A Pedicure, a Car-Wash, Some Fancy Honey. I Did My Bit Today for the Economy. How About You?

A picture of a wallet.
Image via Wikipedia

Get out your  wallets! If you don’t, the American economy isn’t going to recover any time soon. It relies on us consumers to keep it humming. So say all those beleaguered retailers. Buy something, damn it.

Funny thing, frugality. It means spending very little. Living within or below your means. Totally alien behavior for the past decade and so, so annoying to all those companies who need to us spend money, even if we actually don’t have it.

Today, with a payment finally in hand, I treated myself to a few of the micro-luxuries I can still afford, not put on a credit card and see immediate pleasure from. I blew $30 (plus $6 tip) on a pedicure and caught up with Helena, still fighting with her freshly-divorced husband and still sharing the house they can’t sell. Spent $6 getting the car washed and $1 to vaccum it; sorry, Wall Street, we’re not buying a new/used vehicle any time soon. Enjoyed a Chinese lunch for another $7 and blew the big bucks, $42.99, across the street at our local gourmet store, run by Hassan, a lovely, charming former commercial photographer who always presses tastes of cheese and candied walnuts and slices of ham into your weakly protesting hand. I spent my money on small, reliable, delicious pleasures, quickly and easily shared and savored — and spent my money within the boundaries of my suburban town. Tomorrow I’ll take in a bag full of shoes to Mike, the Russian man who runs our local shoe repair shop, and chat about life, and St. Petersburg, where he’s from.

What these endless doom and gloom macroeconomic reports leave out is exactly the sort of micro-level spending I bet many of us are still doing: local, personal, low-key. I loathe chain stores and malls but I still need stuff and I’m happy to put my hard-earned cash into the hands of people whose faces and names I know, whose personality andenergy and skill make my town a haven, and keep our local storefronts filled and functional. Call me old-fashioned, but I really treasure face-to-face, personal commerce. A chance to chat, be social, slow down and make an exchange not only of cash, but a smile, a hug, an idea, a memory.

I’m the consumer driving people like Home Depot mad because, a homeowner who loves projects, I’m not even buying hardware or paint these days. The only major purchase planned for late fall is a new terrace door, the cost of it equaled by the cost of the labor to install it by Michael, our trusty carpenter. But until I’ve lined up the entire cash cost of that purchase, $700, it’s not happening.

So this endless whining that we’re not spending is getting old. Probably like millions of Americans — out of work, underemployed, scrambling for freelance clients in a recession, fearful our still-employed spouse or partner can (and might) get laid off any time without warning — I’m trying to be smart, frugal and cautious. Paying down the credit card debt as fast as possible, since Amex just tossed me and many other loyal (hah) long-time cardholders out of the calm 9.9% fixed APR pool into the sharkpond of 15%+ variable.

Beyond gas and groceries, what, these days — if anything — are you buying or planning to buy?

Here's Some Housing Growth — Tent Cities for the Desperate

Washington, District of Columbia. Tent life of...
Image by David C. Foster via Flickr

The name is Pinellas Hope, a tent city of 250 run by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. It costs $2.6 million a year to run and will not accept families. It offers three free meals a day, and has washers and dryers, even Internet access. The average length of stay is now 77 days — and a third of its residents, typically the chronic homeless, are now economic refugees, those who’ve simply run out of options in this recession. Florida has the highest rate of home foreclosures in the nation, with 300,000 standing empty. Pinellas Hope has a waiting list of 150.

It’s one of many such “cities” springing up around the U.S. as the formerly middle class, men and women, some of whom once owned their own homes and all of whom went to work every day, hit bottom. Here’s a Wall Street Journal story today about one in Nashville.

Today, on BBC World News, reporter James Gordon interviewed Kevin Stutt, a former waiter who has been out of work since September and who now lives in a tent at Pinellas Hope. He described his job search as “terrible” and says he has sent out 250 applications. On the rare occasion he gets an interview, he told BBC:

“I have nice clothes. I go to job interviews as if I’m still living with my wife in Seminole. Nobody can tell by looking at me I just slithered out of a tent.”

These new neighborhoods springing up across the U.S. are the essence of desperation. They may not be in your backyard — or yet, as Hoovervilles once stood, in Central Park — but they’re a visible, terrifying reminder what can happen next if you lose your final grasp of the economy’s bottom rung. Here’s a New York Times profile of one tent city in Fresno.

A 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness, starred Will Smith as Chris Gardner (based on his true-life Horatio Alger story), reduced to homelessness who regains much of his former life, even while homeless, winning a well-paid job at investment firm. All of which now looks even more like a fantasy — a struggling African-American man able to scramble back up the ladder, the financial industry his instrument of salvation.

As columnist Bob Herbert writes in today’s New York Times:

“the economic ship is still sinking…The American economy does not seem able to provide enough jobs — and nowhere near enough good jobs — to maintain the standard of living that most Americans have come to expect.” The official jobless rate lowered, he writes, “not because more people found jobs but because 450,000 people withdrew from the labor market. They stopped looking, so they weren’t counted as unemployed.”

More than five million workers — about a third of the unemployed — have been jobless for more than six months. That’s the highest number recorded since accurate records have been kept.”

Gives tarp a new meaning.