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Why I am in recession heaven

  • Story Highlights
  • Author, a born cheapskate, says she's in "recession heaven"
  • She now feels OK to buy store brands and order tap water at restaurants
  • Says recession helped her marriage because her husband grew more thrifty
  • Although she can buy $20 of chocolate, she's happiest saving money
By Julie Rottenberg
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Real Simple

(REAL SIMPLE) -- My grandmother had a saying: "People are funny when it comes to money." She could have been talking about me.

Some people loved to save every dollar, nickel and dime before the recession.

Some people loved to save every dollar, nickel and dime before the recession.

I've always been insanely frugal, no matter what my financial situation. It's not just that I bring my own bag of candy to the movies. I also drive miles out of my way to save 70 cents on tomatoes and patronize drugstores only where I have a frequent shopper's card, and I have been known to return grocery items with the intention of buying them again when they go on sale.

When I first started dating Ben (who is now my husband) and he noticed that I was reusing paper napkins, he asked, "Uhhh, did you grow up in the Depression or something?" I remember blushing, crumpling up my two-week-old napkin, and throwing it away. (Sob. Good-bye, old friend!) I understood that my coupon-clipping ways weren't cool and tried to keep them safely hidden from view.

But then the financial world collapsed and everything changed. For the better, I daresay. Yes, the beauty of the total global economic meltdown -- for me, anyway -- is that now everyone is freaking out about money. I'm not alone anymore! Like never before, I'm free to obsess about my quest for bargains and freer still to worry openly about money -- a habit that's a fundamental part of my identity. I'm in recession heaven. Real Simple: 10 ways to spend smarter

For years I shamefully hid the generic version of Total cereal that I buy (Ben calls it "Sub-Total") in the back of the cupboard, but now I proudly display it on the counter, where it can be admired in all its $2.50 glory.

At my local drugstore, I loudly grouse about the price of my hair product being raised without worrying about sounding shrill. I don't have to explain why I can't fly across the country to attend my great-aunt's 90th-birthday party; everyone understands. Pre-recession, if I was out with a group at a restaurant, I panicked if someone ordered sparkling water for the table. Now I request "Tap, please," and no one objects. Real Simple: Saving money without giving up too much

The economic downturn has also helped my marriage. In the past, if Ben and I were at a store looking at two similar items, he would want to buy the more expensive one and I would want the less expensive one. Because the item is more expensive, it must be better, he would argue.

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Post-recession, Ben has abandoned his profligate ways. Recently I noticed an odd charge on a bill from our accountant. In the old days, if I had brought up something like this, Ben would sigh heavily and I would know the answer was "Just let it go." But this time he was in more of an uproar than I was. In fact, I now find I'm being outfrugalled -- which, frankly, is a little disconcerting. If we're both focused on saving money, what will we argue about? Real Simple: 11 money-etiquette issues, solved

My thrifty roots can be traced directly back to my father, who loved a good bargain. While my mother never seemed worried about money (if I couldn't decide between two types of candy at the drugstore, she would say, "Oh, just get them both!"), my father was constantly looking to save a few cents.

And I do mean cents. I remember him taking my sister and me ice-skating one Sunday in Philadelphia, where we lived. When we got to the rink, we learned that, because it was Easter, anyone who brought decorated eggs was entitled to a discount. The word discount had barely been uttered before my father was schlepping us back home on the bus (we didn't own a car) to find some eggs to decorate. Given that we are Jewish, we hadn't realized it was Easter Sunday, and none of us had any idea how to decorate eggs. My dad's attitude was "How hard can it be?" and he found us some ballpoint pens and Magic Markers, which we used to draw on a few eggs. (We now know you're supposed to hard-boil them first.)

Although I was occasionally mortified by my father's frugality, I grew up to be just like him. Even after graduating from college and landing my first job with a decent salary, I still kept myself on an insanely meager budget. I would pass construction workers on the street at lunchtime and marvel that they were all drinking Snapples with their lunches, while I opted for a sad thermos of water from home.

Around this time, I realized I was spending way too much of my life focused on not spending and decided to buy something extravagant, just to prove to myself that I could. The experiment was less than successful. When I announced to my mother that I had splurged on myself, she muffled a laugh and said, "Really? What did you buy -- a Slurpee?" "No," I snapped. (It was a cappuccino.)

That's not to say that I've never been forced to make a staggeringly large purchase or two. For example, I was drawn -- reluctantly and by Ben -- into the housing-market frenzy. After a decade of renting a one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up apartment in New York City, we set out to buy something bigger. Our search went on for five years -- partly because it was very hard to find something we could afford, but mostly because the prospect of making such a big purchase made me physically ill. (Remember -- we're talking about someone who pilfers mustard packets.)

When we finally had an accepted offer on an apartment we liked, I had a massive panic attack. On the one hand, I had scrimped and saved all this money over my whole life, presumably for just this kind of purchase -- a home. On the other hand, knowing I had that nest egg in the bank was what kept me sane.

Or so I thought. In the end, the apartment we chose turned out to need a total gut renovation, wiping out my precious savings completely. This had the paradoxical effect of making me feel completely unhinged while returning me to the place where I'm most comfortable: having to worry about money.

And when I realized later that we had bought our apartment at the peak of the bubble, that I had made my biggest investment at the worst possible time, well, all I could do was laugh. It was actually liberating; I had done the scariest thing in the world, and yet the earth was still spinning.

I'd like to think I've gained a little perspective over the years, that I've eased up. These days I can even drop $20 on a box of chocolates and walk out of the store feeling giddy. (I can -- I swear!) But, in truth, I never feel more contented -- more myself -- than when I'm trying to save money.

And given the current economic climate, that makes me feel downright normal. Just the other day I stopped at the produce stand on the corner and asked the guy to knock a dollar off a box of strawberries. When he looked at me, galled, I was seized by a wave of shame. But then the produce guy shrugged and gave in, and I felt that familiar thrill -- another bargain had been struck. In those brief, shining moments, I hope the Dow never goes up.

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Copyright © 2009 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

Julie Rottenberg is the author of Real Simple's 2009 Life Lessons essay

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