The frugal elitist

When the going gets tough, the tough go to the mall and drink coffee

I went to the mall yesterday. That's what new mums do. We go to the mall and test drive our new prams, simultaneously getting a bit of postnatal exercise and reacquainting ourselves with the world outside our front doors. It's kinda boring but we new mums are easily amused, given the lowered expectations that come from spending all your time in the company of a being who finds a patch of sunlight on the wall fascinating and conks out after every meal.

So there we were, all the new mums, charging up and down the mall today past empty shops emblazoned with sale signs. And no-one was buying a thing. Not the $5 accessories at the costume jewellery store, not the three-for-the-price-of-two books, not the 20%-off electronic equipment, not the clearance table of luxury homewares.

My mall experience made me think--not for the first time--that these folks who predict the recession is about to lift, or at the very least finally bottom out, are probably wrong. When CEOs are forced to take pay cuts, middle managers lose their jobs and the housing market shrinks, there is a trickle-down effect for all sectors of the economy. Those big-picture losses reach past the Remueras and Herne Bays and into neighbourhoods like mine. Our street is a working class enclave in the midst of a suburb with high unemployment. Times are always tough here. But there are signs that this recession is settling in for winter--our dairies and takeaways are doing less business, empty storefronts are staying that way, sale signs aren't attracting the foot traffic you'd expect. When you walk past the local bookstore you hear things like this:

"Hey, Suze, how are ya?" asks a chipper older gentleman, clearly a regular, as he walks into the shop.

"I'm alive," replies a woman with red hair piled on top of her head, smoking a cigarette and reading a battered novel.

And then there's the fact that the nearest mall, a prime entertainment centre for people in my area, is bustling on a weekday but very little money is actually changing hands.

My husband calls me a 'frugal elitist' because I insist on buying quality but I don't buy much. When we moved into our current home we found we needed an extra bookshelf and something to put dishes in. We ended up with a leather and wood bookshelf and a beautiful oak Dutch hutch we will use for the rest of our lives. We could have bought something much cheaper that would have done the job in the interim but I prefer to have less and better stuff. Comes from having grown up with a father who weathered the Great Depression, I think. I was 5 when he gave me my first piece of Royal Doulton, a Jeremy Fisher figurine that now sits on a shelf in my son's room. I didn't have a glut of toys or the latest of anything, but I very early on developed a taste for nice objects. I also learned how to take care of them.

Now because of the recession my frugal elitism is not just my funny little way of operating but a lifestyle choice for many. Of course, you have to have a certain amount of dosh to be able to afford to be a frugal elitist--'buy well, buy once' only applies when you can get together enough money for the more expensive item that will last longer. And it helps if you can pay cash. (As horribly unfair as it is, if you have more you can almost always pay less). It can be hard if not impossible to get to that point when you are living on one income, or no income.

This is when you need serious budgeting help. Boring though it is, in our household we are planting a vege garden this autumn. We're firing up the breadmaker, eating more meals at home, and drinking less wine. And we're still sharing a car, which is a huge savings.

All of that good money-saving work meant I could afford a couple of treats at the mall, meaning I was one of the few people there who parted with their hard-earned. Oh yeah, I went wild: One cup of coffee, one muffin, and one magazine--with an article on how to save money by rediscovering the clothes already hanging in your closet.