Anything for a Buck

A conversation with Julie Rottenberg, author of the August 2009 Life Lessons essay.

Real Simple’s Noelle Howey spoke with proudly frugal Julie Rottenberg, a coproducer and scribe for Sex and the City and the author of the Life Lessons essay “Anything for a Buck” (August 2009), about adapting to the recession, her writing process, and what she’s working on next.

Real Simple: I know you just went on a vacation. Since, as you noted, you’re famously tight with money, how hard was it for you to spend cash while you were there?
Julie Rottenberg: When I first got to France and withdrew a bunch of euros from an ATM, I experienced a rare moment of alternate personality. Maybe because they weren’t real dollars (those euros are so pretty!), they didn’t feel like actual money. It was like play money, and I found I was able to spend much more freely than I ever would at home. But that didn’t last long, as the reality of the exchange rate set in, and my old frugal-calculator brain emerged from my jet-lagged, free-spending haze. I do try to be less money-conscious when I’m on vacation, but I still get a thrill if I can manage to get a good deal somewhere or when we cook at the house instead of eating out at a pricey restaurant.

RS: This is the second Life Lessons essay you’ve written for Real Simple. What do you think makes for a successful (and funny) essay?
JR: Well, I’m definitely still trying to figure that out! I guess the only way I know how to write an essay is to be as honest as I can, and I’ve found the Life Lessons column a particularly hospitable place for that. After seeing the response to my piece about my sleep obsession [Ed. note: The magazine received dozens of letters from readers praising an essay that Rottenberg wrote about her unabashed love for sleep], I was reminded that no matter how freaky or embarrassing I may think one of my traits is, there are always going to be other people out there who relate―which is hugely reassuring.

RS: How does writing for TV―say, Sex and the City―compare to writing essays such as this one? Do you approach the writing process differently in each case?
JR: Sex and the City was this hugely collaborative effort involving my fellow writers, the actors, directors, costume and set designers, editors, prop masters, camera operators, and a million crew members―not to mention all the previous story lines and character histories we had to take into account for each new script. In comparison, writing an essay for Real Simple is just that―real simple―because it’s just me, sitting at my computer, jotting out an essay as if I were talking to a friend.

RS: What are you reading these days?
JR: I just finished Identical Strangers, by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, about two women who discovered in their mid-30s that they are identical twins, and now I’m reading a phenomenal memoir, The Kids Are All Right, by Liz and Diana Welch.

RS: What’s your next project?
JR: Along with my writing partner, Elisa Zuritsky, I’m writing a movie called Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched, based on a New York Times Modern Love column about a woman who uses techniques from an exotic-animal training school to save her marriage. And we’re also developing a new comedy series for television that will probably focus on women, friendship, and love (our favorite topics!).
 

The Essay

My grandmother had a saying: “People are funny when it comes to money.” She could have been talking about me. I’ve always been insanely frugal, no matter what my financial situation. It’s not just that I bring my own bag of candy to the movies. I also drive miles out of my way to save 70 cents on tomatoes and patronize drugstores only where I have a frequent shopper’s card, and I have been known to return grocery items with the intention of buying them again when they go on sale. When I first started dating Ben (who is now my husband) and he noticed that I was reusing paper napkins, he asked, “Uhhh, did you grow up in the Depression or something?” I remember blushing, crumpling up my two-week-old napkin, and throwing it away. (Sob. Good-bye, old friend!) I understood that my coupon-clipping ways weren’t cool and tried to keep them safely hidden from view.

But then the financial world collapsed and everything changed. For the better, I daresay. Yes, the beauty of the total global economic meltdown―for me, anyway―is that now everyone is freaking out about money. I’m not alone anymore! Like never before, I’m free to obsess about my quest for bargains and freer still to worry openly about money―a habit that’s a fundamental part of my identity. I’m in recession heaven.

For years I shamefully hid the generic version of Total cereal that I buy (Ben calls it “Sub-Total”) in the back of the cupboard, but now I proudly display it on the counter, where it can be admired in all its $2.50 glory. At my local drugstore, I loudly grouse about the price of my hair product being raised without worrying about sounding shrill. I don’t have to explain why I can’t fly across the country to attend my great-aunt’s 90th-birthday party; everyone understands. Pre-recession, if I was out with a group at a restaurant, I panicked if someone ordered sparkling water for the table. Now I request “Tap, please,” and no one objects.
 
The economic downturn has also helped my marriage. In the past, if Ben and I were at a store looking at two similar items, he would want to buy the more expensive one and I would want the less expensive one. Because the item is more expensive, it must be better, he would argue. Post-recession, Ben has abandoned his profligate ways. Recently I noticed an odd charge on a bill from our accountant. In the old days, if I had brought up something like this, Ben would sigh heavily and I would know the answer was “Just let it go.” But this time he was in more of an uproar than I was. In fact, I now find I’m being outfrugalled―which, frankly, is a little disconcerting. If we’re both focused on saving money, what will we argue about?

My thrifty roots can be traced directly back to my father, who loved a good bargain. While my mother never seemed worried about money (if I couldn’t decide between two types of candy at the drugstore, she would say, “Oh, just get them both!”), my father was constantly looking to save a few cents. And I do mean cents. I remember him taking my sister and me ice-skating one Sunday in Philadelphia, where we lived. When we got to the rink, we learned that, because it was Easter, anyone who brought decorated eggs was entitled to a discount. The word discount had barely been uttered before my father was schlepping us back home on the bus (we didn’t own a car) to find some eggs to decorate. Given that we are Jewish, we hadn’t realized it was Easter Sunday, and none of us had any idea how to decorate eggs. My dad’s attitude was “How hard can it be?” and he found us some ballpoint pens and Magic Markers, which we used to draw on a few eggs. (We now know you’re supposed to hard-boil them first.)

Although I was occasionally mortified by my father’s frugality, I grew up to be just like him. Even after graduating from college and landing my first job with a decent salary, I still kept myself on an insanely meager budget. I would pass construction workers on the street at lunchtime and marvel that they were all drinking Snapples with their lunches, while I opted for a sad thermos of water from home.

Around this time, I realized I was spending way too much of my life focused on not spending and decided to buy something extravagant, just to prove to myself that I could. The experiment was less than successful. When I announced to my mother that I had splurged on myself, she muffled a laugh and said, “Really? What did you buy―a Slurpee?” “No,” I snapped. (It was a cappuccino.)
 
That’s not to say that I’ve never been forced to make a staggeringly large purchase or two. For example, I was drawn―reluctantly and by Ben―into the housing-market frenzy. After a decade of renting a one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up apartment in New York City, we set out to buy something bigger. Our search went on for five years―partly because it was very hard to find something we could afford, but mostly because the prospect of making such a big purchase made me physically ill. (Remember―we’re talking about someone who pilfers mustard packets.)

When we finally had an accepted offer on an apartment we liked, I had a massive panic attack. On the one hand, I had scrimped and saved all this money over my whole life, presumably for just this kind of purchase―a home. On the other hand, knowing I had that nest egg in the bank was what kept me sane.

Or so I thought. In the end, the apartment we chose turned out to need a total gut renovation, wiping out my precious savings completely. This had the paradoxical effect of making me feel completely unhinged while returning me to the place where I’m most comfortable: having to worry about money. And when I realized later that we had bought our apartment at the peak of the bubble, that I had made my biggest investment at the worst possible time, well, all I could do was laugh. It was actually liberating; I had done the scariest thing in the world, and yet the earth was still spinning.

I’d like to think I’ve gained a little perspective over the years, that I’ve eased up. These days I can even drop $20 on a box of chocolates and walk out of the store feeling giddy. (I can―I swear!) But, in truth, I never feel more contented―more myself―than when I’m trying to save money.

And given the current economic climate, that makes me feel downright normal. Just the other day I stopped at the produce stand on the corner and asked the guy to knock a dollar off a box of strawberries. When he looked at me, galled, I was seized by a wave of shame. But then the produce guy shrugged and gave in, and I felt that familiar thrill―another bargain had been struck. In those brief, shining moments, I hope the Dow never goes up.