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Mary Kenny: counting the change


Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

My motto for life is now written on a tattoo on my left arm - "To live is to change" - and one of the ways I've changed in recent years is, I notice, a creeping carefulness with money.

Avarice is said to be the vice of old age, a theme repeatedly illuminated in the novels of Balzac, where the grasping old miser counting his dough is the very epitome of senescence. Daniel Corkery made a similar observation about the dying Irish peasant of old, whose last thoughts were often about land values. Now, I'm beginning to understand their point of view. Debt is frightening.

In the prime of life, I thought nothing of running up debts. Spending like a sailor on shore leave was the way to be, and for large periods of my life, my bank account was perpetually on overdraft. I thought it was very kind of the bank manager to lend me money this way - I paid no attention whatsoever to the concept of "interest".

At one stage, I had 12 - or was it 14? - credit cards and store cards, and I was furious when Brown Thomas turned me down for a fifteenth. (Even before the age of logarithms, they had ways of knowing about spendthrifts who don't keep up their payments regularly).

I'm horrified when I look back at my previous attitude to money. I've now become amazingly prudent and obsessed with the economical. I heard myself having a discussion with my cousin the other day about the squeezability of toothpaste tubes. "Do you remember the old tubes of toothpaste? You could roll them up from the bottom and extract the last drop. But these newfangled ones are so wasteful…"

I love charity shops where you can mooch around for bargains. I love those cheapo shops where you can get everything for around a euro, or, in Britain, for a pound. Paradoxically, one of the most profitable businesses in the UK is called "Poundland", and the guy who founded it is now a millionaire many times over - with over 500 stores throughout the realm, selling everything for a quid, or under.

And where once there might have been a certain shame about searching for bargains, or being a "cheapskate", it has now become quite fashionable to be canny about money. Look at the success of DoneDeal and eBay. Everyone is going second-hand!

Attitudes to clothes have similarly changed. It used to be incumbent upon individuals to dress "respectably". You had to present yourself as a solvent and upright member of society when seen around the town - and particularly the small town. But ever since David Beckham appeared in deliberately torn jeans, it has been perfectly acceptable to look like an out-of-work hippy. Cheap clothes, second-hand clothes, charity-shop clothes are all just great.

Granted, not all societies are as accepting of the cheapo look. Anyone who has occasion to be in Switzerland may find that the burghers of Zurich make a distinct tut-tut sound if your clothes look old, or frayed, or, heaven forbid, you appear at a lunch party with odd socks.

In Ireland, it was always considered bad form to be seen to be tight-fisted. The man who didn't buy his round would be stigmatised. The woman who forever pleaded "the poor mouth" would be mocked. You might think about money, but being seen to be mean about it was another matter. There was an entire genre of jokes built around the notion of the Cavan man who could peel an orange in his pocket. Perhaps the stigmatising of meanness came from a past history where people had to share with one another.

In the days when passengers had to pay their fares on a bus with actual currency, it was de rigeur to pay for a companion you encountered. Women were constantly heard competing with one another as to who was more insistent on paying the bus fare.

If you were short of readies, too, you would want to hide it with a more than flaithúilacht gesture. But that has changed, too. There's no shame, anymore, in admitting to being on a budget.

When the Texan actress Gayle Hunnicutt first came to England, she was shocked to hear an English aristocrat openly declare: "Oh, darling, we're as poor as church mice!" In Dallas, she said, you'd rather have cancer than say you were "poor".

Today the fashionable folk go in for furniture and decor known as 'shabby chic' so it deliberately looks poor.

Some left-leaning politicians have made "austerity" into a word of odium. Of course you would sympathise with anyone who has had benefits or income squeezed, but "austerity" can have its attractions. There is a certain satisfaction in living austerely, in saving on bills, looking for bargains, and counting the change in our purse - as we Balzacian misers well know.


Irish Independent