I often ponder the phenomenology of spending habits when I'm stuck in the vehicular spin cycle known as the airport shuttle. There I am, squeegeed like a soggy piece of laundry between a window that won't open and the 500 pounds of fellow passenger, circling the airport for hours. But hey, I'm heroically saving $6 over taking a cab.
This nod to the piggy bank would no doubt make more sense if I weren't equally capable of confusing $6 with $600 at the mere sight of something spellbindingly essential . . . say, a sequined pair of high-heeled sneakers.
Like most folks, I'm selectively cheap.
Misers, tightwads and accountants aside, we pinch pennies on certain items the way one might pick the anchovies off the top of a pizza. When you factor in all the other fancies we freely dish out the dough for, these random acts of scrimpage can seem certifiably crazy.
"The other night, after I took a friend to eat at the Westside Pavilion, we went to the Gap where I was appalled at the price of a shirt I wanted," says actor Steven Porter.
"My friend said, 'Steve, you just dropped $65 for a half-hour dinner and won't spend $38 on a shirt you'll wear for a long time?"
You have to wonder where this actor, who by the way makes a generous living, shops. "Well, I don't," he says.
Even the material girls of the moment have their little potholes of stinginess.
"I'll pay whatever it costs for a facial," says alleged Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss pleasantly (when reached through her facialist, Nance Mitchell).
"I spend for everything--especially clothes because they end up on your body," Fleiss says. (\o7 Everything\f7 includes expensive theater seats, great food, first-class airline seats--"I just can't go anywhere now"--and, of course, facials.
But there are a few little no-can-dos in the Fleiss book of dough-re-me. Fast-food delivery is one. The TV Home Shopping Network--anything off the tube--is another. And parking tickets. "Usually I get so aggravated I just rip them to tiny shreds and throw them out, then I end up paying triple the amount," says Fleiss, who last week was ordered to enter a drug treatment center after she was arrested for testing positive for drugs. (Her mother attributed the test results to asthma medicine.)
So what lies behind this game of Selective Scrimpage?
For sure they'll eventually boil it all down to some brain chemical or other, treatable with the anti-spending Tightwad Patch or Mo-zac--a drug to ease the pain of money madness. But in the meantime, let's turn to the experts.
"Often this kind of thing comes from the way your parents spend money," says psychotherapist Olivia Mellan, author of "Money Harmony" (Walker and Co., 1994). "Basically, you're either imitating them or rebelling against them in very specific ways."
True, my cab chintziness comes from having grown up in Brooklyn, where taxis just aren't done. My dad was a fanatic subway rider who bagged taxis in with potato chips: Take one and you'll get addicted.
My mom, on the other hand, could rationalize just about any purchase. "Think of all the money you've saved in perms," she'd say as I'd demur over a pair of $250 jungle-print leggings. (Considering my hair looks like a cross between Richard Simmons and Cousin Itt, she had a point.)
Not everyone buys this Mom and Pop Theory, however.
"The toilet paper has nothing to do with my parents," swears Lissa Golden, a 34-year-old real estate listings coordinator who, it should be noted, thinks nothing of parting with $400 for any new motorcycle part to customize her Harley.
"When I'm in a grocery store I think, why should I buy it when I could steal it from a restaurant?" says Golden, who recently left Los Angeles for Minneapolis. "Maybe it's just a little way of reminding myself that I don't have to follow all the rules."
Linda Barbanel, a New York City psychotherapist who specializes in money issues, suggests that such quirky cheapness offers a touch of security, real or imagined.
"Often people are cheap in general because they are insecure," says Barbanel, who just wrote "Piggy Bank to Credit Card: Teach Your Child the Financial Facts of Life" (Crown). "And saving a few bucks here and there makes them feel like they have some control--that they are putting one over on the shopkeeper, or not being taken. They feel like a survivor."
Porter, the actor, can relate. While he fudges about his aversion to spending money on clothes, he will tell you that he simply doesn't believe in paying for valet parking: It's a matter of principle. In fact, more than once he's sneaked his car into the lot of a certain Hollywood restaurant just before the valet shows up for duty. When the guy does come on and asks for the money, Porter refuses since he parked himself.
"I get into this big fight that ruins my whole meal," he says. "But I do save the $3." (At least he comes out ahead. I'm the type who parks 10 blocks away, arrives late, and gets a $38 ticket.)