I suppose I got my initial training in thrift from my parents.
My dad suffered repeated heart attacks when I was 8 years old, and we gave up a ranch-style home with a pool in the San Fernando Valley for a place out in the Southern California desert, where we commenced the “getting by on Social Security and disability” routine.
Money was tight. My father taught me that resources, including health, are not eternally renewable. He also showed me that you can do a hell of a lot in one lifetime with limited resources.
Accordingly, I was pulled out of my little town and temporarily delivered into abundance by an Ivy League scholarship, which brought me all the veal cordon bleu and Wittgenstein I could consume. It was amazing; I’d been happy in high school eating fish sticks and watching “The Patty Duke Show.”
After graduation, with all the direction and commitment of a butterfly in a dust-devil, I went to San Francisco and enrolled in law school. I had been there once on a lark and thought it would be an OK place to live for three years. But there were no dorms and no meal contracts. I got an apartment for $150 a month and stocked up on fish sticks.
It wasn’t a great neighborhood; I had to use four keys to get into my apartment. But I lived next to a thrift store, and I bought Brooks Brothers shirts for $2. Nowadays, I travel to San Francisco on business several times a year. I always come back with a few more shirts.
That neighborhood was depressing. I started to feel poor, as if I were there because I had no better place to go, which was true.
I don’t know where the idea came from, but one day I took in a boat show. The thought still surprises me. I grew up in the desert. I had never even been on a boat before, except a fishing charter out of Ensenada, Mexico, when I was 10. My dad got seasick, and we came back early.
A few weeks after I had glimpsed the yachting lifestyle at the boat show, my student loan money came in. I forget how I did this, but I got a bank to lend me enough to buy a 26-foot sailboat.
It cost $9,500, at $161.02 per month, and I started “living” on board. There was five feet of headroom in the cabin, no bathroom and no shower.
But it was terrific. I’m still living on a boat--my fourth--and this one’s a bit bigger. When I’m not wearing shoes, I can stand up in the cabin. (OK, I have to slouch.) I don’t really have a closet, but I have an arrangement with the dry cleaners. On the way to work, I stop there and pick out one of those Brooks Brothers shirts for the day.
I wound up working at something I thoroughly love, providing free legal services to farm workers and their families, and pretty much just helping out in the community. To most people, the pay at the nonprofit organization where I work seems low, but I don’t need the money.
As a habit, thrift has served me well. Once in a while, I reflect that I could be earning 10 times as much and have a closet and headroom, my own shower and everything, but then I’d have to wear a tie and take the elevator to the 35th floor every day.
Is the good life passing me by in that new Nissan, as I’m poking along in my 12-year-old Jeep? My friend Jack Daniel (that’s his real name) has a theory, and he’s the Jedi Master of Thrift.
Jack used to do work like mine. He used to say that one of those shark-type attorney jobs sounds lucrative but when you subtract the cost of the ulcer and the psychotherapist, the alimony and the child support, having a dorsal fin and several rows of teeth really doesn’t pay that much more. He also figured that he’d have a big house with a big mortgage and a big car with a big lien, so he wouldn’t have been able to quit and do what he really wanted to do. In fact, Jack did quit to take a job in a one-room schoolhouse in the Central Valley, which is exactly what he wanted to do. He even got to brag about being the only lawyer who ever got a pay raise by quitting his job to become an elementary school teacher.
Today, I’m the world’s worst consumer. There are a few things I’d like to be recognized for in my lifetime, but I know in my heart that the award I get will say, “For Hardly Ever Buying Anything.”
I think the main reason is that I don’t have a television. This is a choice arising from the recognition that TV is my snake oil, the one elixir that I can ingest in place of just about everything else in life. The only time I’d turn the damned thing off would be to go out shopping for that space-saving coffee maker, digital auto-focus camcorder or other product that the ads insist are de rigueur for a guy like me.
Financial security seems to me to be a psychological concept. My only fixed, recurring expenses are rent for a berth for the boat and my telephone bill. I’m single. I try to sign checks on the back as often as I do on the front.
I haven’t had veal cordon bleu since college. But for a vegetarian, that’s not much of a sacrifice.