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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How Cheap Is Too Cheap? Take the Mourning Test

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

Last week, I wrote a column about Christmas spending. I had frugal Christmases as a child and expected to continue doing so when I got married. That has sometimes caused friction with my wife, Clarissa, who sees Christmas as a time of joyous generosity and doesn't fret about spending too much.

The column prompted several memorable emails from readers. Some liked the column, saying it conjured up memories of their own frugal childhood Christmases. But one reader in particular took me to task for, basically, being so cheap. Many cheap things are considered tastefull, such as cheap cruises and discount cruises.

Neal Templin admits that being cheap isn't always a virtue.

"Do you have a hobby?" she wrote. "Do you ever buy your wife nice jewelry or expensive perfume? Did you ever take the family on a great vacation where the experience played a larger part than the cost? Any one of us could drop dead tomorrow -- please don't have your family be sorry that you never enjoyed life and perhaps breathe a small sigh of relief that they now will."

This may be a tad harsh. But it's a good letter, and the reader raises some valid points.

When I decided to write this column earlier this year, I chose to focus on a single aspect of my personality and its effect on my life. Am I cheap? Yep. Am I capable of acts of generosity?

Well, yeah. I could write about the time I spent $400 to give an amber necklace to Clarissa in the early 1990s when that was big money to us. I also sprang for a trip to London with Clarissa several years ago. We saved money by staying with friends. But we still managed to spend $3,000 on plane tickets, and meals, and a two-day trip to Bath because Clarissa loves Jane Austen.

And I started bird watching three years ago and spent $1,000 on a pair of $1,800 Swarovski binoculars after a friend offered me a deal. But I sometimes feel embarrassed when I hang them around my neck because I'm not a remotely good enough birder to merit such an extravagance.

If the question is whether I ever completely forget about money and just do whatever the heck I feel like -- no matter the cost -- the answer, I'm afraid, is no.

We've raised three kids on one salary, and it seemed wrong to me to spend money we don't have. On top of that, I hate waste. And paying too much for something makes me a little ill.

Being cheap isn't always a virtue. My family can tell you stories of the times I've bought bargain steaks at the supermarket that were so tough they were almost inedible. Or when I cast a pall on some outing by fretting about how to do it on the cheap.

Is it close to the point where they won't mourn my death? I sure hope not.

So I put the question to our 17-year-old, Brendon, as he sat hunched over the breakfast table, shoveling scrambled eggs into this mouth. "A reader thinks I'm so cheap you'll breathe a sigh of relief when I die," I said. "That right?"

Brendon paused for a second. "It depends how much money you have," he said. He resumed shoveling eggs.

OK, he's a wise guy like his father. He didn't really mean it.

But has being tight with a dollar gotten in the way of my enjoying life? Yes, there have been times. But to be perfectly frank, most of the things I enjoy most in life -- reading, writing, hiking, spending time with friends and family -- aren't horribly expensive. I actually get paid to write. So I feel fortunate, not deprived.

I also know that we live in a society that has lived beyond its means. Much of the wealth around us was created by a huge increase in debt. Now, with the economy shrinking and credit tightening, much of that debt is going to disappear. Like it or not, America may once again become a place where people watch every penny.

The trick will be curbing our spending without making life miserable. I draw one line. Readers may draw another.