HUMAN CONDITION : Those Random Acts of Cheapness

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I often ponder the phenomenology of spending habits when I'm stuck in the vehicular spin cycle known as the airport shuttle. There I am, squeegeed like a soggy piece of laundry between a window that won't open and the 500 pounds of fellow passenger, circling the airport for hours. But hey, I'm heroically saving $6 over taking a cab.

This nod to the piggy bank would no doubt make more sense if I weren't equally capable of confusing $6 with $600 at the sight of something spellbindingly essential . . . say, a sequined pair of high-heeled sneakers.

Like most folks, I'm selectively cheap.

We pinch pennies on certain items the way one might pick the anchovies off pizza. When you factor in all the other fancies we freely dish out dough for, these random acts of scrimpage can seem crazy.

"The other night, after I took a friend to eat at the Westside Pavilion, we went to the Gap where I was appalled at the price of a shirt I wanted," says actor Steven Porter.

"My friend said, 'Steve, you just dropped $65 for a half-hour dinner and won't spend $38 on a shirt you'll wear for a long time?"

Even the material girls of the moment have their little potholes of stinginess.

"I'll pay whatever it costs for a facial," says alleged Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss pleasantly (when reached through her facialist, Nance Mitchell).

"I spend for everything--especially clothes because they end up on your body," Fleiss says. ( Everything includes expensive theater seats, great food, first-class airline seats--"I just can't go anywhere now"--and, of course, facials.

But there are a few little no-can-dos in the Fleiss book of dough-re-me. Fast-food delivery is one. The TV Home Shopping Network--anything off the tube--is another. And parking tickets. "Usually I get so aggravated I just rip them to tiny shreds and throw them out, then I end up paying triple the amount," says Fleiss, who last week was ordered to enter a drug treatment center after she was arrested for testing positive for drugs. (Her mother attributed the test results to asthma medicine.)

So what lies behind this game of Selective Scrimpage?

"Often this kind of thing comes from the way your parents spend money," says psychotherapist Olivia Mellan, author of "Money Harmony" (Walker and Co., 1994). "Basically, you're either imitating them or rebelling against them in very specific ways."

My cab chintziness comes from having grown up in Brooklyn, where taxis just aren't done. My dad was a subway rider who bagged taxis with potato chips: Take one and you'll get addicted. My mom, on the other hand, could rationalize just about any purchase. "Think of all the money you've saved in perms," she'd say as I'd demur over a pair of $250 jungle-print leggings. (Considering my hair looks like a cross between Richard Simmons' and Cousin Itt, she had a point.)

Not everyone buys this Mom and Pop Theory, however.

"The toilet paper has nothing to do with my parents," swears Lissa Golden, a 34-year-old real estate listings coordinator who thinks nothing of parting with $400 for any new motorcycle part to customize her Harley.

"When I'm in a grocery store I think, why should I buy it when I could steal it from a restaurant?" says Golden, who recently left Los Angeles for Minneapolis. "Maybe it's just a little way of reminding myself that I don't have to follow all the rules."

Linda Barbanel, a New York City psychotherapist who specializes in money issues, suggests that such quirky cheapness offers a touch of security, real or imagined.

"Often people are cheap in general because they are insecure," says Barbanel, who just wrote "Piggy Bank to Credit Card: Teach Your Child the Financial Facts of Life" (Crown). "And saving a few bucks here and there makes them feel like they have some control . . . They feel like a survivor."

We can try to analyze till the cash cows come home, but some cases of selective cheapness ultimately defy explanation. Perhaps it's because these pecuniary quirks are part of the idiosyncratic nature of being human.

Which brings me to Nancy Gottesman, 37, who always buys the next round and, in fact, pretty much buys everything, especially when it can be purchased through a catalogue at double the store price plus shipping. Asked what she's cheap about, Gottesman was hard-pressed for an answer.

Then I bumped into her practically running to the video store clutching a copy of "Philadelphia."

"I didn't finish it, but it's almost 11:30 and I've got to return it. I don't want to spend $2.50 for an extra day."

Will she rent it again?

"Probably."

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