A few weeks ago, I found myself at a popular Middletown diner with two friends. We had just shared a delicious brunch, which would fortify us for the approximately 40-mile walk back to campus. All that was left to do was to pay the check, and then we’d be on our merry way.
That was when tragedy struck. First, our waitress informed me that the restaurant’s Middletown cash machine was broken. That was strike one.
“Why is every Middletown establishment’s Middletown cash machine broken all the time?” I asked loudly. My companions immediately bent their heads to avoid being recognized. I understood, of course, that Middletown cash is still money; I’m not an idiot. The difference is that it’s not my money but my parents’, to be used for bookstore expenses and the occasional downtown outing.
“What is this godforsaken place,” I continued, quietly steaming, “where Middletown cash machines break on the daily? Why advertise that you take Middletown cash when your machine is more often than not ‘being fixed’ or ‘temporarily out of service’?”
My monologue bemoaning broken Middletown cash machines was interrupted by the arrival of our check. I opened the little black folder and flicked my eyes down toward what I had ordered. I’d eaten one of the vegetarian specials because it sounded good and I always feel bad that waiters and waitresses have to make the same three-minute-long speech to all of their tables, and I was realizing just then that, having never ordered a special before—ever—I had no idea what it cost. I wasn’t too nervous, though; I figured they’d charge me around 8 dollars, maybe 10 if they were feeling particularly greedy.
I’m not exaggerating when I say a shiver shuddered through my entire body when I saw the price. It had cost $16. SIXTEEN DOLLARS. I was aghast. It was highway robbery! Almost 20 dollars for brunch? My throat began to close.
My friend caught me as I fainted, luckily, and, once I regained consciousness, I was seething. I felt swindled. First the “broken” Middletown cash machine, and then this? My hands shook as I reached for my wallet and pulled out my debit card one centimeter at a time. I experienced physical pain as the waitress whisked it away to deduct nearly 20 dollars from my account. My chest felt tight. My eyes clouded over with misty rage. I guzzled water—that, at least, was free (or so they claimed).
Once, when he felt that he was being overcharged for a watch that cost $15 instead of the usual $14.99, my grandfather had said, slowly and deliberately, “Next time you rob me, use a gun.”
At the time, I had only laughed hysterically. Now that I was being robbed, though, it wasn’t quite so funny.
Many members of my clan are frugal—or, if they’re refusing to buy something that you deem necessary, just plain old cheap. If it were up to him, my father would live in a shack with no heat and no furniture, surviving on only a newspaper and the three tons of food he stuffs daily into his backpack from the school where he works. If he were feeling extravagant, he might purchase a used fan or some exercise socks. He often says that it pains him to spend money. Sitting at the diner, I understood for the first time what he meant. I felt as though somebody had plied a tooth from my gums. Pain shot through my head. I had a hard time focusing on what my friends were saying.
Later, once I had recovered, I began to reflect: if it’s true that money can’t buy you happiness, why does spending money buy me and so many others misery?
An extreme example of unwillingness to spend any extra money is Professor Ben Edelman, of Harvard Business School. When Edelman ordered what he thought was $53.35 worth of Chinese food, and was then charged $57.35, he was irate. In a series of email exchanges published on boston.com, Edelman threatened legal action against the restaurant for failing to update its web site with the menu’s new prices and requested a $12 refund. Given that Edelman is spending his time arguing over four dollars, he does not seem to be extremely happy (or extremely busy). Four dollars is an amount unlikely to interrupt the quality of his life, so why the angst over losing it?
As much as it pains me to admit it, spending close to $20 on brunch is unlikely to interrupt the quality of my life, either; it’s an unnecessary and completely outrageous extravagance, but my life won’t actually be affected by the missing $16. So I ask again: why do I care about spending it?
I don’t know. It’s not rational; it just hurts.
The jury has been out for a long time, but now most psychologists agree that money can, in fact, buy you happiness—that is, if it lifts you out of poverty and into the middle class (but not if it lifts you from the middle class into excessive prosperity); if you use it to pay for an experience rather than a thing (spending it on a vacation to North Dakota, for example, rather than a new car); and if you give some of it away (to a worthy cause or charity, not to a $16 brunch). The $16 I spent on brunch might be counted as the second category, if food is an experience rather than a thing. I’m very lucky that I can spend $16 dollars on brunch and worry about losing my cool rather than my home, and remembering that the stakes are, luckily, relatively low, does help. The fact that I was overcharged, though, still rankles.
The money we have (after taxes, of course) is one of the only things we can control. We choose how we spend it. We choose how we save it. Think back to Edelman arguing over the four dollars of Chinese food. It’s not the four dollars: it’s that Edelman felt swindled—cheated out of exercising his free will. The amount is almost irrelevant, though I would like to point out that I kept it together over $16 while Edelman was close to bringing the restaurant to court over $4.
Next time I venture off campus, I’ll make sure to check before I eat somewhere whether or not the restaurant’s Middletown cash machine is broken. The first time, the joke is on me, but next time it’s all on them.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.