Thursday, February 11, 2010

Money money money

I recently spent a princely sum to get an expensive car tuned up and ready for sale, and a ducal sum on a less costly vehicle that I drive daily. This got me to wondering: How much money have I spent since I started spending money?

Millions, obviously, but how many millions? Does this spent wealth put me in the Trump category, or am I a wannabe Trump-ette?

When I first came to the States, cigarettes were 50 cents a pack. A Coke from a machine was a dime. My first apartment, half a floor of a Victorian townhouse in the heart of Georgetown, was $87.50 a month, and I was earning $78 a week as a lobster shift (8 p.m. to 4 a.m.) copy boy for the Washington Post. I had an Austin America, possibly one of the very worst cars ever made, and a Dunstall Norton motorcycle that was my pride and joy. My personal property consisted of a Monkey Ward guitar, a few pairs of jeans, three pairs of pointy shoes from Flagg Brothers, and a hibachi I used to grill hamburgers in the non-working fireplace of my apartment. Life was exceedingly good. Street drugs where I lived was a nickel bag of marijuana, five dollars, an occasional chunk of much sought after hashish for eight bucks, and a case of Bass ale for $6.75. At the Circle Theaters just blocks from the White House, three foreign movies went for a buck and dinner at the restaurant next door was three dollars.

Flash to now. I am paying approximately $1000 a month to my HMO for health insurance. My mortgage is in the low four figures, and the $200 I get from the 7-11 ATM lasts three days at best. Gas is $3 a gallon, coffee at Starbucks is $2.76 for a quad shot of decaf espresso. A cheap movie is $7, matinee price, senior discount. There's an all-you-can-eat buffet that charges $20 for mediocre food, and it's full every day.

I owe a lot of money to the banks, even if I pay off my credit card balance in full each month. I am encouraged to spend far more than I earn, given credit lines of $40,000 or more by institutions I don't know, and inundated with offers for great deals on cars, vacation homes, Cialis and Viagra, air travel, and plastic surgery.
Money does not stick to me. I tried for a couple of months to keep track of every penny spent with Quickbooks, and I failed miserably. I sought the advice of a friend who can point with pride to a collection of binders that document her financial life since she was 18--"every penny," she claims with a hint of condescension--and she simply said, "Just do it." This is not helpful, akin to telling a manic depressive to have a nice day.

Here's what I know. No matter what I spend, it's too much. The small economies I manage really have no impact to speak of in face of the larger picture. Safeway Two-for-One coupons simply means that I get more than I need for the same price and getting a three cents-a-gallon discount means I save sixty cents if I go the station offering the price reduction. It's eight miles away. Do the math.

The truth is, I can't begin to calculate how much I've spent ion a lifetime. I do know I no longer think great fortunes--of even meager savings--can be realized by what the French call economie de bouts de chandelles, savings realized by hoarding candle wax. But here's a secret. I hoard quarters in a jar I keep in the pantry. Three times a year I roll the hoard up and take it to the credit union. Then I go and have a really nice meal with a friend, savings be damned, and life is good...

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