One man challenges himself to go one week without spending a cent and finds the sacrifices 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
As I ease into the chair, I explain to Linda that I plan to pay her for both haircuts...next week. “Two baldies coming up!” she shrieks, brandishing her clippers like a Ginsu knife. She’s kidding. I think.
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.
My friend Billy comes over for dinner. The plan was to make him lasagna, but Billy is deeply suspicious of any foods not prepared by restaurant professionals or his grandmother. We opt for Chinese takeout.
On the way to pick up the food, I launch into my rap about how I won’t be able to pick up the check, because, see―
“Not a problem,” Billy says. “You never pay.”
“I do too pay,” I say indignantly.
He waits for me to recall a specific instance.
I occupy the morning making a short list of things I would buy if I could: 1. The new Ike Reilly album. 2. A box of Raisinets. 3. A full-time masseuse. 4. Solar heating panels. 5. A life coach who also does pedicures. (I feel compelled to add that I would share the full-time masseuse with Erin, but only if she agreed to stop insulting me in front of panhandlers.)
Of course, if I allowed myself to spend money, I wouldn’t buy any of these things. I would deprive myself of them, very loudly. I would also harangue myself about unreasonable purchases. “Paper towels!” I would roar, as I strolled the aisles at Target. “Who needs those when you can use an old T-shirt?”
But I can’t spend money, so all I think about is spending money. I am beginning to see the appeal of those fancy catalogs Erin gets and thumbs through, sighing all the while. It’s way more fun to fantasize about purchases than to make them.
How odd. I miss the unctuous attentions of the retail sector, the vaguely cheeselike scent of crisp new bills. Most of all, I miss the brief but potent fantasy that illuminates every cash transaction in our culture: that you can buy happiness.
On my last day of mandatory penury, we head down to celebrate my wife’s birthday with her family. As we reach the tollbooth off the turnpike, Erin is asleep. The toll collector is waiting for his $1.75.
“Honey,” I whisper. No response.
This being the Massachusetts Turnpike, within five seconds a horn sounds behind us. Erin opens her eyes and looks around. “Oh, good grief,” she says.
Originally we all planned to go out Saturday night, so I could pick up the tab. But when we arrive, Erin’s mother announces that we’ll be going out tonight. Marriage has taught me this: You don’t throw down with your mother-in-law. So I now explain to my in-laws that I can’t contribute a red cent to my wife’s birthday dinner. Then I get to spend an hour after dinner watching Erin open presents. Perfume. Gift cards. Bath gel.
Had I planned more effectively, I would have gifts to offer her, too, bought weeks ago. But part of my new attitude toward money involves refusing to consider the ways in which it might make the people around me unreasonably happy.
I watch the wrapping paper pile up. “Remember those diamond earrings I got you for your birthday last year?” I keep saying. “You know the ones I mean, with the diamonds?”
Later, lying in bed, I take stock of my accomplishments. I’ve stiffed a homeless child. Nearly gotten my daughter scalped. Cheaped out on my wife’s birthday. It’s not the kind of résumé that shouts “personal growth.”
I nudge Erin. “Sweetie? What do you want for your birthday?”
“Sleep,” she murmurs.
“Seriously,” I whisper. “I will get you absolutely anything you want.”
I assume she’s thinking about how best to call my bluff. Does she want a bigger house, one with an actual dining room? A car manufactured in this century? Then I hear a very faint snoring noise.
It’s almost midnight. I fantasize about slipping out of bed and dashing to an all-night convenience store to buy up their most expensive Hostess product. Would Erin appreciate this gesture? Possibly.
But I know what she would really like―for me to climb off my high horse and stop sweating the small purchases. To become more relaxed about money. So I lie there in the dark, relaxing about money. In the morning, my wife will get up and I’ll announce my new attitude toward money, carefully avoiding the word “enlightened.”
The only question now, really, is, Will she buy it?