Tightening the Belt

In the latter half of 2003, my status as a gainfully employed citizen of this country became sporadic, which is to say I got fired. I won’t rehash the details — you show up to the office pantsless ONE TIME…! — but I will say that I’m glad I’d been dumped in romantic situations before — many times, often by the same person, occasionally through the use of strongly worded restraining orders — because this prepared me for the experience of being fired.

That’s what being fired is, really. It’s your job breaking up with you. Your boss says, “You’ve been nice, but I think it would be best if I saw other employees.” And you try to remind your boss of all the good times you’ve had, and how you’ve been great for each other, but to no avail. Really, the only difference between being fired and being dumped is that at least people who fire you have the honesty to say, “It’s not me; it’s you,” instead of the other way around.

There are some benefits to being unemployed. Not having to go to work every day comes to mind. But the downside is that no job means no income, and without an income, it’s difficult to buy things. And when I had a job, buying things was one of my favorite pastimes, up there with making purchases, shopping for items, and obtaining products by exchanging money for them. I was extravagant with money! I’d go out to eat every single day for lunch, and often for dinner, too, and sometimes I would stop by a modestly priced restaurant between lunch and dinner, pay for some food, and then just throw it in the bushes. When approached by people on the street asking for spare change, I would frequently buy them automobiles. There was no limit to my spending habits.

When I lost my job, though, I knew my savings would run out soon. Probably within the hour, in fact, because my savings consisted of 50 cents, and I needed a candy bar. The lavish lifestyle had to stop, at least until I found another source of income. And so for the first time since college, I had to start finding ways of conserving money.

Coincidentally, one of the last things I wrote for the newspaper I was dismissed from was a brief, humorous item on a book I’d discovered called “The Tightwad Gazette,” a compilation of newsletters by Amy Dacyczyn in which she and her readers offer helpful hints on living as though you were as poor as a Kentuckian.

For example, Amy suggests using scrap paper to make your own envelopes, rather than buying them. Of course, you could also go to Wal-Mart and buy 100 envelopes for 79 cents, YOU CHEAPSKATE! To me, saving 79 cents a year is the same as saving zero cents a year. The figures are too close to be distinguished from one another. But maybe it was precisely that attitude that had put my finances into such dire straits.

(By the way, you can buy “The Complete Tightwad Gazette,” an even more thorough volume than the one I found, at Amazon.com for $13.99, making it the only self-help book in history whose philosophies prohibit buying it.)

So taking the principles behind “The Tightwad Gazette” to heart, I began looking for ways to spend less money. I started visiting grocery stores regularly, not just to buy ice cream or to steal magazines, but to buy actual groceries, things I could use at home in preparing meals. I canceled a few subscriptions and memberships that I didn’t need. I told the Laotian kids who worked in my sweatshop that I couldn’t afford their salaries anymore, and I released them back to their parents’ custody. Tough times call for drastic measures.

Within a few months, I noticed something: I was living on a vastly smaller income, yet I was not starving or doing desperate, crazy things like canceling my TiVo service. I had learned to live within my means, something I’d never been able to do even when I had larger, more spacious means. If I had lived this cheaply back when I HAD money, I’d be rich now, and I wouldn’t have to live like this.

Probably the most pitiful thing I did in all my cutbacks involved RC Willey, a Utah-based chain of furniture stores. Most Saturdays, they offer free hot dogs and sodas out behind the store, to encourage families to come shopping together. And so what I did was, I went to RC Willey just to eat the free hot dogs, drink the free soda, and therefore not have to pay for lunch that day.

It’s not like there are signs saying, “Hot dogs are for customers only,” and you do have to walk through the store to get to the hot dogs, so there’s always the chance something will catch your eye and you’ll make an impulse purchase, like an armoire or something. Plus, I have bought things there before, including two beds, a couch, a loveseat, a kitchen table, four chairs, a car stereo and a life-size plastic dog named Junko. I think I’m entitled to a few free hot dogs, thank you very much!

OK, I’m rationalizing. In truth, I’d have gone there even if the hot dogs were right out front, and even if I’d never shopped there before. They were free, and I wanted them. But as I was eating my free, ethically questionable frankfurters, I cast my eyes about and observed that I was clearly not the first person to think of doing this. There were many hot dog eaters in attendance who clearly were not shopping at RC Willey that day or any day. I noticed five or six mentally challenged adults from a group home, brought there by a supervisor to enjoy the free wieners. There was also a non-mentally challenged woman who was wearing pajama pants, and I figure someone who cannot afford to buy pants to wear when she leaves the house surely cannot afford to buy furniture, either. There were numerous unsupervised children. I wondered if parents dropped their kids off at the hot dog store while they dashed over to Home Depot or Sears or something.

I suppose RC Willey probably knows that people are mooching off them. They know they’re running a soup kitchen, and I applaud them for doing it. One free lunch every now and then helps, especially when you’re on a tight budget. (For the record, I fed those Laotian kids lunch EVERY DAY.)

It had been more than six months since my last column was published, so while it was hard to get back in the "Snide Remarks" groove again, it was a good feeling once I'd done it. This was actually the third column I wrote after the hiatus; I published it first because it seemed like a fitting reintroduction.

This column also marked the beginning of "Snide Remarks" via subscription, where all of a sudden people had to PAY to read the column. Previously, it had appeared in newspapers, and I'm relatively certain no one had ever bought the paper just to read the column. Either they were buying it anyway, or they read the column for free on the Internet. So it was a leap of faith to expect people to pay for something that had previously been free, but I took a gamble that people would miss "Snide Remarks" enough to be willing to pay to have it back. It was sort of a like a kidnapping scenario: Pay me this ransom or you'll never see "Snide Remarks" alive again. Thank goodness it worked out better for me than it does for most of the kidnappers I see in movies.