The Oprah Magazine: Cheap Thrills

Cheap Thrills – Brief Article

Patricia Volk

Her grandmother used tea bags twice. Her great-aunt made curtains out of shawls. And PATRICIA VOLK kept notes in her head to save paper.

ANA POLLY HUNG used tinfoil up to dry. You could tell what vegetables she served during the week by what showed up in her salads. Her younger sister, Aunt Ruthie, made curtains out of shawls. Her older sister, Aunt Gertie, made shawls out of curtains. In our family, saving money has nothing to do with being cheap or stingy It has to do with not wasting.

In a thrifty family, being thrifty is an art form. You get to be creative. The first year my mother was married, she had a telephone plan that included 66 calls a month. Thirty went to her mother, 15 to her grandmother, leaving only 21. Luckily, her best friend lived in the apartment next door. When Mom wanted to talk to Dorothy she knocked on the wall. If Dorothy was free, she’d knock back and they’d meet in the hall.

Sometimes being thrifty entails doing without, better known as making do. Making do takes ingenuity Anyone can go to the market and put a decent dinner together. A thrifty person checks the fridge, sees a jar of peanut butter, an onion, some leftover pineapple, and says, “If I were Julia Child, what would I do?” Then the thrifty person creates General Tso’s Pineapple Szechuan Peanut Noodles, a dish she never would have tasted if she hadn’t been thrifty.

Thrifty families make dinner thinking, How can I use the leftovers? We eat roast beef looking forward to the hash. It’s like sex or heading for Katmandu: The anticipation is as thrilling as getting there. We eat turkey dinners, dreaming of sandwiches moist with mayonnaise, sprinkled with sea salt. Whether you’re broke and have to or you’re thrifty by nature like my family, not wasting means never having to say, “I’m sorry I wasted that. If I hadn’t wasted that, maybe I’d have this now.”

Sometimes I reverse-shop. I go into a store and say, “What won’t I buy today? Do I really need that sequined change purse in the shape of a banana?”

“You already have a change purse and you love that change purse,” the angel in me says.

Devil: “But this banana change purse, it doesn’t cost that much. It sings to you. This is the cutest change purse you’ve ever seen. Buy it. It’ll make you happy.”

Angel: “And what will you do with your old change purse, the one you loved until this very minute?”

That’s when I go to imagining the banana change purse languishing in my top drawer with a lot of other stuff I had to have. I go to opening the drawer and seeing that dumb $42 change purse and thinking of all the things you can do with $42.

Reverse shopping can be done at home, too: My favorite catalog comes in the mail. I fold down the pages of things I adore. The catalog disappears in the black hole of my night table. A week goes by. In a cleaning frenzy, I find it and check out the folded pages. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what looked so good. The sweater with the peplum? The blouse with the bugle beads? I toss the magazine and save a wad-not only on the ordering but also on sending back. Once you get the hang of reverse shopping, you’ll open a catalog and say, “Do I really want to make UPS richer?”

Recently, my new three-hole punch broke. It cost $4.19 at Staples. It was only a month old. I told a friend I was taking it back.

“Is it worth your time to take it back?”

I tried to figure out what my time was worth. As a writer, 90 percent of my time is spent staring into space. When I worked full-time and had a salary I could have figured II blocks to Staples, earnest discussion with manager, II blocks home: 45 minutes at $1,200 a week, that’s $22.50 to return a $4.19 three-hole punch. But innately thrifty people don’t think like that. Even if we make megabucks, it’s not just about money We can’t bear waste. My father looked at carpet scraps as potential cushions for washer-dryers that bump during the spin cycle. Empty tennis ball cans were storage containers. Plastic supermarket bags? Garbage can liners.

In a thrifty family, you boast about buys. I never pictured myself in men’s tiger-striped velvet slippers from Stubbs & Wootton, but when I checked my local cancer thrift shop there were boxes of brand-new ones reduced from $200 to $16.95. I made a discovery: A woman’s size 10 is a man’s size 8. Now I’m in love with my “paws.” And men’s shoes are made so much better than women’s, they’ll last forever.

My mother can’t resist a bargain at Loehmann’s. She’d never treat herself to a Moschino suit retail. But getting it for a quarter of the price from the Italian import rack, even though she has the money to buy it at Bergdorf’s, only then is a Moschino suit truly desirable. When someone shows up at a family dinner in a new outfit and you say “I love your dress!” the thrifty family’s response isn’t “Thank you!” It’s “Do you believe? $89 at Daffy’s!” People fan their hearts, they’re so proud of you. You not only have an eye, you’re smart. You not only found an attractive dress, you got a buy on it.

Thrift has nothing to do with quality. If we’re buying caviar for New Year’s Eve, we’d rather buy beluga and have less of it than lots of that yellow farm-raised stuff. If a herd of people is coming over, instead of skimping on the beluga, we serve hummus or chopped liver. Which brings us to the thrifty family’s favorite food: chicken. If you stew chicken, you get chicken soup and a chicken. You also get to skim the cooled yellow fat that rises in the fridge. Called schmaltz, it can be used in place of butter. The vegetables that flavored the chicken make a wonderful side dish. And then there’s the actual chicken itself. Whatever is left over can make sandwiches and chicken salad, or go in the soup. My sister’s mother-in-law lives alone. Her chicken lasts a week. What makes it taste extra good is the secret ingredient: thrift. That said, we would never put water in an almost empty ketchup bottle and shake it. Being thrifty never means sacrificing taste.

What’s it like to have so much money you don’t have to think before you spend it? I don’t know and don’t want to. It would mean less, be less fun. My bedroom windows overlook somebody else’s bedroom windows. When this stopped being interesting, it was time for a window treatment. The local shade man wanted $600 apiece for Roman shades plus fabric. Excuse me, most of the time these shades would be up. Done right, they’d be invisible. $1,200 plus fabric for something I didn’t want to see? Inspired by Aunt Ruthie and Aunt Gertie, I got two rods at the hardware store and four lavender pashminas from the street guy, $20 apiece. Complete cost of the two window treatments: $102. They take my breath away. Sad to say, on a trip to the Lower East Side, I saw the pashminas for $10 each. When you come from a thrifty family, don’t think that doesn’t hurt.

Thrift is our family way That’s not to say we don’t have a few spendthrifts and money oozers. Granny Ethel couldn’t pass a store without going in. She’d whip out her address book and see who she could send something to. My beloved sister buys Jackie-style. If she likes it, she gets three. Nana Polly, who always used a tea bag twice, bought a new fur coat every year. Could she afford it? Of course she could afford it. Look what she saved in tinfoil, tea bags, and salads.

Patricia Volk is the author of Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family (Knopf).

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