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 Texas : Features : Columns : "The Girl Detective's Theory of Everything"

Generic Chic

by Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
Recession, depression, economic downturn, market fluctuation, trickle down, trickle up, trickle treat! Who knows what's going on? Not you, not me, and probably not even the people who should know. If they knew what they're supposed to know we might not be in the economic pickle that we appear to be in right now. How do I even know that we are really and truly "in" anything? My retirement account is down 13%. That's one thing.

The other evidence I have is the re-appearance on television of Coupon Ladies. Do you remember these women from the 1970's and 1980's? They are the ladies who claim to be able to buy $69.95 worth of groceries for only $2.14 by the creative and diligent use of coupons. These women make the rest of us look and feel like wasteful, lazy, incompetent shoppers. They are up at dawn stealing newspapers off their neighbors lawns and have worn callouses on their hands by clipping countless coupons. They can tell you what 65 cents off any number is in a nano-second. They come to the grocery store with bulging file folders; the contents alphabetized, cross indexed, sorted by expiration date and store and type of product. They shop in different stores for different things.

When I see one of these women while shopping I am nearly overcome by the temptation to hide behind the potato bin until they're gone. I feel a sense of shame. I feel simultaneously as though I am wearing a diamond tiara and pink tulle tu-tu and am dancing through the grocery store aisles scattering hundred dollar bills and, because of my lack of coupon folder, as though I have been caught naked. If one of them comes up behind me unexpectedly in the bread aisle I am tempted to dig through my purse pretending that my own file folder is there nestled at the bottom. Once I actually tried to pretend that the garage remote was a calculator. Usually I just duck and run.

I don't clip coupons, or at least I don't make a practice of it. If I find one somewhere for something that I know I use I might tear it out and drop it into my wallet. But I won't remember that I have it next time I am at the store. Or I will emergently need something to spit my gum into while in the car, or to write a phone number on. I don't take the newspaper because I find so much of the content objectionable. As a result, I don't know which store is running a special on lettuce and which on paper towels. I shop at the store which is closest to where I am when I decide to go.

There is another reason I don't use coupons. I may be wrong, I haven't made a study of it, but it seems to me that coupons are generally for things that you shouldn't be buying anyway: hot dogs, potato chips, cookies, soda pop. I don't remember ever seeing a coupon for pot roast or lima beans or leafy greens. I'm probably wrong about that, but I wonder if the Coupon Moms are saving all kinds of money, getting a week's worth of groceries for a dollar and 900 inky slips of paper, at the expense of their family's nutrition?

When the children were little and were all at home and we weren't making as much money as we are now I shopped very carefully. I never bought a name brand when a generic would do. I bought dried beans instead of canned. At one point I even made all our own bread. As our finances improved and our numbers declined I will admit that I became more and more lax in my shopping. I "splurged" on name brand stewed tomatoes. I began to base my menus on what I wanted to cook rather than what was on sale. I know that in the past few years I have begun to spend more for particular things on my shopping list, but that was because my total grocery expenditure was so much less than it had ever been before, with most of my kiddos grown and gone. And don't think that buying something with an elf on the package didn't make me feel pretty durned fancy. Oh yeah! I got almost as big a kick out of buying the "fancy" stuff as someone younger and hipper gets from a pair of Jimmy Choos.

But those halcyon days of blithely choosing brands for what I want rather than for the minimum cents per ounce appear to be gone for now and "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." I can easily ratchet myself back into careful shopping, going for the generics when they will do just fine. But I cannot, will not, simply won't go as far as the whole full scale coupon thing. I have enough stress in my life right now, and enough trouble keeping up with all the paperwork I already have without voluntarily subjecting myself to all that clipping and filing and organizing. I will never be on TV, that's true, and I may be wasting money here and there, but I will retain the bit of sanity I still have. And those Coupon Ladies can just give me their smug looks if they want. I don't mind. Much.

Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
"The Girl Detective's Theory of Everything" November 1, 2008 Column
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