Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Frugality Dilemma: Ask A Virgo

This past week of economic chaos around the globe hasn't been one to laugh at. With the stock market plunging deeper than Pam Anderson's neckline, people are finally getting that the whole frozen credit thing impacts them right in the wallet. Yesterday, in fact, I was in the check out line at T. J. Maxx--which was eerily stripped bare of its low price merchandise--and overheard a clerk apologizing to a shopper that her credit card was declined. The woman standing in front of me turned to her friend and said, "They say that kind of thing is going to happen more and more because of the banks." Do you hear that Senator McCain? Our economic foundation is indeed shaking right under the feet of middle America. We get it. Ouch!

What all this has led to is a new found, and long time coming, appreciation for penny-pinching, trumpeted on the cover of Business Week magazine which declared on its cover last week: The New Age of Frugality. Frugality new? Don't make me laugh. Well, okay, you made me laugh. Out loud. Right there at the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble. You mean my dinner-out-once-a-year, never shop full price, bargain sniffing lifestyle is suddenly IN? Whoo hoo for me!

I guess everyone in America didn't have the benefit of growing up with two Virgo parents. Even people who roll their eyes at the word "astrology" know that Virgo is the tight-fisted sign of the zodiac. To Virgos, practicality is a religion, and every purchase needs intense mulling over. Virgos are the champions of mulling. Ironically, Virgos love new fangled stuff that makes drudge work go faster. Modern washing machines were a must-have because, gosh darn it, you can do twice as much laundry! Dust buster? Gotta have it so we can vacuum up what the full size vacuum left behind.

It was pretty clear to me, their luxury-loving Libra child, that what Virgos really are are neurotic. Libras adore material consumption, not for the sake of flaunting wealth, but to make themselves and their space pretty. We're the interior decorators of the world. Frugality puts a choke-hold on our inner Martha Stewart. To retaliate against what I considered to be my parents unreasonable attempts to mete out goodies, I became a hoarder. While my three brothers polished off their chocolate bunnies and Peeps in fits of sugar-induced ravaging, I kept my stash safely hidden, taking bites a day at a time. I could nearly make it to the next Easter on one giant size coconut egg. So frugality to me is nothing new—it’s simply become fashionable.

This makes me suddenly feel like a mega expert in reduced living and a “green” proponent to boot! My secrets for living well with less come from a lifetime of self-denial and, of course, the fate of my birth to two astrologically cheap parents. If a Libra can do it, so can the millions of Americans who now find themselves having to “slum” it. It does occur to me that for those who didn’t grow up with the benefit of one bathroom for six people, the idea of cutting back is blood-curdling. Me, shop at a Goodwill store? Unplug the TiVo? Buy generic toilet paper for god’s sake?!? I can sense the fear and apprehension.

Here’s what I can say to ease the terror rising up in the throats of those who shot right past middle class status and went straight for the Fifth Avenue hi-rise: take it slow. Frugality isn’t something you just jump into like a new pair of Nike’s—if you “Just do it,” you could give yourself mental whiplash. Try weaning yourself off of nonessentials that don’t have emotional repercussions. Cleaning products, for instance. Who really cares what you clean the toilet with? Then work your way up to the big nail-biting items: one bottle of off-price shampoo, or fifteen different hair styling products? Two-ply or single-ply? Coor’s or Bud? These are the take a big gulp decisions, I know, but they have to be made. Sooner or later you’re going to have to graduate to really insufferable losses like no more QVC sprees and wearing last season’s oh-so-chic boots another two, three or—god forbid—four years.

Going without, for many, is a new concept. I know a lot of kids who have been raised only in an atmosphere of unrestrained plenty who are probably going to suffer irreparable mental damage when mommy and daddy put spending limits on their charge cards. Or take them away, altogether. I predict the emergence of a new psychological trauma called Thrift-Induced Psychosis. Just remember: if you feel yourself slipping into an apoplectic numbness at the idea of going frugal, find yourself a Virgo. They’ve got it down to a science.

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