In art school, my friends called me Dougal. This rhymes with frugal and, because of this, I thought that being frugal/cheap might be a funny, loveable or endearing personality characteristic — so, why not? For a few years I thought I was being amusing with cheapness until my friend Angela took me aside one day and said, “Dougal, you have to stop being cheap. It is incredibly unattractive and it makes it almost impossible to like you.” I heard this, thought it over and realised she was correct. I stopped being cheap then and have never been wilfully cheap again. It was good advice.
Follow-up: Angela ended up marrying a Dutch guy, and this became my introduction to Dutch culture. She told me a joke about the Dutch: how did copper wire get invented? A: two Dutchmen found a penny at the same time. LOL!
Not really. But watching people be cheap in real life — to be specific, watching people taking pride in cheapness — is just depressing. There has never in the history of the earth been a woman or man who has been sexually turned on by an act of cheapness. There has never been a single person who saw someone be cheap — someone who wilfully undertipped, someone who chose an inferior brand of ingredient and subverted the quality of a meal, or someone who purchased unflattering garments in the wrong size and colour — and said, “Hey, that penny-pincher there, they’re the one I want to have kids with.”
I’ve written before that worrying about money is a bit like having locked-in syndrome — except you’re still able to walk and move around and be a part of the world. But, OK, imagine marrying someone only to find out too late they’re a spendaholic — would that have been a deal-breaker, had you known? Or imagine marrying someone who turned into a creaky, prematurely aged miser — would that be a deal-breaker for you?
Supposedly, the three things you can control in this world are time, dirt and money. This comes from Freud, I believe — except when I google it, it comes up blank. Still, it makes sense. As people age they fixate on these three things. We all know perpetually late people: they twigged on to this control mechanism ages ago, and it’s annoying and uncute. And we all know super-clean freaks, and we all know how we don’t like visiting their places, because we trail . . . germs. Just imagine: in their heads they’re seeing wavy stink lines of pathogens wafting off your body.
And then there are cheap people . . . I mean, how is cheapness going to make anybody think better of you? Really think this through: the best that can come from a cheapskate persona is a low-level clerical job with no prospect of advancement because people want to elevate people who think big or think broadly. Saving five bucks by ordering an inferior snack tray for the office Christmas party is something everybody, in the end, notices — and it’s never in your favour, and it’s an impression that, once made, is almost impossible to rectify.
Would Richard Branson or Elon Musk order the cheaper snack tray? No. They’d hire Cirque du Soleil and dress them up in snack costumes and have them do trampoline acrobatics. People would probably die in the process but people would treasure the memory, and they’d expect even crazier batshit the next time.
When you meet self-made rich people who are cheap, it’s weird because it’s possibly cheapness that got them there — but maybe they could relax a bit and make it look like a blast, like Richard Branson. It’s way weirder when you meet cheap rich people who inherited their money. Then it gets messy and psychological and taps into self-worth and family drama.
Andy Warhol said that the difference between rich people and everyone else is that rich people have more interesting problems.
I think he was right.
So who are you trying to impress when you’re being cheap? The only answer that comes to mind is “a younger version of yourself” or, perhaps, your parents if they didn’t have much money to throw around, which is most of us. But the thing is, you’re old now. You’re pretty much being cheap to an audience of ghosts. Did I mention that you’re old now? Describe the thrill to us . . . what are you getting from it?
So if you’re not cheap, then what are you supposed to be — thrifty? Really? Actually, yes. Boring but true. Thrift is often called for and that’s life. Thrift is simply not broadcasting and not taking pride in having a common-sense approach to money. It’s not a turn-on, but it’s not a turn-off either. It’s neutral, like being right-handed or having wavy hair. Oh, you’re thrifty. Good. Now let’s discuss other people’s problems.
Douglas Coupland is artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has works in the exhibition ‘Electronic Superhighway’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. Instagram @douglascoupland
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland