Notes on Frugality

Los Alamos, I said in my head, in the voice of Antonio Banderas. Tomero. Wandering the wine section of my local liquor store, I tarried among the South American reds. Antonio was really starting to sell me on the Punto Final.

I select wine on the basis of three factors. First and foremost, the attractiveness of the label—it should be very attractive. A close second is the variety of grape—anything red, really, because coffee stains aren’t enough—and third, perhaps most importantly, is price—twelve dollars and under. This last point has been a rule since I could drink legally, an Americanized holdover from my time in Germany, where I was told to pay “at least three Euro for a red, at least five Euro for a white, and no more than two Euro for a blush.” In America, I pay at least eight for a red, at least ten for a white, and won’t drink blush even if it’s free.

In the case of wines that I will drink, the differences between an eight-dollar bottle and a twelve-dollar bottle are remarkable—both to the wine connoisseur and the twenty-something, for whom four dollars is a calculable percentage of his net worth.

My sole source of income in the past two months—aside from my darling mother, but for the grace of whom I would be truly a waif adrift—has been a tutoring job, for which I earn twenty dollars per hour, per student. So far I have one student, once a week, but with no rent to pay and all my meals at home, it’s not an insignificant contribution. My checking account receives such infusions occasionally, in addition to some forty dollars at a time, skimmed reluctantly from my dwindling savings—now little more than the nostalgic memory of my last few paychecks.

That said, in my experience, the times I can’t afford wine are precisely those in which I need it most. So what’s the point in skimping? This line of thinking informs what I call the Skimp Principle.

The Skimp Principle justifies an upgrade: from a 1.5 Liter bottle of Yellowtail to something French, or Chilean, or from a can six-pack of Bud Light to a bottled six-pack of the same (‘cause let’s be real), or to a plaid-clad hipster microbrew with a great name (pick me up a six’ of Sweaty Betty?). The Skimp Principle spells, at most, a difference of a few dollars. Taken as more than the sum of its bottles, however, it represents a step up in self-respect. Out of work and out of shape, I’m loath to have another item in the “con” column of my early twenties (e.g., drinking canned Bud Light). And for what it’s worth, plaid-clad hipster microbrews are a definite “pro.”

To be sure, the Skimp Principle extends beyond beer and wine—my standards far outstrip my means with regard to cheeses, ground coffee, and nearly all manner of groceries for which there exists a “gourmet” variety. (See note at “artisanal.”) Dinner may be yellow rice and black beans, but it’s a six-dollar wheel of Brie and a glass of Pinot Noir to start.

Possibly I’m painting myself as some awful bourgeois snob. And, in all earnestness, possibly I am one. But the fact is that neither my palate (which I initially spelled “palette,” possibly due to a general lack of sophistication in my own), nor my high-school-French pronunciation of “Pinot Noir,” nor my exceedingly tired debit card can tell the difference. I haven’t the faintest geography of wine-producing regions, and blindfolded I’d be at a loss to identify even one of the “undertones” so proudly splashed across the little wine nametag at the store. It’s not a matter of refinement in the least; it’s merely an aesthetic of refinement, which may be the most bourgeois fact of all.

Back at the liquor store, thumbing my latest paycheck (read: twenty-dollar bill) and perusing the Argentine Malbecs, I was torn. Los Alamos for nine dollars, or Tomero for twelve? The Skimp Principle told me to forget about the price, and even so I was sure the three-dollar difference would otherwise go toward a cup of coffee. So, I made the reasonable choice. I re-deposited my change into my pocket account, confident in my decision to just get the one with the prettier label.

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