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Embrace Your Inner Cheapskate

One man challenges himself to go one week without spending a cent and finds the sacrifices are more than he bargained for.

By Steve Almond
Couple with a dog in a living roomMaira Kalman

Money Matters

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.”



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.”

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