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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cosmic Frugality: When You Don't Benefit From Your Choices

As usual, a terrible title. This one doesn't even say what I mean, so if any of you constant or occasional readers can offer an improvement, let me know. What I want to talk about is the kind of frugality that doesn't necessarily benefit YOU financially, but is still the frugal choice.

I've been thinking about this ever since I commented on a blog (can't remember which) about how it's not frugal to mooch off people; i.e. making people pick up your lunch check is not truly frugal, even though you benefit financially. I didn't explain myself very well in whatever I responded.

But I have a good example now. Frugal Son is going to a barbecue in Bayou Gauche (about 40 minutes outside New Orleans proper). He will go about 20 minutes out of his way to pick up two friends in New Orleans. Then he will repeat on the way home. Since these are starving students, I don't expect them to chip in for gas. I always make Frugal Son chip in for gas in similar circumstances, however. In the grand scheme of things, this is frugal in terms of energy and efficiency, even though Frugal Son expends more in time and energy than he would alone.

But sometimes this backfires or causes problems. I am always exhorting my children to be frugal without the pathology. Often, I feel as though I've crossed the line into mania. Today, Miss Em, who is visiting her grandmother, called to say that it bothers her to go out to yet another mediocre meal with visiting relatives. Of course, she will be treated by whomever picks up the tab. Still, she is part of a cooking family. Except for really excellent restaurants, or restaurants that serve an ethnic cuisine not in our repertoire, we generally would prefer cooking at home and using the money we save for say, a trip. Because of our ingrained frugality, it bothers her to waste money on mediocre food even when someone else is paying for it.

She mentioned that she enjoyed a recent restaurant meal with a friend even though the food was over-spiced and over-priced, because they went on their day off from their camp counselor job. This is a meal that is "worth it" even though it isn't frugal in a traditional sense. Many restaurant visits, however, including the one that the Divine Ms. Em is dreading, are visits of habit. People go out just because that is what they do. These family meals, she has noticed, are often stressful and chaotic (details not forthcoming). So we told her to suck it up and try to make pleasant conversation.

But still....cosmic frugality can be a good thing, or it can be a problem.

Any similar examples, Dear Readers? And do you have a better term than cosmic frugality?


Suzy said...

Growing up we considered eating out a real treat usually reserved for Fridays(basically every other Friday or Saturday night when we went to visit grandparents)and was usually Whataburger then later a bbq place we all liked and occasionally Wyatt's Cafeteria on Sunday. There was a special fish place for stuff like graduations, Mother's Day, Father's Day, b-days...but mostly we ate at home and now that I'm older and on my own those were the best meals I think. But my mom insisted we all eat together(though in high school we had to compromise due to band, football, etc)even if we were chowing on sandwiches and chips.In fact, I dont remember any elaborate fancy meals - my dad was/is extremely picky (hence the 4 restuarant rotation!) In college I ate out ALL the convenient and a 'treat'. I'd try cooking off and on without much success.

I have a few friends I get together with and it's usually 'where do you want to eat?' well the problem is - I'd like to eat 'at home' but then the hostess is obligated to cook or you share the, some people don't share a kitchen well! After getting dirty looks for cutting too much off the top of the strawberries once I'm very scared to do anything in anyone's kitchen but my own and if I DO manage to have someone over her I'm paranoid they wont' like my cooking. I think basically people either aren't confident in their cooking or there are so many dietary restrictions that it's easier to pick a restaurant and let everyone order something different. Not frugal but a lot less hassle and less hurt feelings. And I'd rather eat a not-so-great restaurant meal with a group then sit at home where they're more likely to yell/fight while we're eating! The good thing about my family is there was no arguing while we were was time to talk about our day and what we had coming up..peaceful stuff!

but yeah,I envy these people who can get together for potluck meals or cook together..I read about them but have yet to find them except for one friend. We can usually do whatever - at least until they moved in with other family members!

Frugal Scholar said...

@Suzy--You bring up many good points. I guess I want it to be a treat--good company or good food, preferably both!

Duchesse said...

Great post!

In Son's case, the other students sound unable to contribute, or he is unwilling to ask, so he is gracefully applying the "Pay It Forward" approach. Twenty min. both ways will not require a very significant outlay and is in the category of "doing a good turn."

So I would use the term "Karmic Frugality": what goes around comes around.

In Miss Em's case, she is disturbed by the low value the meal represents. She knows good food and this will not be it. A few options:
1. Find a place with good reasonably priced food and request if they would go there: 'I've always wanted to try 'The Willow'
2. Suck it up, as you advised. It is the host's choice, and her role is to be a gracious guest. She could order less costly items to mitigate the expense, without appearing disapproving.
3. Time the hours of a visit so they will not coincide with meal times, or join the group a bit later for dessert.

As with any life situation with which you are not in accord, your choices are to leave it, change it or accept it.

Emphasis on frugality as the sole criteria leads to us forgetting about grace, consideration and joy- our own or others'. Making people pick up a check is cheap. (It amazes me when people are cheap and want to excuse themselves by calling it "frugal".)

Duchesse said...

Frugal, I have another question I can't let go of: how does one person "make" another person pick up a lunch check?

Funny about Money said...

I've mulled this over since you posted it a few days ago.

Seems to me that Son's altruism in donating 40 miles to picking up and dropping off his friends amounts to a kind of karmic frugality: what goes around comes around. Someday one or both of the friends will return the favor in some manner that will grow the friendship. Friends are a rare commodity -- worth an investment of time and gasoline.

In a way, sitting through a dreary restaurant meal is also a kind of karmic frugality: it's a kindness that one hopes ones own grandchildren also will, in that far-off day, bestow. Learning to tolerate this now means that in the future Miss Em will continue and provide a role model for her own children, who (with any luck) will pass the habit of kindness along to their children, on to infinity. It's an investment, of sorts.

We all know it doesn't necessarily work that way. But if you're tight with your kindness, you can be pretty sure your kids will learn emotional miserliness, much reducing the chance that anyone will spend much time with you in your old age.

That said, I certainly have sat through endless bland meals in endlessly bland company and practiced to avoid events where both the food and the conversation were boring. My ex- and I so abhorred my step-sister's de rigueur Thanksgiving dinners that we created a "tradition" of driving twelve hours to his mother's house, just to get out of them!

Think of that: 24 hours of cross-country driving looked better than two or three hours of white-folk talk over flat white food (not a metaphor: she invariably served steamed turkey with soggy cauliflower and mashed the time she'd turned the ghastly "butter-basted" turkey to sawdust inside her electric cooker, the watery, chemically enhanced pan drippings created pale gray "gravy" which she enriched with canned "gravy." The only color on the table came from the "salad," orange or lime Jell-O with with canned fruit embalmed in it). Company consisted of "Christians" who would ask you what church you attended. If you spoke truthfully and didn't claim you went to some weekly organized chivaree, they'd turn their backs on you without another word. These good folks believed a woman's place was in the home (period: even though the hostess was a superior court judge...), and, given half a chance would tell you all about the horrors of the Brown Tide and the intellectual shortcomings of anyone whose skin color shaded toward the dusky.

I alienated my father by abdicating his care to his third wife's daughter, whose cast of mind more closely matched his than mine ever did. It may have been cosmic profligacy on my part, and it certainly wasn't kind. But...tooo late now!

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse--How does just SITTING THERE. It works a lot.

@Funny--So thoughtful. Both you and Duchesse spoke of karma, but I wonder if karma has an implicit expectation of some return? This does not.

As for your other comments: my husband always says we are modeling with our own parents how we want our children to behave with us in the future. Food for thought.

P.S. to all--they went to a good Indian restaurant, in spite of complaints from some. Miss Em took some of the left-overs home (to the derision of some) and made a yummy lunch for all with them.