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Issue Date: April 2009


The Cleanse

Frustrated by her wastefulness and determined to change, the author begins aone-month spending moratorium.
Both of my little girls were Tinker Bell for Halloween last year.

My mother used to make my costumes, but I just bought theirs — for about $20 each. A bargain. Last year, when the 4-year-old was Sleeping Beauty, we shelled out $39.50 at the Disney store, plus $10 more for the crown and $15 for sparkly

shoes. The 2-year-old wore a $30 Gymboree fairy costume, but the getup sold out so fast that I resorted to eBay for the matching tights — for $20 plus shipping. I was glad to get them.

Often, I buy on impulse. And almost anything that I think will enrich my children’s lives is a given. The $20 one-hour class the 4-year-old took last summer to build her own fairy garden was enchanting and worth the money. But then, of course, a fairy had to visit one night, leaving behind $25 worth of trinkets from Target.

But it’s not just costumes: I love the look of little girls in corduroy pinafores, flowery sundresses or anything with either tulle or toile. And my closet is full as well.

The thing is, from my perch in suburbia, I’ve seen that most of my neighbors dress their children the way I do. The moms look pretty good, too. We’ve got ourSUVs and flat-screen TVs. From highlights to gym memberships, it’s pretty standard.

Our kids do soccer, dance, gymnastics and tennis. They take swimming lessons and play T-ball — all before the age of 4. We pay people to fix our cars, cut our grass, hem our clothes, paint our nails, clean our homes and do all sorts of things our parents did for themselves. And this is not the wealthy part of Rocky River or Pepper Pike. It’s Avon.

It all seems perfectly normal — or at least it did before the economy tanked. My definition of normal, it seems, was based on a house of cards that toppled. Suddenly, it all seemed so excessive, so wasteful.

Diagnosing greed is a tricky business. It would be easy to declare it wrong to spend $700 on a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, but there are certainly folks who would sneer the same way at my daughters’ $50 Stride Rite tennis shoes.

So all I can say is that I knowI’ve gone too far. I’ve been wasteful.

It’s a time for change. My country may need me to spend, but that’s what I’ve been doing for years. My bank account needs me to save. Like any addiction, I’m going cold turkey. I’ve lost sight of what’s necessary and what’s not. Only total abstention, I believe, will make that distinction clear.

I decide to begin a one-month consumer cleanse. I will buy only what I need, truly need. No coffee at work. No lipstick. No eating out. No clothes.

I’ve done it before. At my first postcollege job as a reporter in the late ’90s, I made $18,000 a year. A cup of coffee was a choice, and we ate out — at Subway — only on payday, after heading to the bank to get immediate cash for our checks. I didn’t shop anywhere but TJ Maxx and once put 13 cents worth of gas in the tank just to get home from work.

When my car broke, I began bumming rides to and from city meetings that I covered — once even asking a councilman for a lift.

Shortly thereafter, I got a job at this magazine and took over a lease for a Honda Civic for $161 a month. My current car, a seven-year-old sedan, has had trouble starting lately. “Well, we’ll just have to get a new one,” my 4-year-old chirped from the backseat.

I was scrappy once and, though I admittedly always had the safety net of my parents, it was an adventure I’m glad I had. Will my girls ever be able to do the same?

I want my children to grow up feeling valued, not entitled. They can be fairy princesses if they want, but even Tinker Bell, who was willing to give her life for Peter Pan, knew how to make a sacrifice.


I’m nervous to break the news to the girls. Our Monday morning routine includes their gymnastics class, then the gym and a swing through theBurger King drive-through. It’s our designated “fast-food day.”

As we pull out of the gym, I tell them. My tone is casual. I really don’t want the full magnitude of the endeavor to be understood. Not all at once, anyway. “We’re not going to buy anything for a month,” I say.

“What if we run out of food?” 4-year-old Audrey asks, clear alarm in my little worrier’s voice.

We can buy more food at the supermarket, I explain, just not at restaurants.

“But I’m so hungry,” she whines. “I want to go to Burger King right now.”

We’ll go straight home (a lie; we have to stop at the post office), and I’ve got chicken already made.

“Dinosaur chicken?” 2-year-old Natalie cheerfully asks.

Again, I delay the full truth. According to the rules of the cleanse, we would not buy more of their beloved Costco chicken until we ate the stagnating box of tilapia in the freezer.

No, we’d be eating the organic chicken I’d coated the night before in a mixture of Italian bread crumbs and parmesan cheese then sautéed in olive oil.

“I don’t really like your chicken,” Audrey says.

You haven’t seen anything yet, I think to myself. Wait till she finds out Santa won’t be able to pull off the last-minute additions to her Christmas list. My fault, I suppose, for taking her four times to see the big guy (photos purchased twice). Anyway, with my wallet closed, it truly will take a Christmas miracle for Santa to produce that Webkinz and toy guitar.

My husband takes the news a lot better. Subdued glee, I would call it. He simply does not buy stuff. One of his greatest thrills in life is making stuff last — even as a kid. He used to wash and wax his 10-speed Schwinn. He still has it. It looks almost new.

“You know, you’re going to have to stop drinking bottled water,” he says, even though I am doing no such thing at the moment.

I remind him of all the places I don’t buy sugary drinks for the girls because I have water stashed in my purse — and he relents, for them. Adults should be able to anticipate their own water needs and prepare for them by filling a reusable bottle.

“I don’t have one,” I say, thinking of those cool stainless steel bottles I’ve seen around lately and how that could solve my problem. I make a mental note to buy one, before I realize I can’t.

“Don’t you have one on your bike?”

I go out to the garage and find an ugly, filthy, never-used Raleigh water bottle.


I started this cleanse to shake the excess out of my life. But where am I going with it?

I pick up a copy of The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches by Jeff Yeager. In it is the portrait of a man who saves the air sickness bags on planes to use as lunch bags, serves boxed wine to his guests (after funneling it into saved bottles) and would rather burn calories fixing his own roof than working out at a gym. His home office is a corner of his garage.

That is not who I want to be.

I still want nice things — family vacations and dependable cars, pretty sundresses for the girls when it’s warm, hooded red wool coats when it’s not, roses by the patio and potted impatiens on the porch. These are a few of my favorite things. None of them are necessary. All of them cost money.

What I want is to spend money deliberately, to go into a store for one thing and leave with one thing. I want to use that one thing until it wears out.

Besides saving money — a necessity, especially now — what will I get from this experiment?

This is my hope: By buying less, the girls and I will use and appreciate what we have. We will become resourceful. When Audrey wants to buy a new doll or a Happy Meal, she will understand the impact of that purchase. For my part, I want to be a responsible consumer.

As it turns out, there are actually four types of consumers, identified byMiriam Tatzel, a professor of psychology at Empire State College: value-seekers (tight with money but materialistic), big spenders (loose with money and materialistic), nonspenders (tight with money but not materialistic) and experiencers (loose with money and not materialistic).

According to Tatzel, the experiencers tend to be the happiest. They aren’t influenced or motivated by what other people have. They’re also more likely to spend money on vacations or outings than on things. Such purchases, often done with other people, build relationships and create memories. In other words, they make you happy.

Big spenders, in contrast, are the least likely to be happy. They’re the people most often struggling with credit card debt. Worse, they use possessions to impress other people and raise their self-esteem — risky behavior. “The drive for money and possessions is likely to lead to feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction, and even if one is successful, it appears that they contribute little to happiness,” Tatzel writes. “It is as if the quest for a better life through consuming gives us a worse life.”

So what am I? I have my suspicions, and I am worried.

So I call Tatzel for a diagnosis. “Most people don’t want to think of themselves as materialistic,” she tells me. “But then you realize you look forward to buying things.”

Check.

“You spend more of your life involved with consuming than you could imagine,” she continues.

Check — at least when I’m at my worst. I can’t remember how many Gymboree stores I called before finding those fairy tights on eBay.

But before I give in to the big spender label, I plead my case. I will spend a decent amount of money on a nice handbag, but never one with an instantly recognizable brand. I do have a lot of clothes, but I’m much more likely to shop at Old Navy than a boutique. My girls do have too much in their closets, but I know this time of pink sundresses is short-lived. Soon enough, they’ll want to wear jeans and shop in stores where the clerks wear belly rings.

Tatzel responds: “It’s this wonderful timeless sort of life where everything is charming and pretty, and you can indulge that era of them growing up.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly,” I say, thrilled to be understood.

The diagnosis: I am a big spender when it comes to clothes, but not in other areas of my life.

That doesn’t mean I’m in the clear. Any big spender needs to constantly evaluate her motivation to make sure it’s intrinsic, not extrinsic. “If the pursuit of status is the driving force,” she says, “then, in a sense, you’re giving other people the decision about your self-worth.”

For the first two weeks of the cleanse, I have sudden impulses to buy things.

When Audrey eats a clementine and asks to grow her own tree with the seed, I make a mental note to pick up some potting soil. Then it occurs to me that what I need is actually free. I put on my boots and walk to the backyard with a pail and hand trowel. As I pass the sunroom, I see the girls’ faces pressed up against the back window, cheering me on.

A few days before Christmas, I start thinking that it’s absurd to disappoint a child at Christmastime for $30. I stop at the toy store, resolved to cheat and buy each girl a Webkinz. But as soon as I walk into the store, my consumer self takes over. I spend five minutes considering a knitting craft for the girls, then look at the puzzles. I have come for two stuffed animals and am about to leave with four things — a $50 purchase. Instead, I leave the store with nothing, stunned at how quickly the consumer in me roared its greedy head.

Every day brings a new obstacle. Audrey and I are meeting friends to seeThe Nutcracker with tickets purchased weeks before. We can’t spend any money there, either. Feeling like my grandmother, I suggest we make our ownpopcorn and put it in sandwich bags for intermission. “Isn’t this fun, Mommy,” Audrey keeps saying as I let her punch the time in the microwave and help package the treat. “This is so fun.”

Maybe it’s the spirit of the times or maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t feel cheap bringing in our own snack; it feels smart.

Another huge benefit is all the free time I have. I decide to clean and organize my entire house — one room at a time. I’m standing on top of the counters, dusting the tops of the cabinets, when I get an idea.

The paint on our cabinets began peeling about a week after we moved in. The supplier refused to fix the problem, despite a complaint filed with the Better Business Bureau. The estimate to have them fixed was $2,000. Cleaning them makes the paint peel more, so they are generally dirty and a constant thorn in my side.

Today, my anger turns to action. How much worse can they look? I climb down from the counter and find thepaintthat was used on the trim.

It takes about 45 minutes to do the whole kitchen. If you don’t get too close, it looks great. I feel good, really good. Saving has produced the same euphoric boost as spending, but that feeling doesn’t later morph into remorse. I just feel happy.

On Christmas Eve, the neighbors stop by with a gift for the girls —tworeindeer Webkinz.

Later, we exchange gifts with my parents. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to buy anything for my dad before the cleanse started. But when he gives my husband a box of Omaha steaks, it sparks an idea. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to wrap it, Dad,” I say, as I hand over the box of frozen tilapia.

The next day, Santa brings the girls a balance beam, a Glam Girl makeup kit, aPolly Pocket boat, a Hello Kitty bubble bath set, a toy car, books, Play-Doh and doll furniture. Audrey never mentions the toy guitar.

Three problems solved — without spending a cent.


My house is clean and organized. I’ve got a few hundred dollars more in my checking account. I’m not constantly running errands. Best of all, I don’t feel like I really want anything. The hunger for more is fading. What I’ve missed the most is the ritual of buyingcoffeeat work.

Perhaps, content in my new feelings of contentment, I let my guard down. I still don’t understand exactly how the following happens.

My husband is out for the night and Audrey, Natalie and I are sitting in the family room. Approximately once every three weeks, as if she’s got it written on a calendar, Audrey asks for two things — a dog and bunk beds. My laptop is sitting next to me, and Audrey asks if we can look for pictures of the beds online.

Why not?

We spend the next two hours poring over images. Everybody is excited. I feel like I’m back in the game. Even Natalie, who loves her crib, gets in the spirit when Audrey assures her that she could still suck her thumb in a bed.

Then we see it: a white bunk bedwith a bottom half that is tented to make a playhouse.

I do not know how it happens, but I promise that Audrey can — someday — get the bunk bed if her daddy says it’s OK. Part of it (I think) is the realization that, by not spending anything, I can actually save the money for the bunk beds pretty quickly. But part of it is sheer consumerism. It is a pretty thing, and I want it for us.

Even more astonishing, her dad agrees — with the caveat that we will have to wait awhile to get them. I begin to feel panicky, like he let me make a huge mistake.

When the girls are in bed, I ask him, “Isn’t this the ultimate act of frivolity? Why’ve you gone along with it?”

“It is,” he replies, pausing. “But it’s also childhood memories.”

My husband, I should have realized, is what the psychology professor would call an experiencer. He won’t throw out the T-shirts he works out in until the hole is bigger than a half-dollar, but it was his idea to pay more for a room at Niagara Falls so that we had a great view of the water. His idea, too, to go to Disney while the girls are still enamored with the Princesses. He is imagining our girls chatting at night, giggling and telling sister secrets. He views the bunk bed as an experience, not a thing.

I see his point, but Audrey won’t. In her mind, the story will be that she wanted something, and she got it.

It’s a good time, we decide, to teach her how to save.

Audrey starts the Bunk Bed Box, depositing in it the $5 she has saved from her allowance —$1 a week for making her bed, brushing her teeth and emptying the flatware from the dishwasher. We roll all of the change in the house and put that money in the box, too. We’re $43 toward our goal and, for her birthday, I’ll give her the option of getting cash for the cause.

The next day, on our way home from preschool, she tells me she didn’t like the snack that day. “I’m so hungry,” she whines. “Can we please stop at McDonald’s?”

“Don’t you remember? We’re saving for bunk beds.”

“Oh,” she says. “That’s right.”

My little Tinker Bell will get her playhouse bed. But she will earn it.

| Postscript | The day the cleanse ends, the author stops atTargetfor a belt. Just abelt. She spends $148.31. She immediately — and voluntarily — checks herself back into the program for another month, hoping for a full recovery.

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