“Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship”– Benjamin Franklin
When last October’s Wall Street bombshell tore jagged lacerations in my net worth, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that the bleeding had not abated. There were myriad fiscal punctures in my lifestyle leaving a trail that even a blind hunter could follow. My frugal spouse was pleased when I suddenly expressed interest in our finances. It seemed I had finally awakened to smell the financial coffee or at least I had started to count the beans.
I freely admit to not grasping the concept of moderation. More is better and better still, is now. I have never been a profligate spender but I have not balanced a checkbook or kept an ATM receipt in 15 years. A budget was simply the absence of deficit spending and taking any surplus and burying it like a jar of pennies in the retirement yard. My discretionary spending vices are confined to collecting antique lead soldiers and roaming the endless stalls of eBay while in a $ 4 triple latte blackout. Like many Americans, I pay for convenience and for the ability not to wait in a line or on a line. I am in fact, the ultimate target consumer for the retail industry. When I need to update my wardrobe, I buy everything I need for the next 24 months in one store in less than 30 minutes. The first time my wife went shopping with me she became physically ill from what looked to her like a feeding frenzy of a starved hog.
In these recent hard times, I have become disgusted by my lack of fiscal discipline. I find myself muttering the word,” simplify” as I notice for the first time the price tags on everything, It’s like a witch has put a curse on me: “ You will now clearly see the cost of everything!“ “ No, no, please! Anything but that!”
I daydream of living near Walden Pond in a ramshackle, drafty railroad hut penning manifestos against the materialism, corruption and greed in America. In saner moments, I realize that if I actually did go off by myself into the woods, I would probably have to fold my own laundry – a thought that terrifies me.
I dreamed the other night about our first house – a 1200 square foot cottage, three miles from the beach in Southern California. Air conditioning was achieved by opening a window. Heat was achieved by shutting the window. There was no basement engine room filled with heating units and oil tanks that seem to be in perpetual need of a $ 700 refill. I am not sure the close quarters of that Newport Beach hobbit hole could accommodate our family of five without a domestic dispute consigning us to the police blotter, but I do recall waking up with the nostalgic longing for that low mortgage payment, small garden and a downsized lifestyle.
I became determined to take action against the rising swarm of enervating expenses that swirled around my head like summer midges. My first target was America Online. To embolden my efforts, I drank an entire pot of coffee and, with my legs twitching like a second grader in church, I grabbed the telephone.
A few days earlier, I realized I had been paying $25 for an AOL Premium Service that I could essentially get for free. I was outraged that AOL would take advantage of my ignorance and lethargy. I called the 800-number and immediately got “ Sam”, an outsourced Eastern European service technician, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, grinning through the phone like the Cheshire cat. At one point in the call, I heard what sounded like automatic gunfire. I asked Sam if he was in danger of being executed if he did not convince me to keep my premium plan. Sam laughed and assured me that the staccato hammering was merely construction on his building. When I explained my situation, Sam was very sympathetic and offered me the $11.99 fee instead of the $ 25.90 fee. I assured him I just wanted free email. Sam offered me the $ 9.99 package. No, Sam, I am. Green eggs and ham and free email, man. But Sam was good. In fact he was hungrier and more determined than this reformed consumer. After twenty minutes of verbal rope a doping and more information about firewalls and technical support than my over cauliflowered ear could possibly handle, I relented to the $9.99 plan. I needed to lie down. Saving ten dollars a month was hard business.
I called the oil company ready to threaten cancellation unless they could offer me the Hugo Chavez super economy rates. I did not have a back up plan, other than ordering twelve cords of wood to be delivered as soon as possible. The oil company agent was obviously an out of work securitization specialist who detailed a complex algorithm for locking in a rate that involved hedges against Russian wheat and Moroccan olives. The topic shifted uncomfortably to ways that I could cut my utilization costs. He asked me highly invasive questions about my insulation and energy efficiency. Was he implying that I was not green? I have natural insulation but that is not the point. “I want cheaper rates or else.” “Or else what?” He asked. “Or else, …I’ll hang up.” Just about this time, I felt a 20 degree draft knifing through the living room – coming from the patio door that one of the kids had just left wide open when they got up to take the dog out. I am quite certain if anyone were to drive by our house with an infrared camera, we would look like Chernobyl as the fuel rods were melting. Perhaps the price of the oil was not the entire problem.
I graduated to cable, broadband and phone. Between being charged for an Optimum Online voice mail box that is jammed with irretrievable messages dating back to ancient Rome – “ Hail, this is Caesar, please ask Senator Pretorius to send more men and supplies. I have crossed the Rubicon. (Silence) I hope I am dialing the right numerals” – and 900 activated channels including an entire network dedicated to Latvian folk dancing, I am paying more for cable than I am contributing to my 401k. However, weaning a couch potato from cable is slow and must be achieved similar to dosage reduction from steroids. Just moving from hi-definition to non-HDTV makes a person feel as if they have glaucoma. On second thought, let’s hold off on the cable.
I had my list of other remedies that would help suture my thousand cuts – teenaged I pod charges, gasoline, electricity, vacation expenses, dry cleaning and food. My scorched earth austerity efforts went on all morning and yielded over $ 300 a month savings. It was not exactly the greatest return on investment but it felt good. It was the same feeling you get after cleaning the basement or garage. Life seemed a little more in equilibrium.
My son walked in with tangled morning hair and stretched his arms, “ Dad, what have you been doing in here?” I explained my jihad on non-essential spending. He listened with that bored vacuous expression of a person who is just waiting for an opening to ask for something. “Dad, all the guys are doing this lacrosse thing and I was hoping I could do it to.”
“ How much does it cost, buddy?”
“I think Teddy and Harry said like $300…”
I laughed out loud.