([Piggly Wiggly Store] by Rigdon, Louis G., ca. 1929-35. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 001-2010.)

The Middle Distance 10.21.11: Hard Bargains

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

photo by Sean Cayton

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.


9 Responses to The Middle Distance, 10/21/11: Hard Bargains

  1. John says:

    Thanks again Kathryn. Free markets and competition is what drives the exchange of goods and services, creates a Steve Jobs and allows even the poorest of us to live better than 99% of the world. Thanks for keeping the money flowing. It creates jobs!

  2. Rose Enyeart says:

    I always admired the fact that growing up my Mom taught us to “make do.” I have found that I don’t need much and wonder why I would buy another “thing.” Now, do I really NEED that? I doubt it. If I walk away and want it still, it will be there and more the next time I’m in the store. I look at the many catalogs I get, mark items that look good, and leave it for a week or so. Generally I can’t remember why I saved it in the first place and consequently don’t buy it. I like to spend on my family and give pleasure that way. We love to eat and hang out over food. I like that part and indulge that way.

  3. Debbie Swanson says:

    I, too, consider myself one of the 99%. And Wall Street et. al. has trained me well to be a consumerist. I go to eBay to find a small clock for my bathroom (so much more convenient and so many more interesting clocks to find than at *shudder* that corporate mongrel Walmart place). So I find my clock – no problem. Then eBay “suggests” I look at this ring – it’s a beautiful ring. $.01 and free shipping! Comes from Hong Kong. But wait! There are THOUSANDS of them like this one! I MUST see them all. Really? I could have a couple dozen rings, for possibly less than 25 cents?? So of course I bid. and one by one the rings come up to the end of their auction times – some stayed at 1 cent; others increased – some to $4, one even to $8. But I was hooked. I WANT those rings. So in the end, I pay close to $25 for a couple dozen rings (which, good Lord, when would I ever really wear them?). Yes. I bought them ALL.

    So I do what many Americans do. Justify my purchases. They were cheaper than anything I could have found at *gasp* Walmart. I could resell them and MAKE money! (Yeah, right, they’ll end up in the bag for the Arc pick up next month, and someone else will by them for outrageous prices, compared to what I bought them for).

    It’s a vicious cycle. I am, as I said, well trained to be a consumer. I may be one of the 99%, but I’m no better than those on Wall Street.

    I (like the rest of us I suspect) need to be re-trained. For that reason, I am grateful for this downturn in our economy. This could be the re-training I (we) need. It’s worked for me, a little bit. I don’t mind being re-trained to remember I don’t need everything. But like getting into a physical fitness regime, it’s painful. Let’s hope we all like the end result.

  4. MaryH says:

    Consumerism is a problem. But somehow, buying keeps the economy flowing. But I think the larger problem is in the corporate need to provide return on investment to stockholders in the short term. Becoming a corporation is a good way to protect a business owner’s family from the vaguarities of business, but once it “goes public”, the business model changes. It goes insane. No you shouldn’t buy 30 toilet sets just because they are on sale. But don’t blame cash flow for the world’s problems, but your 401K instead.
    Maybe we should all go back to the under-mattress savings plan. I would have lost less of my retirement in the last 5 years if I had.

  5. Carol Scott says:

    Thanks Katherine, I do so enjoy your Fri. morning insight! And I have also been thinking about the Occupy Wall Street group. While I respect their right to protest, I wonder how many are “thinking about our unsustainable spending habits and stop our own runaway consuption.” Might be easier to focus on protest than develop personal advocacy for sustainability. I am on that journey and do not find it easy at all! My mantra less is more doesn’t seem to work when there is something neat,new and on sale! I have recently found Freecycle.com and intend to be a frequent giver! Now back to the journey!

  6. Bill says:

    Thank you Kathryn. I was wondering why it bothered me at checkout when the cashier quipped that I had saved such and such. Now I know. Thank you for the perspective.

  7. Libby says:

    Thank you, Kathryn! Always perceptive and insightful! George Carlin had a wonderful routine on “Stuff”.

  8. hannahfriend says:

    Spend, spend, we are told, to save the economy.
    Reduce, reuse, recycle, we are told, to save the environment.
    Can we put these together?

  9. Rald says:

    I think that the Early Retirement Extreme blog http://earlyretirementextreme.com/about-the-blog and book by Jacob Fisker provides great analysis and insight into consumer capitalism and the wage slave lifestyle, but more importantly a practical approach to liberate yourself from it. The author became financially independent and retired at 33 after working only 5 years. Wish he had wrote this 20 years ago when I was in my thirties!


Arts & Life


Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac