Home > 2015 > Personal Finance

The Trouble With Being Scrooge

Advertiser Disclosure Comments 0 Comments

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.

More from The Billfold:

Image: iStock

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team