To learn this for myself, I needed a brief fling with profligacy. For a few years in my early 30s, without children or a mortgage, I spent freely. Working all hours in New York, I'd flop into yellow cabs and restaurants as regularly as I did my own bed. Work was challenging, but how I spent my paycheck was simple: I'd see, I'd like, I'd buy. I still have the Max Mara coat I bought back then, off the peg, and its endurance means my mother's right: Good goods last.
But even when it made sound economic sense, big spending never matched the thrill of thrift. Ultimately, it felt spiritually chintzy, a parsimony of the heart, lacking, as it does, the energy and imagination that thrift requires. The kick I get from my Nicole Farhi coat is quadrupled, knowing I found it at a secondhand shop for less than a quarter of its retail price. The half-price massages I get from a friend—"rent" for our living room doubling once weekly for her aromatherapy practice—feel far more delicious than any day-spa treatment.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not knocking luxury per se, just the weightless, uncalibrated kind. The spas, like the cabs and restaurants I spent on during my personal boom years, were lovely—if a little lonely. Spending lots is so often about splendid isolation, whether you're buying the right to be the only woman in the marketing department with an Hermès bag, or the hushed solitude of a cab ride uptown. My current haunts aren't spas or cabs but the library, the bus, and the jumble sale. To borrow a book rather than buy it, to share a ride uptown with strangers—both save money, to be sure. But their by-product is a community born of common needs. In a big city, sharing books and rides can make you feel more a part of the world than being "friended" by any number of Facebook buddies. Back during my big-spending years, I remember my babysitter Tanya telling me how she was redecorating her house. A guy she knew from the neighborhood was helping sand the floors; a neighbor was sewing the curtains. Working little and earning less, she used a barter economy and friends to fashion a gorgeous house. (Hazy on the details, I fantasized that it was just like the barn-raising scene in Witness, complete with Harrison Ford.) Me, with my college degrees, and a social circle of other white-collar types? I was stuck with the coldness of the cash nexus, and the Yellow Pages.
Thrift connects you, not just to people but to processes. It makes you less passive, more alert—to more than your bank statements. There's a weird pleasure, for example, in breaking up the bones of a chicken to make stock, greasy and clumsy as it is. Of course, it's a miracle—a glorious one, on busy nights—to phone for takeout and have dinner appear, deus ex machina. But there's a quieter magic in transforming Sunday's roast into Monday's sandwiches, then boiling it down to Tuesday's soup, and in turn stretching it into Wednesday's risotto base. Thrift is about that seminal life lesson, as basic as a cook's stock. It's about making the best of what you've got.
Carla Power is at work on a book about the Muslim women's rights movement.
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