I just spent roughly $2.50 on Silly Putty. Which is either a deal ‘- or a disgrace. I got a discount because the proprietor figured the dime I dropped below the counter was more hers than mine. I didn’t need the putty, but it was a small price to pay for a reunion with an old childhood friend. I paid five times as much to reunite over brunch with high school friends during the holiday, if you think about things that way. My parents are just Red enough to be considered average in Bethesda, our liberal suburb, and enemies of the state if this was 1952. Sometime in the last two decades, they taught me to consider money in layers of abstraction rather than blatant arithmetic ‘-‘- probably for the best, considering my mathematical abilities. In this school of thought, a coffee is a reasonable toll for a chance to do homework out of the house, a scarf is a tangible memory of India, a pair of boots becomes a step towards adulthood and so on. While this strategy soothes my conscience, it rarely spares my wallet.
The easiest way to appease of my spending guilt is to consider my purchase a necessity. Waking up and getting out of the house has always been hard for me. I was never a child that simply popped out of bed ‘- not even on Christmas, though this is probably because we don’t celebrate. A second grade teacher assumed I had an abusive home because I was so often late for school ‘- but it wasn’t my mother’s fault. Someone should have explained to her I merely had a teenager’s sleep schedule. Food is just about the only thing that can lure me out of bed in the morning; food or coffee, of course. Since my permanent departure from the dining hall scene this means about $3.50 before 10 a.m. every morning, which according to my calculator, is about $105 a month or $367 a semester ‘-‘- a pretty pricey alarm clock. I could always make coffee. Except for my chronic problems with the proportions for a percolator, I am perfectly capable of making a recognizable brew.’ But then what is the point of leaving my kitchen before noon ‘-‘- or ever? So am I paying for coffee or to avoid truancy? As expensive a habit as I have, it’s not as expensive as loosing credit for my 9:30 a.m. class.
Being financially conscious becomes even more problematic when the money isn’t exactly yours. How many more years will my parents give me more than cab fare before I leave home? What does my grandmother really want me to do with my birthday money? I could save it for the inevitable or the fantastical. The extra trips to Trader Joe’s add up even if they were just because that creamed honey looked so good. Creamed honey ‘-‘- I mean, come on? Plus I eat the usual college fare: near-instant noodles made to look like microwave exotica, or cereal, which can be every meal and in between. A birthday check could easily cover cereal and carrot sticks, for that matter, or I could save it for my West Coast daydreams. As my dad points out, the Bay Area will be an expensive place to live at least till the next big earth quake.
Spending my money on other people is equally negotiable ‘-‘- until I hit the bottom of my bank account. I’ve been taught, if its not for me its not as indulgent. For example, cookies for a party, or a birthday card. In the Berick family, those easily fall under the category of investing in social life, being a supportive friend or buying a study break. Other non-expenditures are books and purchases under $10, and sometimes American Apparel. My roommate and I have basically own a lending library with the books we’ve picked up in the last four years. But then you need shelves to house them.
The final and hardest justification ‘-‘- not to be attempted by a novice ‘-‘- is the investment. That wool blanket could be ‘that wool blanket you got in college.’ It could last you years, decades. It’s big enough for just about any bed, any climate. Your kids could use that blanket, those boots. The kids whose potential existences you’ve denied and resisted for years suddenly become a reality ‘-‘- in fact you are counting on them. Forget kids, try grandkids. It’s a classic. All over Boston, students are practicing The Investment ‘-‘- regardless of the recession, blind to the potential of years of unemployment. After all, you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have any.
By the time I began typing this sentence I had cracked the bright red Silly Putty egg sitting to my right. The stuff crackles as I search for words. Did I spend $2.50 for Silly Putty, or to ease the writer’s block of this week’s column? Columns are practically a resume, basically a job ‘-‘- a total investment.