The Magazine

Recovering Cheapskate

David Skinner, recovering cheapskate.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Growing up among the striving bourgeoisie (teachers, cops, tradesmen), I learned to be suspicious of anyone who was selling something. I remember being told that restaurants served you bread in order to make you thirsty for more drinks, on which their profit margin was high. This was very tricky of them. That I had often seen my own parents offer drinks and little bites of this or that, often involving bread, to dinner guests did not make it okay when the same rite was performed by people who expected payment. As a result I am dubious about the phrase "hospitality industry."

Making money was objectionable, except when you did it. Then it was the honest reward due to hard work.

I can remember my lovely mother waving off salespeople, always with a prompt, "No, we're just looking." Pulling into a gas station one summer day, she asked the attendant how much a gallon of unleaded was. The young guy said something like a dollar fifty. Mom shot him a stern look and said, "Outrageous. I'll drive on." This line became legendary in my family, a perfect soundbite for the frugality that enabled our mother to manage a household in which six children were fed, clothed, and schooled, all pretty decently, on a middle-class income.

At the time, this financial anxiety seemed to me dreadful, embarrassing, and sometimes hilarious. More than once my two brothers and I literally rolled on the kitchen floor laughing at the sight of the super-large bright-yellow no-frills box of dehydrated milk my mother regularly bought to avoid the expense of yet another half-gallon of milk.

Still, cheapness stuck to me as an adult. I was more comfortable in discount stores or getting takeout--anything to avoid high prices and the people whose job it was to talk you into overpaying. Until two years ago.

That's when I joined a club for the summer so I could use its showers in the mornings after riding my bicycle several miles to work. The club's staff didn't live up to my Wodehousean fantasy of how rich people live; I'd expected solemn old retainers bowing and scraping, before offering sage advice on what to wear, eat, or drink. The people who worked at the club were unfailingly polite, though, and the ones I saw regularly called me Mister Skinner. Oh, I got used to it very quickly.

Too bad it had to end. The seasonal membership was steeply discounted because so many members were out of town during the summer, and I certainly couldn't afford the annual dues. But I can see in retrospect it was a turning point.

When I went shopping this Christmas for my wife Cynthia--always an occasion for personal reflection--I checked out a luxurious department store. There, amidst price tags my mother would have called outrageous, I noticed a number of young women shopping with an ostentatious, proprietary ease. One girl with beautiful long blonde hair--she couldn't have been old enough to provide the cashier a driver's license along with her daddy's credit card--turned to the saleswoman tailing her and held out her long winter coat, saying, "Could you take this and, I dunno, put it somewhere?"

I left empty-handed, but on my way home I stopped at a little dress shop in Old Town Alexandria that sold, I remembered Cynthia once hinting, really beautiful stuff. It was exactly the kind of shopping situation that used to give me hives: expensive things sold by an intense salesperson in a small store from which you couldn't escape without saying goodbye.

The owner, a petite, middle-aged Frenchwoman, told me about her shop and the designers she liked. She asked my wife's size. I mentioned that Cynthia is pregnant, so, after congratulating me and inquiring briefly about our other children, she gave me a personalized tour of every dress that fit my rough requirement of something that a pregnant wife could wear to a nice party or out to dinner. And then she showed me a number of items just because she wanted me to admire their beauty. It was an advanced class in what to buy for your wife, and charmingly taught.

I asked if many of her customers were male. Yes, she said, a small number of her regular customers were men like me who bought dresses for their wives or girlfriends--men with, you know, really fine taste.

Putty in her hands, I bought an expensive dress and left wondering why everyone who wanted my money wasn't so kind and interesting. I'm so glad my mother wasn't there.

DAVID SKINNER