Everyday Thrift

Margo Howard | Posted on 09/01/04

To be thrifty can imply different things. In the flattering sense it refers to someone who is wise with money. As a pejorative, it can be code for "tighter than a tick." When a rich man is thrifty, he is frugal. When a seeming bag lady dies with lots of bucks in the bank, she is nuts. One might say that booty is in the eye of the beholder.

According to people who observe popular culture, ostentation is back in style, having taken a powder in the '90s. But paradoxically, thrift is in again, too. Parents are interested anew in teaching children the value of money; newspapers and magazines run articles about how to do it. And sometimes concern with thrift is a tip-off that someone is really rich and the money is old.

Funny thing, money. Most people are a little neurotic about it, and they use it to act out. "Retail therapy," for example, is a spending spree born of unhappiness, boredom, or mania. Conversely, depriving oneself of something easily affordable is a kind of expiation. And of course socially ambitious people never wish to be seen as thrifty. The keeping-up-with-the-Joneses set has apparently taken too literally that old admonition, "If you have to ask what it costs, you can't afford it."

My late mother, Ann Landers, was a breathtaking example of someone in whom great extravagance and quirky parsimony could live very comfortably together. No stranger to acquiring sable coats, neither could she bear to discard a stamp that had somehow made it through the canceling process unscathed. Having grown up during the Depression, she compulsively felt the need to salvage these negotiable instruments. Receiving thousands of letters a day positioned her to act upon this impulse. Not to rescue them was, to my mother, wasteful. She experimented with various techniques for separating stamp from envelope so that it could be reused. As Mother wrote to me, she had discovered the secret: Don't soak the stamp in water; use tea. For a while, the girls in her office were charged with liberating the eligible stamps until the bravest among them finally said, "Eppie, we're not doing this anymore. It's a federal offense."

Everyone knows the old saying, "Money talks," and the cost of a gift always has something to say. While we're advised not to look a gift horse in the mouth, nowhere is it written that we can't try to decipher what the horse is saying. When thrift is exercised in gift buying, it is so noted by the recipient. When extreme thrift is used, as in "regifting," it is often regarded by the recipient as, well, cheap. It is not so much that one man's meat is another man's poison as it is that one man's poison is another man's poison.

In gift-giving, the degree of thrift can say a lot. And of course thrift can get one in trouble. I knew a man who gave his wife a galvanized trash can for Valentine's Day. In addition to this being a relatively inexpensive gift, it was one that could also be considered "useful," always a sign of the thrifty.

One common activity of the thrifty is comparison-shopping. In the old days they would drive around from store to store (or phone up) for the best price, but now the Internet makes it a breeze.

Many years ago I spent a summer on Cape Cod, where the fishmonger would appear, every Saturday morning, in the parking lot of the post office. The first time I went I bought lobsters (of course) and then bumped into a friend who had a house there. I raved about what a great buy they were.

"Are you crazy?" he asked. "This guy ought to wear a mask and hold a gun."

"But it's so much cheaper than a restaurant!" I responded.

"Margo," he said with resignation, "that is not how we comparison shop."

And that was the way I learned that I was thrift-impaired. An affinity for thrift must be an innate thing. One can try a little harder, but in the end, when it comes to money, one's approach is often a personality quirk. So in sum, you can bet your bottom dollar that a penny saved is a penny earned and a fool and his money are soon parted, but to coin a phrase ... buck up.