I was in Chicago last summer and stopped by Eataly, the fancy Italian grocery store/restaurant chain. I admired the mushroom selection, bought a hunk of ciabatta, and then made my way toward the exit . . . and that’s when I encountered Eataly’s display of chocolate hazelnut spreads. Something like twenty different varieties of high-quality imported Nutella analogues. And here I was, a Nutella-lover who hadn’t touched the stuff in the nine months since I’d gone vegan. Several minutes of obsessive label-reading later, I had found a jar of dairy-free Nutella-type spread . . . but it was $15, and I was pretty sure I would feel like an idiot if I impulsively spent $15 on vegan Nutella.
So I didn’t. I went home to Fort Wayne and thought about that hazelnut spread for the next five months. Five months, people. Five months—long enough by any of my standards to justify buying myself a jar the next time I was back in Chicago, in January.
In my mid-twenties, having noticed the way that buying a thing that attracted me ended up making the thing a little less attractive, I began to develop a discipline of waiting. This served me well in my early thirties, when my ex-husband and I were supporting ourselves and two small children on his income as a part-time English adjunct and my income as a part-time freelance copyeditor. It’s too long ago for me to remember the ups and downs of our income; all I remember is that in the year when we were supporting a family of four on $29,000, it was $1,000 too much to qualify for the Earned Income Credit. It certainly wasn’t too much to avoid spending enormous amounts of energy to avoid spending money. We got through those years with no credit card debt and no student loan debt (I was still finishing my PhD), a source of pride then and now . . . but what I couldn’t fully recognize until it was over was just how much it sucked to be so broke.
So broke that Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette was my second bible.
So broke that I made my own broth, bread, yogurt, and granola; cooked and froze beans and grains in one-cup quantities; and cooked almost all our meals from scratch.
So broke I had an ongoing “needs” list that I built up over the winters so that I could buy things we needed during the summer garage sale seasons . . . because garage sales are way cheaper than thrift stores.
So broke that I made this homemade bumblebee costume for my four-year-old out of a shirt I bought at a garage sale, a “stinger” made from a toilet paper roll and electrical tape, and wings made from a wire hanger and black panty hose. He’s smiling in this picture from his preschool costume parade, but he hated having a homemade costume, so I called my sister to ask to borrow my nephew’s store-bought Spiderman costume for trick-or-treating (Spiderman was big that year, evidently).
We were, following the terminology of my sister’s high school boyfriend, “broke,” not “poor.” We had cultural capital up to our eyeballs, and many of our friends were either graduate students or large homeschooling Catholic families, all of whom were living nearly as frugally as we were.
But oh lord, how it sucked. This phase of my life came abruptly to an end shortly after we moved to Fort Wayne. After my first week in a tenure-track academic job, I spent the weekend making bread and yogurt, among other things. Monday morning came, and I was exhausted. “Ohmigod,” I realized, “I just spent the weekend wearing myself out to save maybe twenty bucks, and now I have to go to work again! Nooooooooo!” The frugal phase was truly over a few weeks later, when I saw a container of pine nuts at the grocery store and realized that I could afford to buy them for pesto, instead of using walnuts, as I’d been doing for years. This made me very, very happy.
But because of those six years of hardship, apparently there are limits, which I may have with me the rest of my life, on how much indulgence will ever be comfortable for me. When I returned to Chicago in January, I was on a mission—I would not leave without my vegan hazelnut spread, goddammit! At Eataly, I once again went through the label-reading process, finding a non-dairy jar after reading approximately eighteen labels. After a moment’s hesitation about spending $15 on a 7-ounce jar, I headed to the cash register. “That will be $24.36,” the cashier said.
“No, no,” I corrected him. “This jar was like fifteen dollars.” We looked at each other. “Hang on a minute, OK?” Yes, I did actually leave the cash register and go back to the display. Yes, I found that I had read the wrong price label. Yes, $24.36 was the correct price.
Reader, I bought it.
Once home from Chicago, I toasted me up a slice of bread, spread a thick schmear of my $25 Nutella analogue onto it, took a bite, and waited for angels to sing. This did not happen. I began to bargain with myself, as one does in the stages of grief: It’s OK. Just make it last, and making it last will make it feel more worth it. I made it last. It’s been eleven weeks, and I still have enough for one more piece of toast.
It never became anything other than a thoroughly idiotic purchase, though. After I’m done with it, the next time I have a craving, I’ll do what I did my first fourteen months as a vegan: melt vegan chocolate chips into some peanut butter, and go to town. The flavor of peanuts is less refined than the miracle that is the hazelnut, but at least there is no aftertaste of Regret.