Tightening the Plastic Belt

newsweek-logoTightening-the-plastic-belt--NEWSWEEK (1)
April 20, 1992

Where does my money go? It’s a question I ask with growing embarrassment and alarm. The moment each month when I open my credit card statements is a low-comedy catastrophe. I stare at the balance in disbelief, as if some other personality of mine, some fiscal Mr. Hyde, had gone on a manic tear through toy stores, appliance stores, supermarkets and gas stations. How do I gain control?

Well, in the paycheck-busting days of this recession, I’ve been seeking advice from all sides: TV news, family, friends, colleagues,even from my newly arrived Russian students at the city college where I teach English. The real question is, whose advice can I successfully follow? As a chronically budget-impaired middle-class American, I find there aren’t a whole lot of people who understand my predicament. The monetary wizards on TV are clear and forthright, sincere and good-looking, but they lack a certain identification factor for me. Do they drive old Escorts, reel with panic in the Toys ‘R’ Us store, breathe a little faster as the supermarket scanner beep-beeps along? Do they, like me, look at the price tag for the single movie they’ve seen in a year (“Beauty and the Beast,” family of four, $35 with popcorn and drinks), and walk away guilt-ridden from the wide extravagance?

Better to ask real people. But this can be trouble. Try asking anybody who’s been through the Great Depression. My great uncle George Murray, a journalist from “The Front Page” days in Chicago and the smartest person in my family, speaks to me like the voice of conscience across the chasm of the Credit Card Revolution. “Quit buying on credit! Get out of debt! Tighten your belt for the long haul!” he says with the authority of one who once spent a winter in the ’30s living in an unheated apartment, eating soup and writing short stories 20 hours a day. This standard is a tad too high for me. Uncle George never spent a dime without knowing it, but I can spend $100 on “necessities” I only vaguely know I’ve bought.

Dagwood Bumstead: Others are no more comforting. Some I know in my own aging baby-boom generation live imperceptibly, mysteriously, on a budget. They look like me, act like me, but down deep an alien life force keeps them forever a race apart. What do they do when their 3-year-old pushes the $450 TV, the shrine and center of the house, off its stand and crashing to the floor? I know what I did. I bought another on credit – the next day – and thought about it later. What do they do at Christmastime, when there are so many gifts to buy and so few dollars to buy them with? What I do is fake it with a credit card and start jumping up and down like Dagwood Bumstead when the bills come rolling in.

A few self-righteously frugal people I know give the worst advice. They have a maddening way of acting like their wealth flows from little feats of self-restraint and prudence: not buying expensive coffee, shopping at discount outlets, buying generic aspirin and bulk toilet paper. Their enormous incomes are somehow unrelated, accidental aspects of a superior way of life. With each proud statement of picayune economy, my resentment rises and friendliness recedes. I’d only be saving a few dollars even if I made these economies.

There is one class of people in my world, however, that has real potential as helpful advisers: my students from Russia. Most are elderly, all are hardworking and determined. They show up smiling and eager at 8 a.m. to learn elementary English. For them, English is the key to a society that they enthusiastically want to enter, economic warts and all. The U.S. consumer marketplace, their teacher’s irresistible snare, is to them, even on their minuscule incomes, a dazzlingly efficient machine.

Shangri-La: A telling example of the Russian students’ outlook: our textbook asks them to write a paragraph about a picture showing Americans eating hot dogs from a park vendor. They author clearly thinks students will discuss “Why Americans like fast food,” or “The unhealthy way Americans eat.” My students all chose: “In America, food is readily available.” To people who have known real hunger, a hot dog is food first, a diet/nutrition problem second. To them the supermarket is a Shangri-La, a horn of plenty. It is also the kind of budgetary challenge they rise to with every strategy they learned in the former Soviet Union, a country of absolute – not relative – economic adversity.

My grousing about the cost of living is, in their eyes, unfathomable. To them I’m as rich as a king and spend money like a jet-setter. When I refer to my washing machine, house, car, vacations, they shake their heads, look at me, and smile as if to say, “Oh yes. The American. John D. Rockefeller type I’ve always read about.” The cumulative effect of this look has done more to drive the credit-card Mr. Hyde from my soul than any advice.

When I get this amazed look of skepticism from Gesha Levkovich (who bakes her own bread and has a monthly grocery bill of $70), combined with a shake of the head from Samuil Rivtsis (whose most lavish pastime is walking on Chicago’s lakefront), I’m powerfully drawn in the direction of sanity. It’s an embarrassing route to the truth Uncle George has tried to tell me all along: that with a few minor adjustments, what is truly necessary in life comes into focus as sharply as the view through the lens on a $1,300 state-of-the-art camcorder. So tomorrow I go on a Russian-American budget. Right after I replace the Walkman my 6-year-old folded into our sofa bed.

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