Cathy Hamilton: Cheap up the road from crazy

If cheap is the new black, color me the doyenne of hip. I come by my frugality honestly. My mother - who cringes at the word "cheap" (I prefer 'inexpensive.' 'Cheap' is crass.") -taught me well. Unfortunately, it took me years to recognize the brilliance in her thriftiness.

As children, my four siblings and I used to mock her mercilessly when she brought home bags full of generic products from the grocery store. We nicknamed her "Mrs. Wright," after Safeway's "private label" line, priced considerably cheaper - er, less expensive - than the name brands relentlessly advertised on TV.

My mother employed an arsenal of cost-cutting strategies with Gen. Patton-like acumen. She had to. Because, when it came to spending, Dad was the loosest of cannons.

Although Mom rarely bought a frock that wasn't marked down at least once, Dad would think nothing of walking into his favorite haberdashery and emerging a half-hour later with five new shirts and 10 ties. My mother was strictly Loehmann's; my father, Brooks Brothers all the way.

When the markets were bearish and money was tight, Dad loved nothing more than to plunk down a wad of cash on big-ticket items, like a new stereo or golf clubs. I think he considered it his patriotic duty. Or maybe he understood the value of retail therapy.

I've had my splurges, but, typically I take after Mom, where shopping is concerned.

Lately, however, my cheapness (ahem ... inexpensiveness) is in overdrive. I'm a discount-loving, bargain-hunting, recession-fighting machine!

Last Saturday, for instance, I actually shopped at Aldi for groceries. Now, I've got nothing against Aldi. But there are, at least, three markets closer to my house and, with gas priced as high as four bucks a gallon, I was reluctant to drive across town for a doctor's appointment, much less milk and eggs.

But gas is back, baby, and at Aldi, I found a whole new world of cheap. (Darn it! Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Aldi.) And the best thing is, there are only six rows of shelves in the whole place! No more wandering the aisles like a "Night of the Living Dead" zombie. The store is completely doable - even for an ADD-addled consumer like me - in a half hour.

Then I discovered the wonderful world of resale clothing stores. Not only are the prices palatable, but the merchandise has been pre-screened by presumably fashionable people. You can't go wrong.

Of course, there is a danger in buying cheap. (Oops! I did it again.) And that's the tendency to compensate for the money you're saving by buying an preposterous amount of discounted items.

Case in point: A 10 for $10 sale on boxes of Celestial Seasonings tea. After a co-worker tipped me off, I flew to the store and began filling my cart. I recently had vowed to curb my coffee consumption, in favor of a heart-healthier brew. It was going to be a cold, hard winter, I reasoned, and a nice stockpile of Sleepytime, Tension Tamer and Lemon Zinger would bring comfort and joy, especially at a buck a box.

By the time I hit the checkout line, I had more tea in my cart than Boston Harbor in 1773. Twenty-eight dollars later, I lugged home my booty and, with no room in the pantry, stashed it all in a Chico's bag in the back closet.

Moral of the story: There's a fine line between cheap and crazy. Buyer beware.

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