Embrace Your Inner Cheapskate

Maira KalmanMaira KalmanHere, one man challenges himself to go one week without spending a cent and finds the sacrifices (no morning coffee?!) are more than he bargained for

I like to think of my attitude toward money as enlightened. Last summer, for instance, I received a letter informing me that I had won a small grant from the state of Massachusetts The next day I was informed that I was being audited -- by the state of Massachusetts. Ah well, I thought. The state giveth and the state taketh away.

My friends and family see my attitude toward money in slightly different terms. "You're a total miser" is how my darling wife, Erin, puts it.

In fact, it's a bit worse than that. I'm one of those irritating guys who try to convert self-deprivation into a virtue. I buy my pants secondhand. I hoard hotel soap and used aluminum foil. I eat the not-too-badly-chewed leftovers off my daughter's plate. And I constantly rail against consumerism.

Which is why I recently subjected myself to a little experiment: Could I go a week without spending a single penny? Here was my big chance to showcase all that adorable righteousness! To stage a tour de force, a morality play in seven daily acts!

This wasn't how I sold the plan to my wife, though. I assured her the point of the challenge was (at least partly) to help me come to terms with my superior attitude toward money. Confronting my reliance on currency might actually lead me to be less judgmental, I argued.

My wife sighed deeply. "Oh God," she said. "This is going to be so annoying."

Saturday

The day begins with my normal ritual: a squash match against my nemesis, Zach. Before we step onto the court, I inform him, apropos of nothing, that I won't be spending any money for the next week. He looks confused, perhaps because he has never before seen me spend money.

In the third game, I rip an incredibly macho forehand and our ball goes dead.

"I'll buy us another," I say. "Oh, wait a second..."

A miffed Zach marches to the front desk to buy the ball himself.

On the way home, we stop to pick up buns from Erin 's favorite Portuguese bakery. I could argue that I'm not buying the buns for myself, but rules are rules, so I beg Zach to pay for them.

"Come on," I say. "I'll pay you back next week."
"Isn't that just a deferred purchase?" Zach asks.

I ponder this question, weighing its logic against the prospect of returning home to my wife bunless.

"Listen," I say. "The lettuce in our garden is going crazy. Buy me these buns and I'll give you a bushel of romaine. Dude, that's a straight-up barter." (See Real Simple's How to Negotiate Anything)

Sunday

The day starts well. I do not proceed to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts to purchase hot liquid crack. I do not buy the morning paper. Instead, I meditate on the contents of my soul. (This does not take long.)

My afternoon plan is to watch the finals of the European soccer championships at my friend Karl's, but his wife has just had a baby so supposedly they're "tired." We don't have a TV, so I end up at an Irish pub, where the bartender stares at me for 20 minutes, waiting for my drink order. I slink out at halftime.

Monday

Erin and I are on our way back from running an errand with our two-year-old daughter, Josephine. It's rush hour in Boston , and traffic is barely moving.

"Hey," Erin says. "Let's go to a restaurant."
"Very funny. No spending means no spending."
"Gnocchi in vodka sauce," she says. "Mmm. Shrimp Scampi. Lobster ravioli."
"Please shut up," I say.

We dine on day-old sandwich wraps at home.

Tuesday

Getting a haircut has become increasingly disconcerting as I've entered my slow but inexorable march toward Captain Picarditude. Still, it has become essential that I visit my stylist, Linda, at least once a month, lest my remaining follicles pouf in a manner recalling Robby Benson during his Ice Castles phase. Complicating matters is the fact that Josephine will be coming along for her debut haircut. (SeeThe Best Time of Day to Get a Haircut)

Heading home, I pull up at a stoplight. A 10-year-old kid walks up to my window, holding a bucket with the name of a homeless children's shelter.

"I'm sorry," I say. "I can't spend money this week."

Erin digs a handful of quarters from her purse and reaches across my lap. "Here," she says to the kid. "Take this. I apologize. My husband is an idiot."

At this point, three things occur to me, more or less simultaneously: 1. I am an idiot. 2. I spend a lot more money than I ever realized or would admit. 3. While I enjoy having an excuse not to spend money, I do not enjoy feeling like an idiot.

See What Happened Wednesday

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