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.