1 So It Turns Out I'm Pretty Cheap | The Billfold

So It Turns Out I’m Pretty Cheap

Give me Golden Rounds or give me Crisp'itz

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


17 Comments / Post A Comment

sovereignann (#197)

As a person who washes the zip-lock type plastic bags when they haven’t been used to marinate meat, I’m with you! Especially since I have worked at a grocery before and KNOW FOR A FACT that the store brand cream cheese you get is made by the same people who make the name brand, same with milk, canned and frozen veggies, and lots and lots of things. But yes, this comes for me anyway, from a one income home and a mom who was raised by her depression era grandparents (Germans too, if you want to get really stereotypical). There are certain things I will spend money on. Tide for example. I am also queen of the spatula when I cook, you could almost use the pans again after I have put the leftovers away. I also swish water or milk around the jars sauces come out of. I prefer to think of it as environmentally friendly, but I know it is a “waste not want not” thing.
Also, when I was a really young kid there weren’t generics so things really were just Tupperware, Zip-Lock, Reynolds Wrap, Dole, Libby, etc. meaning we had to save where we could. Now you can get plastic containers when you buy sliced meat.

Dancercise (#94)

My parents were of the mindset “Buy the highest quality you can afford and make it last a long time.” So while we were frugal, we always had the name-brand stuff. Now that I’m on my own, I’ve discovered the money-saving joys of buying the store brand and getting the same quality stuff for cheaper. Tastee-Os instead of Cheerios? Lay ‘em on me.

Yes. Yes. Yes. I calculate all my food purchases by the price per ounce/unit to make sure the /best possible deal/ is had. And I get so itchy if I have to spend more than $15 or $20 on an article of clothing. An added factor in my cheapskate development is the fact that my family, while always shopping exclusively in the clearance section, was never very good with money. So now they aren’t in a great place for retirement/paying off the mortgage/etc, which freaks me out.

Ooh, I ran errands today and bought CVS-brand razors, mouthwash, and cotton swabs. Love my store-brand toiletries.

…and then I spent over $20 on a carton of (fancy local free-range) eggs, a quart of (fancy local grass-fed cow’s milk) yogurt, and a hunk of (fancy French? I think?) Gruyere. I need help.

Ouch, yes, this is me. And now I rationalize it via environmentalism. I make my own yogurt- because I can get local milk in glass jars, and the final product will never touch plastic! I bake my own bread- because I want to feed my kids organic, and 50# bags of organic whole-wheat flour are more affordable than a few loaves of organic bread! It’s a sickness, but there are far worse ones in the world.

Spinach Party (#253)

@Sarah Rain@facebook Yes! my frugality and tree-hugging meet at a lovely, sick, awesome, cheap intersection of crazy-ville. But it’s beneficial in the end, no lasting damage, right?

Megano! (#124)

I don’t usually care about buying generic or not, but there are a few things where it ABSOLUTELY MATTERS: rice krispies (there is a huge, huge difference, in that the real ones taste like homemade, and the generics taste like chemically lumps of sadness), yogurt, and Neal’s Brother’s cheetos. Oh and Amy’s frozen pizzas and meals, but those are so expensive I only buy them ocassionally and if they’re on sale.

acerbia (#203)

“Spendthrift” actually means the opposite of thrifty: spending extravagantly, wastefully, prodigiously. It’s deeply counterintuitive, isn’t it?

From what I gather, it originated from people who spent the fruits of inherited thrift.

jkizzlemurphy (#205)

As someone that makes $10 an hour out of college, this is probably some good advice I should listen to. Except I kept the brand name shampoo because I have dry, curly hair.

mecmec (#208)

Yeah, I am the only person in my grad program who shops at Food Lion and Family Dollar on the regular. And I got into this whole baking soda instead of shampoo thing (thanks Hairpin!) partially because of the savings. My parents just instilled in me the idea that wasting money is immoral. That said, I do impulse buy things drunk on the internet every once in a while.

There are some pretty significant savings from buying store brand. Buying Target brand razors/vs Gillete, or Target brand mouthwash vs Listerine…

It leaves one money to spend on things that actually matter like organic food when possible…

(I must say that I prefer to splurge on Charmin TP, as the store brand stuff really does blow.)

My parents were of the “only buy what’s on special” mentality but thinking back, they weren’t particularly of a “generic brand only” mindset. By shopping smart Mum managed to pick up brand name stuff most of the time.

I definitely buy generic most of the time but there are some items where brand really matters – and people who tell you otherwise piss me off, as I blogged last week (http://eemusings.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/personal-finance-topics-im-so-over/).

@eemusings@twitter I’m the same way. I buy a lot of store brand stuff but I am particular about brand when it comes to certain things. In some cases it’s a matter of quality or taste, but when it comes to my favorite foods I’ll buy the brands I like best.

For those of you who have a Wegmans near you: their store brand is just as good as or better than the name brand equivalent. The only thing I’ve ever been disappointed in was their Honeycomb cereal, which gets soggy too quickly.

@jen325 I agree wholeheartedly about Wegmans, specifically their macaroni & cheese. It’s, like, $.33/box. The directions want you to add way too much butter, though. Also, get the spirals. Spirals > Elbows.

@Vicky Johnson@twitter I don’t have a problem with the butter, but I use nonfat milk so in my case the extra butter probably helps more than it hurts. And you’re right, the spirals are great!

Spinach Party (#253)

I think we have the same exact disease. I’m actually looking forward to trying my hand at yogurt-making in the next couple of weeks…. Also I think your mother’s voice sounds a lot like my own mother’s voice. Every article of clothing I wore as a kid came from Bradlee’s (but only on sale!!).

Brian (#1,134)

Spendthrift = Buying stuff because you want it, not need it. You haven’t figured out how to say no to yourself yet.
Thrifty = Buying stuff you need cheaply. Not buying stuff you do not need just because it’s a great deal.
Cheapskate = Trying not to buy stuff you need and figuring ways to beat the system by getting stuff “free”

The spendthrift will be broke come retirement.
The thrifty will be secure financially.
The cheapskate will be unhappy most of their life.

You are weird for doing what you’re doing. Then again, weird isn’t broke. Don’t trust the Joneses. They’re broke too.


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