Shopaholics, Big Spenders and People in Debt, Getting Smacked by Economic Reality


The tires on his Ford Taurus were shot. He was months behind on his payments for everything. He slept in a walk-in closet, at arm's length from a toilet. Opening the mail one day in that malodorous shared Baltimore townhouse, Sam MacDonald faced "a new pile of bills. Credit card. Credit card. Credit card. No surprise there. But then another envelope caught my eye. Student loans." A serial job-quitter and freelance editor -- in, of all fields, financial publishing -- MacDonald had graduated a few years earlier from Yale.

"Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. I forgot the damn student loans. Again."

He predicted that the latest loan bill would demand $450, "the financial equivalent of a rabbit punch to the throat." But nooo. Larded with late fees, it topped $1,800. Added to the $4,000 MacDonald already owed to everyone else, $1,800 was no rabbit punch. It was "an ice pick to the eyeball. A shotgun blast to the nuts. A somersault-savate kick to the base of the skull, followed promptly by a shiv to the small intestine."

This is the season for how-did-we-go broke books such as MacDonald's memoir, The Urban Hermit (St. Martin's, 2008), in which the libertarian journalist remembers "my long, raucous march into irresponsible living," then details the radical regimen he adopted to get out of debt. It was infinitely basic: Spend only $8 a week. Consume only 800 calories a day. He was warned that those starvation rations could kill him. "It was a strange and dangerous plan. A shitty plan, actually." But since he weighed 340 pounds at its outset, "I figured that I had amassed enough soft tissue to make it work."

And it did. Over the next year-and-a-half, he lost over 100 pounds, paid all his bills. Hard lessons lay in those unrelenting bowls of boiled lentils and cheap canned tuna. "But I do know this. Hunger is power. And everything else is bullshit."

His experiment happened circa 2000, a prosperous era during which his former Yale classmates were being hired at Harvard and Goldman Sachs. That was then. This is now. A few megabillion-dollar bailouts away, being broke is the new black. But hitting bottom caught MacDonald off guard.

He hadn't made any bad investments. He hadn't made any investments at all. He didn't have a penny in the stock market. He wasn't a high roller, just a good-natured "big boy … who loved drinking and spending money and letting the dealer come over with the Ecstasy and cat tranquilizer." MacDonald was such a fixture at his local bar that fellow regulars always "called to demand my presence if I failed to show, which wasn't often." Even so, beer at that bar cost only $1 a pint.

It was the little things that added up. They always do. A few missed bills down the road, "I had leaped out of a precarious paycheck-to-paycheck existence and into something far worse." Nearly $6,000 in debt? "I know. That might not seem like a lot." His former classmates owed that much or more, but "most of them were the long-view types" who worked hard and had "something to show for the red ink. A hulking SUV. A hip townhouse. Fancy clothes. A master's in philosophy. A fucking CD collection." By contrast, "my financial crisis was doubly cruel in its dullness and the damnable respectability of my pursuers."

So: "No messing around. Rip life down to the basics. … Eat the bare minimum required to stay alive. Send the savings to the creditors. Simple."

Well, in principle. Although he did not actually become a hermit -- but it makes a great title, eh? -- he had to stop doing his favorite things in his favorite places with his favorite people. He had to skip concerts he wanted to see. He couldn't afford to date. He became a staff writer at a local weekly paper (an occupation that, over the last two years, has largely ceased to exist) and a part-time hauler at a fish-packing plant, and didn't quit. Because his plan was ironclad, he refused co-workers' offers of free meals, even free birthday cake. Later, after he'd lost the weight and paid his bills and adopted a slightly softer version of the regimen, he began accepting those kindhearted offers. A good move, and let's all hope some of those come our way as well. 

The Urban Hermit is as much about lifestyle change as dealing with debt. The surest route to the latter is the former, as much as it hurts. Our forebears who lived through the Great Depression and/or in war zones accepted lifestyle changes that we can barely fathom. But consumer culture has told us from infancy onward that we are exempt, that want equals need, that having to wait for what we want denies our basic human rights. We are taught to see, in mirrors, want-shaped selves. We are taught that the more we crave, the more we get, the more real and alive and beautiful we are. A lot of talent and capital goes into this training. Corporations spend around $30 billion every year advertising food products in the United States alone. McDonald's annual marketing budget is over $1 billion.

And the language of advertising is the language of addiction. Consumer culture breeds us to see brands as nations, logos as flags. In the process, we lose track of what is worth what. Eschewing his favorite things, places and people, MacDonald was unnerved by his newfound free time. What to do that costs nothing? For "a wildly irresponsible man on a budget," even leisurely strolls can be tough. One must sidestep old hangouts where "someone might spot me and lure me inside." On such walks, "everything reminded me of what I couldn't do. Hey, look over there. Another bar I can't drink at. The coffee shop. The lemonade stand. The kiosk that sells hot dogs wrapped in soft pretzels. Bad news." The supermarket where he bought his lentils, tuna, white bread and cheap cheese is "hell on earth … built to serve the influx of Yuppies paying top dollar" who "demanded a salad bar, a hot bar, green tomatoes, Black Angus beef, fresh white asparagus, yellowfin tuna, white albacore tuna, 78 varieties of orange juice, and service with a smile. A Starbucks in the store, right next to the checkout lanes." At Easter time: "Shrimp -- fresh, frozen and steamed. Enormous hams. Tiny hams. Pre-sliced. Spiral-sliced. Free-range honey-baked hams. … So many marshmallow Peeps that it made my nuts ache just looking." Rapid gentrification saw developers opening new businesses in the long-depressed former factory district: "a Borders bookstore. A tuxedo shop. A barbershop staffed with young, large-breasted Australian chicks who charged $35 for a high-and-tight. Why not? It was the year 2000, and all was well. Only it wasn't anymore."

MacDonald blamed no one for his debt but himself, and expected no one but himself to bail him out. Learning to save money was a matter of resolve, resourcefulness and personal responsibility. Up until that point in his life, "I had never actually failed. As fat as I was, I had never gone on a diet. So I had never failed to stick to one. As far as finances go, yeah, I was broke. But that was also by choice, in a way. I never applied for a job and failed to get it." On the other hand, "making a plan and not sticking to it? That's a failure."

Those nuts would just have to stay sore.

As a sticker-shocked publishing industry lurches crisis-ward in tatters, along with the rest of the media, desperate to stay solvent and relevant, among what few books will be published in the coming years will be more how-did-we-get-here books like this. You can bet on it. But don't. You can't afford to bet.

So how did we get here? I shouldn't say we. I don't mean me. Hopefully, I don't mean you, too. I've never been a spender. I was the one who pocketed pennies I found on the playground as my primary-school pals chorused, "Cheap Jew." Where did they learn that? From free-spending parents with big credit-card bills? I never learned to like shopping. Anywhere but in thrift stores, it still fills me with dread.

My friend Megan was different. She lived to shop. She'd been raised with privilege, having attended Barack Obama's exclusive Honolulu prep-school alma mater, Punahou, but she wasn't on scholarship, and he was. She was a Phi Beta Kappa University of California, Berkeley, graduate. Nonetheless, Megan was always broke. She'd been bankrupt once already, but kept on shopping. She always had to have three copies in assorted colors of things she saw in movies and magazines. Tiger-striped cushions. Creme de menthe creampuffs. The boots from Kill Bill. She loved new things as few can love them, placing her latest purchases on the novena-studded nightstand that doubled as an altar and examining each item with a shaky smile, fighting off those first pangs of postjag ennui and postjag regret that always welled up within a day or two. Sometimes, she would call me in the middle of the night asking not for loans -- though she needed those -- but for advice. As we spoke, she stroked the beaded purse, the pasta maker or the pleather skirt, its other-colored duplicates lined up on the nightstand like a rebuke.

She would say: "But I waaaaanted it."

I would say: "You just need to learn to go without."

And I could picture her winding her hair -- her hip-length hair whose color she paid a stylist several hundred bucks every two months to change from burgundy to gold to black and back -- around her thumb.

I waaaaaanted it, she said: high-pitched, trembling, like an electric bird.

Megan used to say that if she didn't shop as much as she did, she'd feel deprived. That was the word she used. When I suggested that she relinquish certain luxuries and adopt free or cheap alternatives (library DVDs, day-old rolls, Revlon ColorSilk), she sulked and said she would not sacrifice. That was the other word she used. "I did too much of that, growing up Catholic." She was willing to pay whatever products cost, and I was not. Retail prices pretty much always appalled me, and when this became the country of $30 steak dinners, the country in which concert tickets to see washed-up rock stars topped $200, it became a country I no longer recognized. That my fellow citizens were ready and willing to part with that kind of cash for sheer pleasure has always divided me from them, made me ever more a recluse.

And now they say we will all have to sacrifice, whosever fault it was. Some of us are better prepared than others. Some of us pick up pennies from the ground.

Another new book addresses being busted flat, but in a quirky sexy way that ends with a luxury-hotel canoodle and is about to be released as a Disney film. It's Sophie Kinsella's novel Confessions of a Shopaholic (Dial, 2008), originally published in Britain in 2000 but reissued to coincide with the film, which premieres in February. And yes, it's zany chick-lit about a disarmingly charming twentysomething whose life is a constant rotation of shopping, as she tells us, for "clothes-makeup-shoes-clothes." Earning only scant wages in financial publishing -- the same field in which Sam MacDonald worked -- Becky Bloomwood is broke. Also like MacDonald, she owes big-time -- around $12,000. And she's broke.

"This bill can't be right," Becky marvels, opening her mail. "This can't be me. I can't possibly have spent all this money." Like MacDonald, she itemizes her recent expenditures: Dinners. Lunches. Gasoline. Wine. Lingerie. Shoes. Shirts. More wine. CDs, and "that skin brusher thing which I must use." She starts dropping unopened bills and bank letters into trash bins: "It's the only way to stop getting stressed out about it. And it really does work … I've already forgotten all about them." And she keeps shopping so doggedly, so fixedly, that were she not fictional, we'd worry. Broke, she buys $90 sweaters. Striding toward the boutique where she plans to buy a $340 scarf, she sees another woman exiting the shop, bag in hand.

"And suddenly everything is swept from my mind. Oh my God: What if she's got my scarf? … My heart starts to beat in panic and … I can barely breathe for fear. What if it's gone? What will I do?"

It isn't gone. Becky buys it, "and I almost want to cry out loud, the moment is so wonderful."

This novel was the first in what has become a best-selling series featuring such sequels as Shopaholic Abroad, Shopaholic Ties the Knot and Shopaholic and Baby. It's much more intelligent than you might expect from zany chick-lit, and that's probably the secret to its success. In Kinsella's hands, sardonic self-awareness and sporadic compassion save Becky from being a mere buffoon. "God, I love new clothes," Becky rhapsodizes. "If everyone could just wear new clothes every day, I reckon depression wouldn't exist anymore."

If this is funny, it's funny because, (a) she isn't us, and (b) she isn't real. Even so, Becky's brokeness and initial refusal to face it are all too real indeed. Like MacDonald, Becky devises a radical budget plan: "What I'll do is, I just won't spend anything. … Frugality. Simplicity. These are my new watchwords. A new, uncluttered, Zenlike life in which I spend nothing. Spend nothing. I mean, when you think about it, how much money do we all waste every day? No wonder I'm in a little bit of debt. And really, it's not my fault. I've merely been succumbing to the Western drag of materialism." Minutes later, she spends $12 on magazines. Her resolve dissolved, she adopts plan B, nicknamed "MMM," for "make more money."

Spoiler alert: It works.

Spoiler alert: This is a romance novel.

The difference between MacDonald's cost-cutting plan and Becky's is that she ditched hers. "I missed things," MacDonald acknowledges, but, "I could only deal with what was directly in front of my face. Forget the hunger. Forget the boredom. … Just stay busy." He didn't grin but he bore it, one day at a time.

Confessions of a Shopaholic exposes the mind of that increasingly stock character, the broke former member of the middle class. Fingering a bathrobe in a department store, fueled by a sense of helplessness that lies somewhere between addiction and drowning, Becky "can hear a little voice at the back of my head, like a radio turned down low. Don't do it. You're in debt. … But quite frankly, what does it matter now? It's too late to make any difference. I'm already in debt; I might as well be more in debt. Almost savagely, I pull the dressing gown down from the rack and put it over my arm." Then a pair of matching slippers: "I'm not done yet." On to another department: "Time for a new duvet set. White, to match my new dressing gown. And a pair of bolster cushions. Every time I add something to my pile, I feel a little whoosh of pleasure, like a firework going off. And for a moment, everything's all right. But then, gradually, the light and sparkles disappear, and I'm left with the cold, dark blackness again. So I look feverishly around for something else." Into her basket go a scented candle, shower gel, potpourri -- "but the whooshes are getting shorter and shorter each time. Why won't the pleasure stay? Why don't I feel happier?"

MacDonald, by contrast, locked his gaze on the future. That feat alone is almost superhuman for generations bred to believe, in lockstep, in their own entitlement. News flash: Live on less. Except for a friend's wedding and one much-regretted wild night, he never looked away.

"I was strong."

His wasn't a madcap adventure. Indeed it was so basic that his book bears signs of padding, certain passages too-long drawn out. Because really, his plan boiled down to lentils, homemade sandwiches and saving, lentils, homemade sandwiches and saving: "When I saw something I wasn't supposed to eat, I didn't pick it up. When I saw something at the store that looked good, I didn't buy it. Easy? No. Simple? Yes."

This bullheadedness could be a lesson for us all. We can't talk our way out of overspending anymore, as the fictional Becky Bloomwood does, pointing out that the $60 jar of moisturizer comes with a free lipstick. A season ticket to the museum is a bargain, as long as you vow to visit the museum twice a week. "Buying cheap is actually a false economy. It's much better to spend a little more and make a serious purchase that'll last a lifetime. And this bowl is quite clearly a classic."

But no. 'Tis the season to sacrifice.

The Urban Hermit is an artifact of its era in more ways than one. Actual subject matter aside, the book itself, as a product comprising words printed on paper, is a souvenir of the year the media went into meltdown.

Normally, a key player in the process of producing books is the copy editor, whose job it is to clean up final manuscripts via fact-checking and spell-checking. But when cost-cutting begins, these usually freelance workers are often the first to be excised. What else could explain the whoppers dotting MacDonald's narrative for all to see? They'd be funny if they weren't so scary. In the hardcover edition, we find "hair lip" instead of harelip, "ticks" instead of tics, "Lynrd Skynrd" instead of Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Schemp" instead of Shemp (Howard, that is, of the Three Stooges), and "iron moral" instead of iron morale. The name of San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius appears as "Nevious."

See? Things fall apart.

My friend Megan was a freelance copy editor for major publishers. She passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, a few months before America's cash crisis became explicit. Not a reader of news, Megan would neither have seen this crisis coming nor believed whoever said it was. Dreaming of rhinestone-studded cell phones in rose, lapis and white, she would have wandered headlong into misery. She was not strong.

And when that pale rider approaches on his pale horse on that day of wrath, he will bear in his hands a sign. It will say Lynrd Skynrd.

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