Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Too Cheap for my Skates

Recently, I found out that I had an overdue DVD that I'd forgotten to return to the library. The mistake was something that could've been easily overlooked. I took out the fourth Monk DVD, because the version that I owned was a Chinese bootleg version, and thus, didn't have the special features that I wanted to use to field test an interpreter in her final stages of her crash course. Naturally, because I always kept a Monk DVD lying near the TV, I didn't think much of the extra disc lying around. In hindsight, this was a mistake.

Once I found out that I had to pay $4 for the fine, (a dollar for each day) I started going into panic mode. While most people would find these rates reasonable compared to having a membership at a video store (no weekly membership, no paying for your rentals, and no deductables. Well, unless you don't count your taxes, since they're invisible funds) I still felt slighted by the mistake. I felt that this whole mess could've been avoided if I'd gone to the trouble of looking and thinking harder. I have a tendency to go on autopilot too often, and not considering the wider implications of my actions, or inactions. As I often like to say, I don't think - I spontanously respond.

So I went back home, found the missing DVD, and also picked up a package of ramen noodles (four for a buck!) that I thought would lessen the financial crunch. One of the nicer loopholes around this time of year is that the library sets up a charity fund drive so that people who're late with their returns can contribute a can of non-perishible food in a grocery cart for the poor. I rationalized that this was a good deal that could work in both ways. The single ramen package could easily double as a small spaghetti meal if the noodles were soaked long enough, and put into another plate, while the remaining water would serve for the soup stock. It was an easy recipe that I often used to maximize my resources. In return, I wouldn't have to pay too much for taking out a video I'd already had a copy of. It was win-win!

However, once I got back to the library and waited in line again, I took another look at the small print of the food drive. It was for books and magazines only, not for videos and DVDs. Upon reading this little piece of information, I started clutching my stomach which felt queasy all of a sudden. I was willing myself to bring up the courage to face the inevietable - paying the actual money for the fine. I'd brought along a fiver just in case the librarian wouldn't accept my generous offer, but it still felt like a low blow. The librarians noticed my discomfort and asked if I needed to sit down because my expression looked so uncomfortable. I politely declined their offer, knowing that I'd have to complete the task sooner or later. (I couldn't risk the fine increasing on a daily basis) The librarian behind the counter was somebody different from the one who notified me of my overdue video, so she had no idea why I looked in danger of passing out.

I regretfully handed over the overdue DVD, then wrenchfully pulled out a $5 bill out of my pocket. For one brief moment, I thought about bargaining with the librarian if handing over the ramen noodles might reduce the fine a little. But I knew this was nothing more than a false hope. Besides, I was too uncomfortable to argue. Then, just to sink the final insult in my already fragile armour, instead of the typical dollar in change that I was expecting, I got four quarters instead. This might not seem like much of a difference, but I like to have a certain amount of currency handy on my person. The only bills I had on me when I got word of the fines were $20 bills, and that seemed too large to pay for such a miniscule fine.

If I'd handed over the $20, I wouldn't think that I had a tenner and change. I would think that I was out $20, and I paid an obscene amount for a small sum. Therefore, I'd have to work even harder to make up for the money I lost. Wherever I go, I try to make sure that I have the right kind of bills for the kind of stuff I buy. It's a psychological thing. No matter how much money I have in the bank, I always act like I'm on the verge of bankruptcy. If a certain food item I enjoy has a sudden increase in price, I'll either wait for months until it's on special, or purchase it once I feel I've earned enough to justify indulging myself a little. I simply can't enjoy certain items knowing how much they set me back. I'm not one of those people who believes that the quality of food is indicative to the abhorrent price of the meal. I'll gladly pay for knock-off merchandise, even if they taste awful, at least I saved myself some money. Since they're lousy, that means they have a longer shelf life. I'd rather be rich and miserable than poor and miserable.

While all this might sound unusual, this isn't that far from most people's experiences while shopping. A study found that penny-pinchers are reluctant to spend money since they felt lousy while doing so. In fact, tightwads experienced actual physical pain while paying for money, while shopaholics experienced pleasure while paying. In several cases, "the evidence suggests that frugality is driven by the pleasure of saving, as compared with tightwaddism, which is driven by a pain of paying."

It's why I admired Vladek Spiegelman, Scrooge McDuck and Groucho Marx for their rentless hoarding of funds long after the Depression period ended, since they resisted any cheap attempts to fritter their valuable money away. After all, you never know when you might need it for something important later.

However, all this pales in comparision to the ultimate cheapskate, which was the topic of a Financial Post article by David Menzies. Here, Chris (all names have been changed to protect the guilty) is somebody who sounds too wonderfully weird to be true. Special attention should be paid to the Halloween section where Chris seemed inspired by a Donald Duck cartoon. If any of these kids had a pair of scissors or equally sharp tools on hand, they could've made out with an extra 25 cents and a suddenly very irate man.

Portrait of a Cheakskate

I had never seen my pal Chris move with such lightning-fast speed, nor with such uncanny agility. Yet, his explosive display of athletic prowess had nothing to do with a sporting pursuit and everything to do with saving money. A fraction of a penny, as it turns out.

Chris had invited me over to his abode so we could watch some TV. As I strolled into his darkened living room, I flicked the light switch to the upright position and plopped into the couch. In that precise nanosecond, Chris flew out of his seat and leapt over the coffee table like some jungle cat. I thought he was going to clock me. The focus of this Olympian-quality hop, skip and jump was the light switch. Chris whacked it back down into the OFF position with such speed and force it was reminiscent of a Michael Jordan slam-dunk.

So, there I sat in the semi-darkness, somewhat stunned, the only illumination being the eerie blue light emanating from Chris’s 14-inch TV screen. But I didn’t bother asking Chris why he turned off the light. I already knew. Chris is the ultimate cheapskate. He tosses nickels around as if they were manhole covers. And wow, can he scrimp.

I would never make light of folks who must embrace thrift in order to make ends meet. Be it those on social assistance, students, the working poor, starving writers… Living beyond one’s means is a prelude to financial disaster. But Chris isn’t hurting for cash. He earns a six-figure salary. He comes from a wealthy family. And he lives mortgage-free thanks to a tenant who illegally rents part of his house.

Being financially secure, you would think that Chris and his wife, Jan, would live it up from time to time — like shopping at Wal-Mart and Sears. Chris and Jan prefer the pre-owned stuff at Goodwill. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once penned: The rich are “different from you and me.” Cheapskates are not like you and me, either.

And oh, the behavior exhibited by the cheapskate. For example, it must be pitch black before Chris turns on his aged car’s headlights — twilight, fog, and snow do not rate. When making a turn, he will only signal at the very last second. After all, a replacement headlight bulb sells for $8: signal light bulbs sell for $3/pair. The family can easily fit into their economy car because they are so skinny (due to miniscule portions of watered-down food.) They all sport odd-looking hairstyles, too. Why go to a barber when you can cut around a bowl? Hair by Tupperware; diet by C.A.R.E. But wait, there’s more: videos are obtained from the public library (free). Straws and tea bags are reused at least three times. Used plastic milk bags are recycled as sandwich wrappers.

Whenever Chris’s daughters have a birthday party, it is actually a “non-party.” The venue is the playroom at his house as opposed to some kiddy party palace. The showstopper comes with the delivery of a single-topping pizza (no tip for the driver). As is standard practice, the pizza parlor pre-carves the pie into slices. But a knife-wielding Chris likes to further subdivide the pie, transforming a 10-slice pizza into a 30-slice one. The only downside is that guests go home hungry.

Nothing brings out the true colors of a cheapskate more so than Halloween. For shelling-out last year, Chris was elated after obtaining a bag of 150 lollipops for $1.48 — less than 1 cent per treat. And since he did not have 150 trick-or-treaters drop by, Chris needn’t stock up this year. Chris’s solution to UNICEF boxes? He drilled a hole in a quarter and affixed some fishing line to the coin. This allows Chris to plop the quarter into a UNICEF box and then yank it out again.

My family can’t bear to go on outings with Chris’s clan anymore because such events are seldom enjoyable: Chris and Jan’s daughters constantly pester us for a meal or a toy. Chris and Jan, meanwhile, conveniently feign deafness whenever their daughters go into beg-mode.

Still, last April, Chris did something completely out of character. He gave my son a small Easter egg. Given this chocolate probably retails for 59 cents, I was shocked. In fact, Chris had a box brimming with about 100 Easter eggs. "What's wrong with this picture?" I pondered. Later, I learned the awful truth. It turns out there was a community-run Easter egg hunt, specifically for young children. Chris and Jan entered themselves in the hunt, beating out toddlers for almost every hidden egg. Other parents looked on in stunned silence.

To this day, Chris has not disposed of the Christmas tree he purchased four years ago (on Christmas Eve when prices were slashed). The remaining needles are now reddish-brown, so every December, Chris simply spray-paints his tree green again.

When Chris and Jan go to a movie, it is always on a Tuesday when tickets are discounted. Nothing beats the value of a double feature for just $7. (It’s not an official double feature — Chris and Jan tend to sneak into an additional film at the multiplex.)

When it comes to sneaking, a hardcore cheapskate embodies the stealth skills of a covert CIA agent. Every Canada Day, a nearby town puts on a huge fireworks demonstration, but the $2 admission fee is $2 too much for Chris. One year he sneaked his family into the grounds by physically removing a barrier. This year, when security was beefed up, he parked his car several kilometres away from the park; Chris, Jan and the kids observed the pyrotechnics taking turns looking through a pair of binoculars.

His social calendar, meanwhile, is pre-arranged on one basis only: free admission. Skating at a nearby rink is during the last half-hour on Sunday; a trip to the museum takes place on a Friday night.

When an ice cream truck tours his neighborhood and kids joyfully converge for a cone, Chris and Jan run into their house. Not to get money, but to supply their daughters with a spoonful of No Frills vanilla ice cream served in old plastic containers that previously contained No Frills pudding.

It gets worse. We once went to a delightful petting zoo (free admission). It is expected that attendees will at least buy some feed for the critters. A vending machine dispenses a handful of feed pellets for a quarter. That’s too rich for Chris. The solution? Chris dropped to his hands and knees and actually crawled around, catching pellets falling from the mouths of goats and geese, redistributing the feed into the hands of his kids.

Food was my motivation for penning this story. Recently, I was working late. Most of the restaurants were closed. I happened to see Chris and Jan, on their way home from shopping. They displayed a pair of scrumptious-looking sausages they had obtained from a butcher shop. I was practically salivating. “Oh, I’m so hungry,” I moaned. Nothing. “I could really go for those sausages,” I hinted. (As an aside, we have entertained Chris and Jan on several occasions — unreciprocated, of course.) “Those sausages smell sooo good and I’m sooo hungry, I’d even buy one off you.” Ka-ching!

Two-fifty”, responded Jan. Chris quickly interjected, speaking in their native tongue. At first, I thought Chris was rebuking Jan for having the temerity of charging a friend for food. I was beginning to rethink my opinion of Chris. “Two-fifty — each”, emphasized Jan. I later visited the butcher shop, I discovered that Chris had inflated the price of each sausage by 21 cents.

The ultimate act of cheapness came recently when I convinced Chris he should obtain a pair of ice skates so he could actually skate with his daughters. Chris spent weeks going to secondhand shops. Eventually, he obtained a pair of used skates for $3. Sure, there’s a downside – namely, the skates don’t fit properly. But talk about perverse irony: The country’s number one cheapskate has indeed lived up to his moniker by purchasing cheap skates.

And no, I am not worried about making new enemies with this piece given that Chris and Jan will never see it. Actually pay for a newspaper? Don’t be ridiculous.

- David Menzies.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, hey! You commented on my Violine translations today. Is there a way to contact you via e-mail? Because I would like to ask you some things about your suggestions. (My e-mail address is

    To add something to the topic of this post: This really reminds me of my grandma's husband. He loves to buy food that's really cheap - no matter what it is. As long as it's cheap he'll buy it, even if he has no clue what to do with. It's so bad that my grandma does not feel comfortable letting him do the grocery shopping by himself because she knows he'll come home with some food stuff they don't need.
    I mean it's cool to save money and all, but he's totally falling for the marketing tricks of the supermarkets. Just put a "On Sale" sticker on it and he'll buy it. No matter what it is. So he always ends up spending more money instead of saving it because he buys way more than he needs.
    I remember him coming home one day from some sort of flea market thing where he had bought half a dozen huge cans of pickled sliced cactus leaves. No one actually knew what to do with them so he ended up eating those extremely sour and vinegary things straight from the can claiming they were delicious. I tasted one. They weren't.

    I'm a cheapskate myself but when it comes to food for me it's definitely quality over quantity. To me the most important thing in life is my health. So I'm quite picky about what goes inside my body. I'd rather be poor and healthy than rich and ill. After all, what's the point in having all the money in the world, if you can't enjoy it because of poor health?