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Joy is Cheap

They warned us: Before long, we’d all feel the effects of this recession. Now it’s happened to me. I haven’t lost my job. No evicted family members have shown up at my door. In truth, the financial crisis hasn’t yet walloped my wallet.

But it’s messing with my mind. Feeling the economy slowly constrict around our national lifestyle, I find myself in a spend-not panic: Would you like to see the dessert menu? Sigh, better not. Valet parking? Don’t be ridiculous.

Call me a brat, but it starts to piss me off. Is this the end of life’s small pleasures? A friend of mine relinquished her daily Starbucks cappuccino (extra shot of espresso, single pump of caramel) in favor of boring, home-brewed joe in a thermos.

“How bad is it,” she lamented, “when a girl can’t even have a little cup of fancy-pants coffee?”

But I had a recent revelation while driving my car and listening to an old song, appropriately, by Squeeze. I was blissing out on those endorphins that come from singing loudly to ’80s music when my guilt-check clicked on: This feels too good. Is it naughty? Is it wasteful, extravagant, thriftless? Am I somehow squandering money that, as soon as next week, could stand between my children and a bowl of pork-flavored ramen noodles?

And then a shocking jolt of relief: No. This euphoria? This is free.

I’m not sure how our society — my improvident self included — came to associate cash so inextricably with peace and pleasure, with fun and freedom. But since I can no longer afford it, I asked my friends to help make a list of other things that bring us joy for next to nothin’:

• Use what you’ve already paid for. Got a museum membership? Go there! Inventory your gift cards and have a ball spending those balances down to zero.

• Sex is free, and few other pastimes offer as much (sorry) bang for the buck. When logistics make it impractical, kissing is a great on-the-go substitute.

• Dance in your living room. Or make your own music. “We all grab an instrument,” says a mom I know, “and put on a rock show for the dog.”

• Try clearing out a jam-packed closet, or the trunk of your car. You get the satisfaction of making order from chaos, plus sifting through junk reminds you that consumption creates clutter, not happiness.

• Play basketball. Play a board game. Toss a Frisbee. Have a water-gun fight. Revel in your remote. “We love to rent our favorite shows and watch them a season at a time,” says my sister-in-law. “It’s like a really long movie and keeps us entertained for days.”

• Get a free book from the library and read it on the beach. Or in a hammock. Then take a nap right there in the sun.

• Go stay at someone else’s house for a weekend. “It gets us out of our rut and kind of feels like a vacation,” swears one gal.

• Socialize over exercise. “I get a group together for a bike ride or a run, so I still get time with friends without the expense of cocktails or a meal,” a resourceful friend tells me. “Besides, we might as well enjoy the lovely weather. God knows we pay for it in property taxes.”

• Re-create the distinct, and often forgotten, joys of writing an ink-and-paper letter to a friend, volunteering somewhere that desperately needs help, and spinning in circles on the lawn until you get dizzy and fall down.

Sometimes happiness is as simple as finding ways to make do.

“I turn in my bottles and cans for CRV value, and use the money I get back to buy a bottle of wine,” says a pal who drives a Mercedes. “I feel like a drunk hobo doing it, but hell, it was my money to begin with.”


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