For a few dollars more

I am famously cheap.

My friend regales crowds with the time he and I bought blank DVDs in Mumbai. Each one cost Rs. 12 (about 24 cents for the uninitiated), and I noticed that the DVDs were shiny on both sides without any drawings or logos. I had to ask, “Does this mean I can burn data on both sides?” The shopkeeper literally facepalmed and said, “Sir. How much do you expect for just Rs. 12?” He couldn’t tell what embarrassed him more—my ridiculous question or that he was more embarrassed with the exchange than I.

Coaxing dollars out of my wallet is a running dare among my friends. Every outing they propose to me begins with a ‘should you choose to pay for it’ clause. It’s not like they aren’t careful with money. They just don’t make it as obvious as I do. I have never been too embarrassed to ask, “But how much will it cost?” And that helps me negotiate with chemical vendors for lab supplies. It’s a real production. I dial up the Indian accent, play the poor immigrant card like a zither, and make them repeat every sentence until they surrender and dangle the biggest discount their supervisor can authorize. Occasionally I get busted because the guy at the other end is in a call center in Bangalore.

Now I know the stereotype in America—Indians are cheap. There is some truth to that. What distinguishes me is that my ‘Indian’ friends call me cheap. In restaurants that don’t split checks, I usually pay, and the next day my companions receive an Excel sheet in an email with what they owe me in bold. Social decorum rarely stops me from lecturing the friend who never orders anything and disposes of three plates of the free bread. Nor do I shy away from interrogating the friend who habitually leaves to answer nature’s call when the waiter approaches with the check. Why do I hang out with such douchebags?

A typical conversation should highlight my agony. I dislike going to Starbucks alone. So I call someone—

“Hey I’m going to get a coffee. Come with?”

“No man. I’m busy. But as you’re going, can you get me a Chai tea latte?”

“Certainly. I chug a 50-cent coffee refill while chauffeuring your $3 drink. Guess what? Next time I have a yen for coffee, you’re not invited.”

It’s no secret whence I acquired this character. My mom earns and spends without losing sleep. The World Bank lends India huge sums against mom’s sari collection. Dad on the other hand, as mom illustrates, enjoys money by having it. So as I gloss over my penny-pinching by waxing lyrical about abysmal stipends and the GINI coefficient, the truth is that it’s coded into my DNA to fret about the doubloons. My salary has doubled from almost nothing to nearly nothing over the last few years, but I have increased my spending just enough to let me salivate over something I can’t buy.

And what I can’t buy are usually possessions, even though studies suggest that buyer’s remorse is lower when you spend on experiences than on things—a crock if you ask me. Studies of happiness usually involve self-reporting, basically shoving a mic into someone’s face and asking them if they’re happy—a subjective concept if there ever was one. Anyway, as a guy, and a geeky one at that, I like splurging on tech stuff. Seriously, I have gadgetry that a person with twice my salary and half my debt should eschew.

It’s not like I won’t fork over for experiences. I can be weak too. I splurge on food. If you gave me ten thousand dollars and a month in NYC to spend it, I would see you in two weeks with blocked arteries and type II diabetes. And I tip well. I don’t eat in places where I can’t afford the meal plus at least 15% tip. And I’m not an asshole. I purchase my music from iTunes. Sure I grab every free iTunes card I can at the school Starbucks. But that’s essentially free money. A guy’s gotta eat.

My spending habits are paradoxical. I will order takeout instead of cooking for myself, but I’ll save the little napkins. I like eating at Chipotle, but when the ladle-wielding woman tells me that guacamole is extra—she can’t help it. It’s probably in her contract—I crumble and eat a soulless burrito bowl.

All because that little analog meter is perpetually running in my head. Like the MasterCard ad but without the corny ending.

36 thoughts on “For a few dollars more

  1. hahahahaha, how much were you expecting to burn on those dvds in any case? (PS: Is you cheapness why you seem to have reverted back to this twenty ten theme?)

  2. LOL. I was just going to do a post on the steps to drive an effective bargain while street shopping 🙂 Looks like money’s on everyone’s mind. Those idiosyncrasies you have mentioned about napkins, guacamole etc brought a smile to my lips 🙂 I got a few myself! 🙂

  3. @Deepa: Street shopping is a female knack, ’cause for that you gotta love the bargain more than the product!
    @Bharat: I agree with all of it! Except that you did spend really well on me when I was there, so I guess I am good at coaxing dollars out of your wallet! 😛

  4. We all have some of this, it is simply an issue of what we love. The older we get the more it becomes obvious. I love shoes, I know the the better made a shoe the more comfortable it will be and the longer it will last me. I splurge on classic shoes. I will not pay any more than I absolutely necessary on a ‘season’ shoe.

    I make my living with my computer. I splurge on the very best hardware and software, but I look for the very best deal I can find. I badger the vendors pointing out I am a long time customer with customers of my own who will see my system and marvel at the wonder of the integration and beauty.

    Food and entertainment is something like love. It always depends. I will shop and spend if I am cooking at home for friends and family. Only the best of everything, fresh and beautiful. Because I love them and want them to be delighted.

    • I agree. We all have things we splurge on and skimp on.
      It’s nice that you insist on the best for your family and friends. And it makes sense to spend money on occupational stuff. If you earn a living through your computer, it better be good.

  5. You may get a few snide remarks placed lightly behind your back from your friends, but you’ll be the one laughing (and sleeping through the night) when the day comes that you can live off of everything you’ve saved. You’ll laugh even harder if it comes at around 40 or so.

    I’d love to see your mom’s sari collection, though. I bet it’s awesome. =)

    • Well, I spend a lot. I just whine about it more than others. So I’m not really the ant in the grasshopper story.
      As for the saris, yeah, mom takes excellent care of them, and considering they’re just a single roll of cloth, it’s not like you can grow out of them or anything. So most of the stuff in there she’s had for north of twenty years.

  6. i feckin’ LOVED this piece. especially when you said you’d buy the dinner, but the next day your friends receive an emailed excel spreadsheet. absolutely hilarious. and also wanted to tell you – i read that ‘late bloomers’ piece and loved… xo, sm

  7. lmao – I don’t think you’re cheap Bharat, I think your friends are just better at evading the bill than you are. 😉 On the question of tips : here in Australia we don’t tip as a matter of course. Tips are ONLY for really good service. If the food sucks or the waiter acts like he or she is doing me a favour by taking my order then they can whistle for their tip. On the other hand if the service is friendly and efficient and the food is good then I’ll tip generously in appreciation of having had a good time. Strange how some customs are so very different from place to place.

    • Well, in the US, the pay structure for waitstaff assumes that they’re gonna get tipped. In fact, the government assumes that they’re getting tipped at 15% for tax purposes. So, unless you get crappy service, you must tip at least 15% in America. But I agree tipping customs are varied all over the world.
      My friends are better than me at most things. I’m just too finicky about financials!

      • Apart from that horrible tax issue, there’s nothing to stop diners from voting with their pockets. At the very least, if enough diners refuse to tip for bad food and lousy service those individual restaurants and wait staff may get the message. That’s easy for me to say though. 😦

      • Well, if enough diners tip poorly as a response to bad service, waiters do get the message. Restaurants monitor this stuff, and will fire the offending waiter if it gets too much.
        I agree. Customers shouldn’t shy away from voting with their pockets.

      • So true. That’s why I find the social media phenomenon so fascinating. FB and Twitter etc are making changes in the world yet they are not driven by ‘design’. It’s more like an organic process. Possibly the first modern example of true democracy at work.

    • Thanks! I tip well because some of my friends have waited tables, and I know how hard it is. Also, there’s a selfish reason—I’m the kind of person who goes regularly to the places he likes. So it behooves me to tip properly!

  8. Bharat I am just like you! But instead of being the cheap Indian I am the cheap Jew that my friends know as being cheap. Where I work, a lot of times we have visiting brand representatives who will bring us snacks and things to eat, and I will make a whole meal out of it so that I don’t have to buy lunch. The other night I went to a dinner party and brought a bottle of wine that looked like it cost $10, but it was only $4. I could go on and on really. But I do tip well as well. 🙂

    • You’re right. We can draw many parallels between the Indian and the Jewish experiences. I do, often, get a kick of saving money—not that I do it well enough or quite as often as I’d like.
      Thanks for visiting and commenting, travellingmo!

  9. i love this. excellent. and, while you and i don’t share the exact same spending quirks, I can see where one’s parents may have a hand in it. my chinese dad and his side of the family are meticulous about the money they make and dispense; but somehow they are always conscious of having toilet paper and essentials stocked, y2k-style. my filipino mom negates this behavior. she celebrates her acquired american citizenship with such flourish, such pageantry, it’s a wonder i didn’t have more than one cotillion growing up. consequently, i’m conservative about having the latest things, but i sure can spend a lot on a nice sheet wrapping paper.

  10. No guacamole at Chipotle is very much so a soulless burrito bowl. Next time, buy an avocado from the market and bring some black pepper. Mash it up beforehand and voila, cheap tasty guacamole! I’ve done it on occasion before when I felt like having more than one tiny scoop for $2.

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