Money and I have a fairly frigid relationship. I earn it, I save it, I use it to pay my bills — but outside of the methodical motions of routine monetary exchange, I have no idea what to do with it. I see my yuppie compatriots planning out their paychecks around Frye boots and ski trips to Utah and iPhone 4S upgrades, while I hold my money in a death grasp with a look of paralyzed consternation on my face. This is the tragic plight of a middle-class urbanite who was born and bred by cheapskate, suburban parents.
It wasn’t until college that I started to realize other people weren’t like me. I remember the moment with perfect clarity. I edited a literary magazine and was not-dating a guy who was in charge of the uber-hipster alternative weekly. This led to lots of not-really-intellectual conversations and, of course, late-night runs from the publications office to the 24-hour grocery store to procure snacks.
It was on one of these excursions to the cracker aisle that the aforementioned hipster boy reached out and grabbed a box of Ritz crackers to put in our basket. That’s right: Ritz crackers. Not “Zips” or “Crisp’itz” or “Golden Rounds,” but the real-deal, name-brand, most-expensive red box of Nabisco Ritz crackers. I was dumbfounded. Who buys name brand crackers? Heck, who buys name brand anything? I made him put them back.
It took me days to get over the initial shock of what had happened and fully explore the question of whether I really wanted to not-be with someone who was willing to throw their parents’ money away on top-shelf snack foods. At the end of my self-involved meditation, I decided that I owed it to myself to be the liberal and open-minded humanist I knew I was. I at least needed to offer my fellow man the opportunity to tell his side of the story. And so I asked him: Why would you buy name-brand crackers? And he answered: They taste better.
I was not prepared for this answer. First, it seemed to make no logical sense at all to my deeply infected spendthrift brain: All “Ritz” crackers look the same, companies must go through great pains to make them taste the same, and honestly, the crackers aren’t that great to begin with. Who cares what it’s called—when it comes down to it, you’re still eating a Ritz cracker no matter what company owns the cracker-making machine. Second, I wasn’t really sure I’d ever had a real Ritz cracker before, and if so, it was over at a friend’s house where everything tasted better and was more exciting just by virtue of being away from my parents. I realized that I had no objective, or really even subjective, way to tell whether his claim was accurate.
And third (always leave the most embarrassing, yet most truthful reason for last), there is a crazy-person chip in my head that talks to me in the voice of my mother whenever I look at name-brand products and says things like: “Sure they taste better, but do they really taste 50 cents better? I don’t think so! Besides, the Food Lion brand crackers are on sale!” and “We are not buying clothes from the Limited Too. You’re just going to outgrow them, and the JCPenney outlet has perfectly nice jeans for $9.99. We’ll buy them a size up!”
I listened carefully to both his fairly straightforward explanation and the voices in my head, and I concluded that the only way forward was to justify my illogical anxiety about spending money with self-righteous, yet confident-sounding indignation. In other words, I told him that not everyone grows up with a father who is a lawyer, and that if he didn’t have such a bourgeois upbringing, he would know that there are vastly better things he could be doing with their money than buying name-brand crackers.
I realize now that this type of thinking is probably a genetic disease passed on to me through my parents’ DNA. I’d like to say that it’s the kind of thing people like me grow out of after college or once they start making more than $35K a year. But who am I kidding? It’s probably terminal.
The only time I buy name-brand food is when I go to the grocery store on Sunday night right after the hoards have left and the spot where all the cheap yogurt should be is completely empty. The next step up is Dannon—by 40 cents. And even that requires a pep talk where I tell myself it’s OK, because when I space the $2.99 quart of plain yogurt over four days, it’s only 75 cents per day for breakfast, which is not very much, and that’s only 10 cents a day more than if I was getting the grocery store brand, and 10 cents won’t even get you five minutes of parking time on a meter downtown. So there. This may seem like therapy-worthy behavior for someone with savings in their bank account and no credit card debt, but I like to think of my psychosis as an asset.
Now, I know there are others out there who suffer from the same, illogical cheapness that I do. Perhaps I have made being a spendthrift seem too bleak, and holding the mirror up to our shared disorder has only served to heighten your already elevated anxiety about life. To you, I say that there is hope. I, myself, have made some impressive strides in trying to reverse my behavior just over the past few years. For example, when there was no cheap yogurt, I used to instead get cheap milk and make my own cheap yogurt. But then I realized that’s just plain crazy.
Annie Schutte is a school librarian in Washington, DC