Why do we cheap out on ourselves?

poll on spendingThe other day as I was hanging up clothes after doing the laundry, it occurred to me for the first time ever that all the “good” hangers are in my husband’s closet, and all the rinky dink hangers are in mine: I’ve got a motley assortment of wire hangers from the cleaners, annoying plastic hangers whose metal hooks always turn the wrong way and tangle with the others, old wooden hangers literally 60 years old …  

And this was my doing – a product of this deep quiet voice that lives within me and often says, “you aren’t worth it” if there’s a division to be made or extra money to be spent just to have things a little nicer, just for me. It’s an instinct, especially in the matter of little day-to-day things, and why? My husband certainly has never demanded, much less even intimated, that he wanted all the “best” hangers… And why haven’t I bought enough good hangers for both of us? Why have I felt compelled to save perhaps $100 (if that) on nicer hangers that I could have been using for the last 15 years?

I do think we women often impose these “unfair” frugalities on ourselves due to a residual cultural tradition that tells us (inside our heads) “you don’t deserve to have the ‘nicer’ or higher quality version of whatever – you should be as frugal as possible whenever you’re spending on ‘just’ yourself.”  It’s more than wanting to make or give something nice for someone you love.  It’s an internal measure of unworthiness – built in from our earliest days of being raised as girls.  Granted there are variations created by family circumstances, financial histories, and just plain old quirks of personality, but still, I think the common female thread of self-stinginess is there.

A more marked and serious example of this was when I was fresh out of law school and interviewing for my first legal job.  My not-yet-then (and now ex) husband and I were both preparing to venture forth and grab the first rung in our exciting career ladders.  To prepare, he went out and bought a very good quality suit, fresh shirts, ties, the best shoes.  I still remember the price of those wingtips: $80 – quite a bit for 1979.  He also had his resume prepared by a service and reproduced on good quality paper (yes, that’s how long ago it was, my friends).  I admired his preparations and efforts; I felt that every nickel so spent was an investment in his efforts to win the best possible position, and well worth it.

Me?  I went out and got some new clothes as well: inexpensive suits from Loehmann’s, unlined; synthetic blouses, and yes, (Clarisse), cheap shoes.  I sat down at my manual typewriter and typed my resume several times over on reasonably good paper.  And I set out to interview for the same entry level legal jobs, in the same city, as my husband.  Each of us had J.D.’s from the same law school and virtually the same grades and varieties of experience.  Yet I felt that his expenditures on high quality clothing and a professional resume were well advised, while my frugal choices were appropriate for me.  What was I thinking?

There’s no moral to this story.  I did get a job as an enforcement attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and I ended up doing the environmental protection work that I had set out to do.  I felt that I had an exciting legal practice, and I told myself that the utilitarian offices, metal desks, view of the wall across from my window, and surly treatment from our secretaries was all inconsequential compared to the work that I was doing.  But – my first job choice had been with a private law firm that I had long admired, nationally known for its groundbreaking work in environmental protection and advocacy, and at the same time prosperous and successful.  From their well appointed, wood paneled offices with magnificent views of Manhattan, the lawyers at this firm maintained lucrative practices and at the same time devoted at least 40% of their efforts to pro bono environmental work.  I really had wanted to work there.

As a matter of fact, I had secured an interview at that firm, but they had not hired me.  Now I look back and wonder; did I sabotage my chances?  I think about the uneasy feeling I had during my interviews, that I ascribed to my own nervousness and not to, perhaps, a negative reaction I might have brought on with my economical clothing and not quite polished-looking resume.  The senior partner seemed to like me; he himself was something of a rumpled man who I think simply was oblivious to the quality of my clothing and shoes.  But as I proceeded through a sequence of interviews with other partners and higher level associates on that interview day, I remember experiencing more than one disapproving once-over or disdainful glance at my home-typed resume. For my part I remember feeling disdainful myself; I remember telling myself that they were asses, and pretentious.  But why did I set myself up for that treatment?

My husband got hired at his first choice: a private firm in beautiful offices high on the 40th floor of a grand old building on Wall Street.  (He had a stone fireplace in his office!)  I have to wonder if I didn’t insure that I would not end up in as prestigious or well-heeled an environment as his.  Did I do this to myself, because of an inherent lack of self-esteem, a fundamental feeling that “I’m not worth it?”  It makes me shudder now to think of it.

So the clothing hangers got me thinking… and I ended up posting a question in one of my LinkedIn discussion groups about this overall question of cheaping out on ourselves.  Click here to see the discussion that’s ensued: in fact, please join in!



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