Recently I heard a friend say about another friend, "Her problem is a fear of scarcity." I thought about this the next morning while reaching in my underwear drawer; in the back of the drawer were "good" panties, the expensive lace ones that I hardly ever wear because I don't want to wear them out. I wondered, do I have a fear of scarcity?
In my case, I hold on to things that are expensive or not easily replaceable and use them sparingly. This includes not just the $30 underwear but fabulous $300 green boots I bought on a whim in San Francisco, the $60 paring knife that was a gift certificate indulgence, a lamby-lined throw from Pottery Barn that was marked down to $100, pricey running shoes, a cashmere sweater ... and the list goes on. These items are like new, and unless I bust out of this "if I use these things they'll wear out and I'll have no money to replace them" mindset, they will outlast me.
I've perfected a sort of bohemian chic, which works because I am a freelancer (I don't go to an office or meet with clients) and means I rarely have to buy clothes for myself. When I do, I often go to consignment stores, but otherwise I'm pretty ingenious about wearing the same pants, sundresses, jeans and skirts for years—decades even.
I may sound like a hoarder, but that's not the case. I'm not overly attached to money or possessions and I easily get rid of things I don't use. I don't covet my neighbor's stuff. I go to restaurants with friends and I'm a generous tipper. I buy my children the things they need. From outward appearances, no one can tell that I deprive myself.
But I am afraid—of what, I haven't figured out. My relationship to money and objects has ebbed and flowed over the years: I felt very secure married to a man and very insecure on my own. He made great decisions; I made awful ones that left me on public assistance. My family was lower middle-class, but they were charlatans and scammers. They drove a Cadillac—my mother had a mink coat and my stepfather had business cards saying he did things he didn't—so by appearances, we kept up with the Joneses. I hated the lie.
I don't buy nice things for myself, but Rob, my ex who's now my close friend, does. She'll pick up expensive body lotion for me, instead of the usual drugstore brand, or a new skirt that I love. When I moved out to live on my own, she bought me a fabulous new desk and lamp—which I use daily—and unloaded my crummy old one for next to nothing.
Despite her generosity, it makes me crazy that she and her family send one another expensive presents for every little occasion, though they don't get along and never have any real conversations about how they feel.
"Don't you understand," she tells me, "it's for me, not for them."
No, I don't understand.
"Gift giving is an act of love," she says. "I give things to the people I love because it makes me feel good."
Rob lives large the way I live small.
On the other hand, Rob can't understand my frugal nature. Even though I spend money when I go out with others—for appearances, so I seem normal even to myself—she knows me. I'm always hyperaware of how much money I have, how much I'm making, how much my taxes are, how much my bills and rent are, what's in my closet, refrigerator, bathroom shelf. Large possessions like my bed and couch come from relationships. My house is a hodgepodge of things gleaned from other people.
When I was a child, I had big collections: matchbook covers all laid out neatly in photo albums; stray hubcaps and license plates; pennies; snow globes from when I was a teenager, traveling on a dime, and picked up one in every town I was in; shark drawings from famous people. These objects provide substance, a sort of comfort in a life where I was otherwise abused, alone and unloved.
Maybe my fear then is not of scarcity. It's of being alone.