Spending and Saving, Saving and Spending

originally published in the New Britain Herald, Bristol Press and Middletown Press

You know those free online e-mail accounts where you’re guaranteed no-cost access from every Internet connection in the world in exchange for being constantly pummeled by annoying flash ads, fluffhead celebrity news links and the occasional virus attack that crashes your entire hard drive?

I have one, and in recent days it’s been impossible to check my messages without seeing headlines raving about the hot new fashion trend gaining popularity in today’s pre-Depression economy: Shop your closet.

In other words, ladies (and a few gentlemen, too): Instead of buying new clothes, just wear the ones you’ve already got. It’s easy if you’re a grown-up who’s worn the same size for several years now.

Fashion writers didn’t invent “Shop your closet”; they gave the name to a trend already in existence. More Americans every day are shopping their closets, attics and even local food banks, because the economy keeps creating more people whose only choices are “shop your closet” and “don’t shop at all.”

I’m all set for clothes these days, so these articles tell me nothing I don’t know already. What would really help my finances is a story explaining how, if you’d like to save gas money and the Earth by driving a hybrid, you don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars because you can just “shop your garage.”

Except I don’t have one, since I live in an apartment. Even with a garage, I doubt I could reach in back and find some adorable little automotive ensemble I forgot I had. Neither can you, unless you belong to that tiny minority of Americans who own automotive junkyards.

But that’s good. If all car buyers could just shop their garage, the auto industry would demand more bailout money and when tax time came, you’d pay for it anyway. Since the garment industry hasn’t asked for a bailout yet, you can still safely shop your closet.

If too many people do this, however, our economy will sink even lower. Behold a paradox: You, personally, are better off if you have low spending, high savings and no debt. So is everyone else you know. But such habits provide none of the gasoline needed to keep our consumer-based economic engine running.

Picture two mirrors set up to reflect endless images into each other: one labeled “As more people lose jobs and investments, fewer can afford to buy things,” and the other “As fewer people can afford to buy things, more lose investments and jobs.”

It almost makes your conscience hurt, to think your economic survival runs counter to the common good. Is that an indictment of you or the system?

Things were easier after 9/11. Remember when Americans asked “What can we do as individuals to strike back against the terrorists who attacked our country” and the president said, “Go shopping?”

I bought socks the Saturday after the attack. I’d noticed, in the waning days of the pre-9/11 era, that my old socks were pretty stretched out, so when I replaced them it was very empowering to think “These socks won’t just keep my feet warm this winter, they strike a blow in defense of freedom and Western civilization. Take that, Osama!”

But there’s no way President Bush — or the President Obama we’ll have this Tuesday — can tell contemporary Americans “Buy more things and we’ll be fine.”

Meanwhile, I need warm socks because there’s a bone-numbing cold snap freezing my little corner of New England. I’ll shop my sock drawer to see if I have any old freedom socks left.