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.

Corona with a twist of lime

“So we were just having coffee…”

“Wait a second, you said you were in the lab all afternoon and evening yesterday, so this coffee…?”

“I knew you would not miss that; it was over breakfast!”

“Alright dude! I knew you would eventually reach the finish line!”

“Wo to theek hai, but you won’t believe what she said…”

“You mean when you told her that the only reason you were going out with her was because you wanted to get closer to her hot friend?”

“Are you nuts, there is no way I’m gonna tell her that! She actually looked me in the eye and said those three words”

“Uh oh! And you are not serious at all? I mean your scheming date with her was two months ago; I assumed that you had feelings for her now…”

“Well, not really…I mean she is not bad, but I don’t feel anything special for her…by the way, I contacted that hotter friend of hers, and we did go out; she moved to Toledo that’s all”

“So you broke that off, then it is fine na…just forget her, and keep it going with this chick!”

“Dude, you remember that Epidemiological conference I went to last weekend?”

“Yeah sure, the one with…oh…you mean….Toledo?”

“Yeah, it was a great weekend!”

“Okay, so now what? Which one?”

“Right now, I don’t know; all I know is that I’m feeling guilty because this chick says she loves me…and I don’t feel it for her”

“Are you sure she really loves you?”

“Come on yaar, only guys say that line without meaning it”

“Well…I just think you have no reason to feel guilty”

“Yeah? Why?”

“Remember that weekend last month when your ‘I love you’ girl went to meet her parents in Vermont?”

“Yeah sure, she even called me from there”

“Her parents are dead, and it cannot be a coincidence that the college soccer team went to Vermont that same weekend; and that her ex was on that team…honestly I can’t believe you did not connect the dots soon enough”

“Oh, then I need not feel guilty I guess…”

“Only of sheer naivete, chal let’s order our beers now”