I’ve always identified with Scrooge — both the Scrooge at the end of the story who sees that money well-spent can ameliorate human suffering, and, critically, the Scrooge at the beginning who hates spending so much he doesn’t heat his home or office and dines on free street-cart soup. (One suspects, when Scrooge theorizes Marley might be a hallucination caused by eating too-old cheese or a moldy potato, he’s speaking from experience.)
Even after he decides he likes Tiny Tim, I don’t think miser Scrooge really goes away. I think he still wears shoes with worn-down heels and sleeps on threadbare sheets. I too speak from experience. I’ve often had to make spending rules for myself, inverse to the way most people budget: You must spend above x on [category] by [deadline]. Otherwise, my subconscious does background math to keep me under a limit I’m not aware I’ve chosen.
For instance, I’ve noticed that every time I make a quick run to the grocery to grab whatever odds and ends strike my fancy, I spend $21, give or take a few cents. I’m not trying to spend $21. I don’t scrutinize price tags and jot down a calculation. From my perspective, I stop loading my basket because I’m satisfied. But the consistency of my purchases tells me I’m wrong. I stop because some hidden part of me has allocated precisely $21 per trip for food whimsy, and that part of me is watching price tags. I can trick it by going to the grocery twice in the same day, and I can overpower it with a shopping list. But I can’t pretend I don’t have a built-in speed governor every time I aim to be spontaneous and lavish, particularly on purchases that benefit mostly me. I may not know how much to ask for as a salary, but I seem to possess an immutable sense of how much I’m worth.
Although I have always had access to money and a practical understanding of what it can buy or build, when given the option of getting something nice for myself, the something that always seems nicest is not spending money. To make the basic purchases that allow me to function as an adult, I have to maintain a fairly complex awareness that I am participating in the economy as a matter of civic duty which allows my fellow citizens to have money. I imagine the same of the redeemed Scrooge: he rebuffs Malthus and jumps straight into Keynesianism, but never gets the same pleasure out of a trip to the seaside that he would from stacking and re-stacking pennies like a rosary.
A Different Kind of Peer Pressure
Usually, my latent Scrooge is kept somewhat in check by peer pressure, by which I don’t mean I have to wear the right jacket or go to the right restaurant, but instead that if I leave something conspicuously kludgy for too long, a friend with no more money than me (or sometimes less money) will step in to buy a replacement. This is to be avoided, as is wasting time through arrogance — doing things the long-but-cheap way to prove I can, despite the inconvenience to the people who are waiting on me.
However, when I went to grad school in London, I had a rare opportunity: I was spending a lot of money on something that I believed would make the world a better, happier place. And I was simultaneously not spending money at a rate I had never been allowed to not spend money before, because I was living in a different country than everyone who might notice and intercede.
I wouldn’t say I became a monster. Instead, I remained a pretty kind person — no usurious loans to old women who knit, no threats to kick a clerk out onto the street. I was even sought after, partly for my determination to keep group projects on budget. I was, however, someone whose motivation was always, on some level, fiduciary. And since I was obviously someone with access to money, someone who never directly complained about money, this motivation was invisible, like the distortions added by a camera lens.
I lived in a hostel. Specifically, I lived in the cheapest room available in a hostel, and only lived there while school was in session. Therefore, I needed to be able to switch rooms — from doubles to triples to quads — on a moment’s notice. Therefore, I had to keep my possessions at bare minimum: two pairs of shoes, two pairs of jeans, a rotation of poly-blend sweaters. (The hostel was kind enough to let me store my things in a locked closet during the months I wasn’t there.) I don’t usually wear jeans; I don’t think they’re comfortable. I prefer skirts. But I knew I could make jeans last through the year as I walked through inclement weather, because I walked everywhere. If I could walk it in less than two hours, I walked. Otherwise, a bus. The underground I considered frivolously expensive. I kept my hair long so I wouldn’t have to pay for haircuts, or for the tools to cut my own hair and clean up afterward.
I’m sure I mostly seemed dowdy, if anyone thought of it. I couldn’t invite people over, for obvious reasons — or I could, but it made them uncomfortable. No privacy, no place to sit. I turned down invitations because they’d cost too much. (I budgeted a half beer at the bar every Friday for networking purposes.) I ate lunch from food carts, £2 a meal, and dinner from the microwave, £1.50. (I had no kitchen but the communal microwave, and no refrigerator, so my TV dinner had to be purchased while walking home and then eaten immediately. Staying out later than the grocery was open could mean no dinner.) I was scrupulously on time to meetings, where there were often pastries.
Too Tightfisted to Text
One friend with a business background figured out I’d phone him whenever a topic might necessitate more than one text message, because a brief phone call would be cheaper. I was flattered he noticed. Most everyone else thought (politely) I was a luddite instead of a data transfer nerd who deeply resented paying to piggyback on a carrier signal.
It went deeper, sometimes in ways that were healthy, and sometimes in ways that were pathological. Case in point: I storyboarded the entirety of my fifth-term film so we wouldn’t have to build any part of the set that stayed out of frame — a budget-saving trick I picked up from reading about the Coen brothers. By coincidence, it also helped me communicate with my crew and gave my movie a lot of visual flair. (Some of the arty angles were excuses to not build walls, although my thesis essay invented more philosophical motivations.) Then, after the film was a success with my teachers and colleagues, earmarked for a long and attention-getting tour of the festival circuit, I failed to submit it to more than a handful of long-shot prestige festivals from which it was rejected, because I resented paying submission fees.
To put that in plainer English: I spent thousands of dollars making a movie, at a school for which I spent tens of thousands of dollars, with the help of talented people who similarly spent tens of thousands of dollars to go to that school. I then pretty much guaranteed nobody would ever see it, because I didn’t want to spend a few hundred dollars printing up fancy DVDs and bribing some stooge in Fresno to watch them. That’s not just my work I buried. That’s the artistry of my editor, my actors, the score composers, the production designer, my camera and lighting crew, all of whom volunteered for the exposure.
Controlling the Inner Miser
It sounds like a humblebrag, my excess financial abstemiousness. But it’s the anorexic version of thrift, in the same way OCD isn’t simply being really organized and obsessive stalking isn’t just loving someone a lot. If I don’t control myself — if I give in to my baser instincts for too long — I endanger myself. I take unfair advantage of my friendships. I worry my family. I withdraw, in major ways, from a world I think would rather have my presence. I turn into Smaug, asleep on a pile of dwarven gold.
These days, when I meet up with friends from film school, they’re startled by some of the immediately obvious differences. I dress stylishly, with a lot of variation. I keep my hair short and brightly colored. I cook. I stay out late. I live in beautifully-appointed spaces with comfortable furniture and good music. I travel to places that aren’t within walking distance of my apartment. I answer my phone and let conversations last as long as they need to. I’m the me I’ve been for most of my life, the me most people picture when they hear my name.
I’m not spending that much more money, but I’m no longer spending the minimum above vagrancy. Because the perverse thing about my chronic underspending is that I prefer beautiful things and miss them when they’re absent. I will happily devote hours to comparing rare wood grains, or oysters caught off different coasts.
I think some of my school friends believe they met me at a bad time, that I was depressed and in hiding, and am doing better now. To some extent, they’re right. The way I am now is the way I’ve chosen to be — as a friend, as an artist, as someone who strives to engage with the world and not just survive it. But my miser days weren’t a fog of misery, not from the inside. Instead, they were a special time when I could be honest about who I am: a person with a spending problem.
This post originally appeared on The Billfold. This story is an op/ed contribution and does not necessarily represent the views of Credit.com or its partners.
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