For the past five years, my family’s prime mode of transportation has been a banged up 1997 Subaru. I bought it used back in 2004 before I knew how to drive — at 37, I was late getting behind the wheel — figuring it would protect me from inevitable accidents. And it has: The front license plate is bent back from where I’ve overshot front-facing parking spaces and perched it on the curb; a side door is scraped up from a faulty merge with an ice cream truck. (I had the right-of-way, dammit.)
Early on, I figured that when I became a better driver, I could give up what was essentially a bumper car and get something more grown up: No dings, no chips, something made in this century, literally. Something that wouldn’t be an eyesore on the school parking lot.
But here’s the thing: The car’s a tank. It has now outlasted and outplayed two other used cars we bought before and after it, and it is still going strong. Last time we took it to the mechanic, he said that if we replaced the head gasket, it would go for another 200,000 miles. If it was a child, we’d be thinking about colleges by now. And, honestly, I’m frugal—I can’t give up a vehicle that reliably gets me from Point A to Point B. So the car has become something else for me: A sort of barometer of how serious I am about all this blah blah I spout about living simply. Because what I’ve realized in the last few years is that, if you’re going to be cheap like me, you have to truly own it.
Fact is, there is no hiding cheapness. There’s no hiding my car. There’s no hiding the fact that I take my lunch to work when I work in the city. There’s no hiding the fact that I think that restaurant my friends just chose is a wee bit pricey, and I’d rather we go somewhere cheaper or just have coffee or take a walk instead. Or that, yes, if I go and I don’t finish my meal, yer darn tootin’ I’d like that doggy bag.
Oh, there is hiding that last one, you say? I can go and just eat an appetizer? I can stay away from bill-packing drinks and just have water? Well, yes, you’re right. You can do those things, and not have to say a word to anyone. But what I’ve found is that the not-saying makes the not-buying ten times more painful—in fact, sometimes it’s the only reason the not-buying is painful. There you sit clutching your glass of water, watching everyone order, wondering how the bill is going to get split and trying to discreetly get the waitress—who wants to do no such thing—to give you a separate check.
See how awful that was? And it was because of the hiding, not the not-spending. You can avoid all that by just being up front and declaring your cheapness as plans are being made: “I’d love to see you guys, but I’m trying to save up for a car/a house/a retirement that includes proteins. What if I meet you for drinks beforehand instead?” As a story in The Billfold said, it’s two minutes of awkwardness but then a big sigh of relief. (Don’t pull this when you’re already at the table, though—it just makes everyone with you page slowly through the menu feeling all guilty.)
And let me be clear: I’m not immune. As certain as I am that the path we’ve chosen is right for my family, when I was invited over to a friend’s house for a networking dinner, I rented a car. Oh, yes I did. I’ve also found that when I try to do a no-spend week — which I do once in awhile, the way other people do fasts, I suppose — the one thing most likely to derail me is a friend saying, “Let’s just order pizza!” when we’re hanging out and having a good time. We’re social creatures, and sometimes that expense can seem the price of admission.
But it bears remembering that most of the time, it’s not. Most of the time, “Why don’t I make some pasta instead?” is a perfectly good answer. Some of the time, I’m uncomfortable because the fact is, people around me can afford something that I can’t—but that’s just fact, and I need to deal with that foolishness head on instead of using some calamari and an imported beer to lie to myself. And other times, I’ve noticed, if I get all uncomfortable in my penny-pinching skin, it’s because I’m with someone I don’t know that well, and I’m worried that they’ll think I’m not cheap, but broke.
Which is ridiculous when you think about it because, unlike cheapness, regular, garden variety brokenness—the kind where you have no savings and a bundle of debt, but a leased car in the driveway and a flatscreen on the wall—is pretty easy to hide. It’s what the credit card industry has become all about, really. It underwrote our housing bubble. So I think about that and I shake myself off and I get back in my clunker and sing “Don’t Let Me Down.”
Frugality is a series of conscious choices—in fact, the first step to being frugal is being mindful of your spending. It requires thinking to yourself, ‘No, I’d rather not do that/buy that right now.’ Not necessarily ‘I can’t.’ Not necessarily ‘I don’t want to.’ Just, I’m choosing not to. And the best way to live is to stand behind your choices. So I’ll say it loud: I’m cheap, and I’m proud.