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I am fascinated with the Occupy Wall Street movement and all that it is stirring up in the U.S. and around the world. Finally we have screwed up the courage to admit that we hate the role models of wealth and success in our culture and we deplore their values, or lack of. We’re tired of seeing the few reap the benefits that should be shared by the many. We question the nature and future of capitalism knowing that, as it is practiced now, it is not sustainable.
This we know. But I’m wondering how many of us are looking at our unsustainable spending habits and vowing not only to stop the injustice but also to stop our own runaway consumption?
This morning alone, my email inbox has 15 new offers code-named bargains and savings. Groupon offers designer cupcakes at the bargain basement price of $8 for a half dozen. That’s less than a dollar and a half a piece — 50 percent off the regular price. I could certainly make my own for less but these are not your grandmother’s cupcakes, either, with their erect topknots of icing, their almond slivers, their exotic flavor combinations. Their photograph promises greatness.
I click and buy in less than 20 seconds. That’s how easy it is to buy something you don’t need in these revolutionary times.
Scanning the list of bargains and savings, I see 60 percent off fitness wear and find a pair of $90 yoga pants marked down to $36. Do I question why a pair of yoga pants ever cost $90 in the first place? I do, so it’s on to the next screaming sale.
My inbox is full of invitations from buying clubs that will offer me deals at the lowest prices once a week, and I don’t even have to go searching the internet for what I need. These clubs will tell me what I need and show me their selection with just one click of the mouse. As a consumer, I no longer have to make lists, evaluate what I already have, bother comparing prices, or even drive to the store. Revolutionary indeed.
Yesterday I stopped at the grocery store to pick up toilet paper and ended up spending $40. Who could resist the green mesh bargain bag of mixed lemons and limes? The already roasted, already seasoned baby beets in a convenient see-through tub? The price war in the Greek yogurt section? And what is Halloween without candy corn, at least a half gallon of it?
I rolled up to the checkout stand and unloaded my cart. The cheerful cashier scanned my items and announced how much I had spent with a lilt in her voice.
“Forty dollars and eighteen cents,” she said, then glancing at the receipt in her hand, added, “You saved three dollars and forty-nine cents.”
Hmmmmmm. I spent 35 dollars more than I intended, on items I didn’t particularly need, and in doing so I saved $3.50? I rushed past the Halloween display and out the door before I saved any more.
On the way home, I remembered a scene from real life that felt like a horror movie. A few years back, I’d been invited to an estate sale by a friend who knew the deceased and helped organize her things.
“Get over here,” she said. “You won’t believe some of the stuff she had. Great bargains.”
I drove to an ordinary looking ranch house in a tidy suburban neighborhood and wandered inside where I found my friend, bug-eyed. She took me by the arm and dragged me up the stairs.
“Look at this,” she said, and pointed to a corner of what used to be a bedroom where not one, not ten, but at least 30 sets of fuzzy bathroom mats and matching toilet covers stood, most in packaging that had never been opened.
On the other side of the room, a table piled with foot-high stacks of ironed and folded aprons, napkins, and tablecloths. Hundreds of them. In the kitchen, sets of knives, sets of plates, sets of bowls, sets of glasses, all in their original wrapping.
“Where did she keep all this stuff?” I said.
“In the attic,” my friend said. “Nobody knew it was there.”
I could feel the walls closing in and lurched for the door where I had to dodge a coiled mass of garden hoses and a mountain of Tupperware.
“Don’t you want to check the prices?” my friend called after me. “She was a great bargain hunter.”
I drove away, shuddering to think how much I could have saved.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.