Peter McKay: Life on the cheap

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I have a confession to make. I hate spending money.

Everyone hates spending money, but I really, really hate it, to the point where I think I might need counseling -- if, of course, there was a counselor who offered services without charge. And had free parking.

I don’t care what it is. When we go to the supermarket, I am happy to pick out items from the shelves, but when we near the checkout, I edge away and break out into a cold sweat. I have worn the same beat-up shoes to work well past their expiration date, using a black Sharpie to cover the worn spots, just because I do not want to shell out 35 bucks for a new pair. (Yes, that’s right, $35. They’re completely man-made materials.) If I am in the car, and the gas light comes on, and I am alone, I yell, “Aw, come on!” and hit the dashboard.

I like to call this being thrifty. I grew up in a family of nine kids, and everything I owned was a hand-me-down. My clothes usually came from the neighbor’s house, because the kid next door, a boy in my own grade, was unusually large for his age. I think it was just as horrifying for him as it was for me. We’d walk to school together, him wearing his new clothes, me trailing quietly behind wearing his old ones, like the Ghost of Outfits Past.

As an adult, I like to think that I’m thrifty because, like most men with homes, mortgages, kids, insurance and cell phone bills, I have no actual money. I pride myself on being able to start the work week with $4 in my pocket and finish up Friday afternoon with the exact same $4. I bring my lunch from home and only snack when I happen upon the desks of co-workers who have candy jars out and happen to leave their desks for a moment.

Part of the reason I have no money is that, like so many married couples, my wife and I have separate bank accounts. I have one account I share jointly with her, and she has one she shares with no one. Every once in a while I bring this up, and she says that as a woman she needs have protection in case I do anything “stupid,” which she defines as going out and finding a younger woman. I have tried to assure her that as a middle-aged man with fake leather shoes and approximately $4 in my pocket, there is pretty much no chance of my being able to attract a younger woman. But it does no good.

My daughters call me Mr. Softee because they can talk me into anything — except when it involves money. We’ll be in the car, and they’ll want to stop for ice cream, and the first thing I say is, “Sure. Are you guys paying?” If the answer is no, I’ll hit the accelerator so fast they’ll get whiplash. It’s not that I can’t go to the ATM and withdraw some cash, it’s just that it’s hard to enter your PIN when your hand is shaking.

There are, of course, married men out there who have money, but they are few and far between. They drive fancy cars and wear expensive clothes and watches, and I’m pretty sure a cow’s death factored into the making of their footwear. They are the lucky ones, who roam free until they are dumped by their first wives, nabbed by second, younger, wives, and then made to hand over everything they have left.

The other day, I was taking my daughter to college orientation out of town. The entire experience of being on a college campus already had me on edge. Kids see college as an opportunity for a better life and the chance for growth. Thrifty parents just see a huge vacuum cleaner that can clean out bank accounts at an alarming rate. As we walked up to the check-in desk, my daughter announced that Mom had directed her to insist that Dad take her out to dinner after orientation ended. I nodded, and instantly tried in my head to identify a restaurant that, while not exactly fast food, was somewhere in that price range. Chili, maybe … possibly subs. There was a Wendy’s I’d seen that had just been remodeled and looked, I thought, kind of fancy…

My daughter interrupted. “And Mom said to make sure it wasn’t someplace cheap!”

I gritted my teeth.

“Thrifty!” I said. “The word is ‘thrifty!’”

Peter McKay is a longtime Ben Avon resident and syndicated columnist. He can be reached at his website, www.peter-mckay.com.


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