But BG, who worked as a saute cook in restaruants for many years, refused to go to these places in part because his tastes were simple and also because he knew what went on behind the scenes in those kitchens. So the only acceptable places to "dine out" were the two of the uber-fast food emporiums--Mickey D's or Wendy's--and occasionally a diner, but only for special occasions. Considering the huge amount of money I've saved as a result of all this, I am grateful, although I sometimes still long, , as someone on Roseanne said, to be occasionally taken out to a restaurant that doesn't have napkin dispensers.
Now that I spend a lot of time in the Bronx, life is indeed more simple. Everyone dresses in the same two-dollar El Mundo's sweats and T-shirts. You probably couldn't find caviar, filet mignon, or even a no foam Vanilla double latte even if you wanted to.
One source of anxiety, however, is the dreaded overcharge. This is the kind of thing that makes BG wake from a sound sleep screaming from a horrible nightmare about being shortchanged at the store. Our ritual at Associated is as follows: he hands me the sales sheet and has me get in front of him while he unloads the cart, silently adding up the prices in his head. Although the electronic scanners are usually accurate, occasionally a sales item will ring up wrong, and trouble ensues. He also maniacally double checks the receipt after we leave the store, and frets if he can't figure out where that extra 30 cents went. I guess that's just the price you have to pay for nabbing the sales price.
Well, now it's time to put on my shopping shoes and see what's in store for us at the supermarket this week. Attention, Associated shoppers--clear a wide path for this insane pair of supermarket-sweep cheapos!