The Year of Living Cheaply: A Retrospective

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In 2009, dorky, inherently un-fun words like “thrifty” and “frugal” were paired early and often with fancy ones such as “chic” and “glamour.” Folks long accustomed to using triple coupons and cutting their own hair enjoyed newfound status among their neighbors: Instead of being viewed as eccentric oddballs—or worse, as killjoys or cheap bastards—they were perceived as prophetic gurus to be consulted for sage technical advice about unusual concepts like “leftover night” and “delayed gratification.”

Without further adieu, here’s a rehash of some of the top belt-tightening trends and “new normal” stories (along with a few personal recollections) from a year that many of us wouldn’t want to relive anytime soon:

January 1
The first reports come in showing that Christmas week 2008 shopper traffic was down 4.9% and retail spending was down 2.3% compared to 2007. The results are worse than what forecasters had recently anticipated, even with stores drastically discounting merchandise to try to entice last-minute shoppers.

January 20
Inauguration of President Barack Obama, who says, “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some.” I take a break from my job and watch the ceremonies on TV with my co-workers.

January 21
I get the news that the magazine I am working for is closing, and that I am getting laid off along with the rest of the staff. (Among roughly five thousand other thoughts I have is this one: Hasn’t this Obama guy had enough time to fix the economy already?) We head to a pub to grab a bite and drown our sorrows, and, in one of the nicest gestures I can recall, the owner, upon hearing that we’d all lost our jobs, hands each of us an envelope with a $10 gift certificate inside.

Our sorry lot is not alone: Nearly 600,000 American workers lose their jobs in January, the most in a month since December 1974.

At the end of the month, the unemployment rate is measured to be 7.6%.

January 22
Using tape and glue, I reattach the flapping rubber sole on one of my slippers. I’d planned on buying a new pair, then reconsidered and made do. I have since re-glued the same sole back on two more times this year.

January
Cheap escapism proves popular Part #1: Reports show that condom sales are up 6% compared to the same period a year before. Why? Condoms offer a means for inexpensive entertainment, without the worries (and costs) of having a baby.

February 9
Recessionwire launches. The list of other recession-era, money-saving blogs and sites introduced in 2009 includes Brokelyn.com (dedicated to “Living Big on Small Change” in New York City’s hippest borough), Cheapism, the NY Times’ Bucks, and Time.com’s The Cheapskate Blog, which we later rename It’s Your Money.

February 11
Congress approves the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a., the stimulus bill, which proponents say should help keep unemployment rates under 8%.

February 14
Spending on Valentine’s Day is down about 5%. Cupid must get creative: Instead of buying roses, jewelry, and a night on the town, husbands clean the house and make dinner for their spouses.

February
Cheap escapism proves popular Part #2: Audiences go to the movies in record numbers in what is historically the season for bad movies to be released. The biggest hit? “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”
Coupon usage skyrockets: New membership at CouponMom.com, for instance, hits 1.5 million in February, up more than tenfold from a year before.

Another 650,000 or so jobs are lost this month, and the unemployment rate hits 8.1%.

March-ish
The consensus of opinion declares that conspicuous consumption is distasteful, if not stupid, even among the rich. Socialites exhibit shocking behavior by wearing ten-year-old dresses to parties.

Old-school, day-in-day-out tightwads, who regularly brought their lunches to work long before the fall of 2008, scoff at notions of “recession chic” and “frugal glamour.”

I am the beneficiary of another incredibly touching gesture, this time in my kitchen. After overhearing many conversations and seeing his Dad around the house a lot more often, my five-year-old son asks me if I lost my job. “Yes,” I say, and since he’s always understood that my job was simply to “write stories,” I explain that not enough people wanted to buy the stories. His response: “I could buy some stories from you Daddy.”

Cheap escapism proves popular Part #3: Sales of Harlequin romance novels are up 13.5% in the first quarter of 2009.

The unemployment rate inches up to 8.5%.

April 15
The pain of income tax day is lessened by freebie treats handed out by sympathetic and/or crafty businesses such as MaggieMoo’s, which dished out free ice cream cones, Taco Del Mar (free tacos), and McDonald’s (free coffee).

April 28
For some strange reason, the New York Yankees haven’t sold enough of their $2,500 tickets, so the price is dropped to $1,250, which is still roughly a month’s worth of unemployment checks for the average person.

April
After sending pollsters and reporters around the country, Time magazine declares: “America Becomes Thrift Nation.” Among the factoids taken into consideration: About half of people surveyed said their economic situation has declined this year, while 57% now believe the American dream is harder to achieve.

The unemployment rate is 8.9%.

May 6
The food giveaways turn ugly: Hungry, disgruntled customers
stage sit-ins at KFC restaurants that refuse to honor free grilled-chicken coupons offered via Oprah Winfrey’s website. Many others are disgruntled simply because they can’t download the coupons to begin with.

The KFC-Oprah deal is one of many of year’s free or nearly free food and drink promotions, which include free mochas at McDonald’s, free tacos at Jack in the Box and Long John Silver’s, and free coffee at Starbucks. Some promotions are more successful than others: Certain Boston Markets are overwhelmed with $1 meal coupons and have to turn customers away.

May 10
Sorry Mom, no diamond earrings this year: Mother’s Day spending looks to be down 10%, and 30% of folks buying something for Mom do their shopping at a discount store.

May
New York magazine takes note of “Recession Culture” and the recession’s impact on the city—including many positives, such as increased museum attendance and volunteering and, perhaps most surprising of all, people being nice to each other.

Another positive (for some folks, if not the economy as a whole): For four straight months, consumers decrease borrowing and ramp up saving, resulting in a national savings rate of 6.9% in May, the highest rate since the early 1990s.

The unemployment rate is 9.4%.

June 14
Writing an op-ed for the NY Times, Barbara Ehrenreich notes the rise of “recession porn,” a genre in which readers indulge in the human impact of the economic crisis, with stories of how “the super-rich give up their personal jets; the upper middle class cut back on private Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo vacations and evenings at Applebee’s.”

June 20
The National Parks Service, in a move intended to offer some much-needed respite to folks hit hard by the recession, offers free admission to national parks on this and two other weekends later in the summer.

June 21
A survey indicates that spending on Fathers Day gifts drops by 4%. Most painful of all, the necktie remains a popular gift to dads everywhere.

June
Statements from scads of the newly-poor and newly-less-rich—all victims of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme—are reviewed in court before Madoff is sentenced to 150 years in prison. Some of the victims speak in court, including one woman who says, “He killed my spirit and shattered my dreams. He killed my trust in people.”

“Collective Buying Power” site Groupon spreads its reach, offering bulk discounts on massages, bike tours, and more in a total of 11 U.S. cities, and later in the year announces plans for 50 more cities in North America.

Meanwhile, the Queen of England cries poverty, going public with news that she is going broke and wants her income doubled by the British government.

Unemployment (in the U.S.) rises to 9.5%.

July 2
Madoff’s wife Ruth is kicked out of her apartment by federal authorities after she tries, unsuccessfully, to take a fur coat with her.

July 4
It’s a darker-than-usual Fourth of July, as towns across the country scale back or cancel fireworks shows.

July 8
The NY Times reports in its Fashion & Style section on the trend of buying (or even better, acquiring for free) secondhand baby toys, clothes, and gear. In light of the “new frugality,” buying a new $1,000 changing table is no longer a demonstration of how much you love your baby; all of a sudden, it instead demonstrates poor judgment.

July
The rise of a new barter economy can be seen all over the Internet, including sites like Swaptree and Craiglist, where the number of barter classifieds doubled in a year.

Yes, it’s the middle of the summer. Nonetheless, Santa pops up in store aisles as desperate retailers launch Christmas sales.

The unemployment rate is 9.4%.

August 11 to 18
A volunteer operation called Remote Area Medical offers free health care at the Los Angeles Forum, and even without much prior publicity, people flock to the arena in droves. Extra public buses are arranged by the city’s transportation system, and some people sleep overnight in line in order to receive treatment. All told, the unit takes care of 8,775 general medical visits which patients might have otherwise ignored—one of many disturbing health care statistics to come to light in 2009.

August 12
Tap water is fine, thank you very much: Bottled water sales fall for the first time in six years.

August 24
Last chance to get up to $4,500 for your hunk-of-junk automobile via Cash for Clunkers, in which nearly 700,000 old gas guzzlers were swapped for more fuel-efficient (and likely, foreign) models.

August
California, broke and budget-crunched, puts anything and everything it can find up for sale on eBay and Craigslist.

Unemployment rises to 9.7%.

September
Blockbuster announces it is closing nearly 1,000 stores. Less expensive video-rental alternatives, meanwhile, experience enormous success in 2009: The number of Redbox’s $1 DVD kiosks grows by 61%, while mail-order service Netflix’s profits jump 22%.

In Cheap We Trust, a manifesto on the virtues of cheapness, is released by author Lauren Weber.

Thousands of consumers settle up their credit card debt by taking an obvious step: They ask the card issuer to accept less than they owe. Many banks, eager to get something rather than nothing, are willing to deal. (For that matter, asking for a discount on just about anything proves to be a good idea.) Also in the pursuit of maximizing profits, credit card issuers counter legislative reform efforts by adding fees, including one for NOT buying stuff, and jacking up interest rates.

Unemployment is measured at 9.8%.

October 30
The holiday-shopping deals season begins way early, with Black Friday-style doorbusters at Sears, Macy’s, and other stores.

October
Brent T. White, a University of Arizona law professor, publishes a paper entitled “Underwater and Not Walking Away: Shame, Fear and the Social Management of the Housing Crisis,” which offers a money-saving (and also ethically questionable and irresponsible) suggestion to homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth: simply walk away. Strategic mortgage default is something of a trend, with about a million homeowners walking away from their homes (and their debts) in 2009.

Wal-Mart cuts prices on new bestselling authors’ books to $10, kicking off a series of price wars that extend to DVDs, video games, and more. The year is a hugely successful one for Wal-Mart, as newly thrifty consumers hit its stores seeking cheap goods.

Unemployment hits a peak of 10.2%.

November 27
Black Friday. Also, by no small coincidence, it’s the anti-consumer movement’s Buy Nothing Day. The buyers seem to have the edge: Overall, there were more shoppers than the Black Friday of 2008, but they were tough customers who tended to buy only the most heavily discounted items.

November
A report says that food stamps now help feed one in four children in the U.S.

A Freegan Summit takes place in Bristol, England. Members of the anti-consumer, free-everything movement hosts a three-course dinner for 250 people, cooked entirely using discarded (and free) food and ingredients.

There’s a noticeable rise (up 6%) in shoplifting, particularly among the middle class.

“No heat” competitions arise in towns in New Jersey and around the country: Neighbors battle it out to see who will be the last to turn on their homes’ heat. Winner gets bragging rights, along with cheaper utility bills, obviously.

A new book called Scroogenomics argues that holiday gift-giving is highly inefficient, thereby bad for the giver, recipient, and the economy as a whole.

The rise in unemployment retreats, dropping to an even 10%.

December
A “Cash for Caulkers” program gets initial approval. The program will give homeowners rebates and incentives for certain home improvement projects, so things like adding insulation or installing solar panels would cost folks a whole lot less than usual.

Pre-orders are being taken for On a Dollar a Day: One Couple’s Unlikely Adventures in Eating in America. Apparently, a lot of folks are fascinated with food, and with saving money: A Q&A with the book’s authors, who, as the title indicates, limited their food budget to $1 per person per day, has been the most popular post on this blog since it’s been in existence.

Santas at malls around the country report (via the WSJ) of children asking for things such as school shoes and eyeglasses. One girl asks Santa if he could hire her out-of-work dad as an elf.

Sometime in autumn or early winter
The recession is over! And unemployment will hover around 10% for the foreseeable future! Wait, what?

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