About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

#9 - The Penny Pinchers Club

Hey, I guess I shouldn't feel too bad about taking 6 months to find a new job. After all, when even the chick lit puts on a recession theme, you know times have been hard. Such is The Penny Pinchers Club, by Sarah Strohmeyer (New York: Dutton, 2009). In a nutshell, this one has its share of plot holes, but still made for an entertaining afternoon.

From the dust jacket: "Living in New Jersey -- the state that boasts the most malls per capita -- Kat's favorite recreational activity is a no-brainer: shopping. But when she discovers that her husband, Griff, has been hiding a secret bank account and exchanging dubious e-mails with his attractive young assistant, her joyful consumerism suddenly loses its appeal. Are their fights about money more serious than she understood? Is he, as her friends suggest, preparing for a divorce? Just in case, Kat decides it's time to start saving. Unfortunately, having racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt (of course she needed those tiki torches from Pier 1!), Kat finds herself in way over her head.

"Drastic times call for drastic measures. Kat starts by canceling cable and kicking her $240 monthly Starbucks habit. But what starts out as a simple effort to cut costs soon becomes an over-the-top obsession when she joins an eclectic but lovable group of savers called the Penny Pinchers Club. Soon she is pumping her gas at dawn (when it is thicker) and serving dinner made from food she retrieved at the grocery store Dumpster. Kat is saving money, to be sure, but what she's really saving is time -- time she spends with Griff, their daughter ... and an old flame, who resurfaces at precisely the wrong moment, offering Kat a life where money is no object."

The premise is pretty entertaining, and much like Prospect Park West, has "screenplay" written all over it. The trouble starts when Kat, on the eve of their twentieth wedding anniversary, finds two wrappers from Trojan Mint Tingle condoms in husband Griff's suitcase as she's unpacking from his latest business trip ... and then an expensive restaurant receipt from a night when he'd allegedly turned in early at his hotel. Turns out, the latter was paid for with a MasterCard that (as far as Kat knows) they've never owned. With some encouragement and help from big sister Viv and Viv's accountant friend Adele, Kat does some digging, finds the aforementioned secret bank account, and consults infamous divorce lawyer Toni Feinzig -- all the while saying nothing to Griff, on the advice of her new lawyer:
"'[I]f you confront your husband now with virtually no assets to your name besides the ones you two hold mutually, you will only be hurting yourself in the long run since there is a very strong possibility that he'll call your bluff and declare immediately that he's leaving you, at which point you will be on your own."
Of course, ferocious lawyers don't come cheap, so there's the rub: Kat has 8 months (till June, when daughter Laura graduates high school and, she expects, Griff will leave her for his PYT assistant, Bree) in which to save $15,000 for Toni's retainer. Desparate situations, desparate measures, so she finally succumbs to cleaning lady Libby's invitations to join the Penny Pinchers Club. She's clearly over her head here, and on hearing about her baby steps -- switching to take-out instead of sit-down service at the sushi bar, finding gas for ten cents less a gallon, cutting out Starbucks -- the Pinchers are about to show her the door ... until she spills about Griff's infidelity. At this point, they take pity on her, and stage a massive audit and intervention: cancel cable, the landline, and Netflix; share a wireless connection with the neighbors; even trade in the Lexus -- all with the goal of saving (ulp!) $500 a week.

Kat digs in with gusto, which is one of the weaker points in the plot. Sure, her good intentions make sense, especially given the magnitude of the threat she's facing ... but as someone who's taken many trips down the frugal highway, I have a hard time believing that not just Kat, but her family, just blithely accept all these sudden, drastic changes in their lifestyle with nary a backward glance. To change any habit takes time, and rarely goes quite as smoothly as it's presented here.

Likewise, I don't fully buy Kat's decision to finally, after 20+ years, start taking steps to break free from her unreasonably demanding boss and start her own interior design business at precisely the same time she's expecting her marriage to collapse. OK, she is presented as not being terribly financially savvy, and the new business provides the vehicle for bringing ex-boyfriend Liam -- now hugely successful, and the owner of a historic estate in desparate need of remodeling -- back into the picture, but c'mon -- why now? Wouldn't you think someone in deep financial doo-doo, and expecting it to get worse, would want to hold onto a steady job just a wee bit longer?

Surprisingly, I mostly liked the ending. It didn't happen exactly as I'd expected, which is always a relief. While I did take issue with how the author resolves the question of Griff's infidelity, I can't see a better way to do it without a major rewrite -- and who knows where that might have led.

And right now, my watch is leading me to wrap it up -- I've got one of my last ladies-who-lunch dates downtown in half an hour -- so that's it for now. I'll likely hit the library on the way home, and I'm due for a major return and restock, so stay tuned.

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