Frugal Vs. Cheap Eating

How Not To Look Cheap

As much as I like being cheap, I don't like looking cheap. When you love food but hate spending money, you have to be vigilant in order to keep up appearances. Eating cheap is a lot like being a superhero, except without the powers, adulation and damsels in distress. OK, it's not much like being a superhero at all. Except for the fact that, like Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker, eating cheap requires leading a secret double life. Just as Clark Kent and Superman are never seen in the same room at the same time, your cheap side better know how to disappear when other people are around. After all, you've got a reputation to protect.

Fortunately, I've developed a five-point strategy guaranteed to help you be cheap without looking cheap. From my early days as the only Jewish kid in south Jersey up through the lean years when I still hoped to become a real writer at the ancient age of 35, I've spent years being cheap and having no money anyway. Some people never learn to read. I've never learned to spend. But now, through the magic of this online column (free to read, by the way), you too can learn how to blend in.

Do your friends think you're cheap? Are you afraid to dine at nice restaurants? Do you lie in bed at night, staring at your profile? OK, maybe that last one's just me. But I think you get the point. It's time to come out of the shadows. It's time to live again. Here's how:

Split the Check

Listen, so long as you're a member of society, there's going to be plenty of injustice to go around. People are annoying; that's just the way it is. You can either fight every battle and run yourself ragged like Sean Penn in Fair Game, or you can let a few slide and not turn into a raving lunatic. Which is a long way of saying: Man, it sucks splitting the bill equally when you went out of your way to order cheap. And it really worth making a scene? Sure, you've got principle on your side. But if you're anything like me, you aren't dining out with large groups of people that often. So just keep your mouth closed and toss your credit card into the pile like all the normal people are doing. It may hurt a little, but looking pathetic and being branded a social pariah is way worse.

Or, you could throw caution to the wind and just order whatever you like. Remember, you're splitting the bill. Upgrading your own entrée, when split 6 or 7 ways, isn't actually going to cost you much. You could even go nuts and order dessert. Hey, they're paying. And just like that, the hunter becomes the hunted.

Opt To Suffer When You're Already Suffering

I've had the same thing for lunch every day this week: roasted turkey and pepper jack cheese from the Fairway deli, eaten plain, with a few baby carrots on the side. Am I currently serving out a sentence at Alcatraz? No, but I am sitting in a cubicle inside an advertising agency. For a fancy meal to brighten my day, it would have to be pretty damn delicious. So while I'm at work is the perfect time to spend next to nothing on food, which in turn frees me up to splurge a little when I'm off the clock and it's actually possible to enjoy my life. Point being: don't let your cheapness ruin a good time. Indulge your cheapness when you're all alone and already miserable.

Pick the Second Cheapest

To paraphrase Homer Simpson, always order the second least expensive bottle of wine. No matter what you're ordering or buying, do this constantly. It's an irrefutable fact of life that ordering the cheapest item makes you look cheap, while ordering the second cheapest item makes you look like an educated and discerning consumer. Why? No idea. Just go with it.

Don't Be A Hero

Blending in is paramount to not looking cheap. Don't do anything that might call attention to yourself. Sit back and keep a low profile. If something on the menu is listed as "Market Price," don't inquire. I don't care how badly you're jonesing for lobster. "Market Price" should send chills down your spine. Your dining companions aren't thinking about money (unless you've got another cheapskate at the table). They don't know you want lobster. Why find out how much it is, then not order it? This is common sense. In fact, I not only avoid "Market Price," but I usually order strictly by how much things cost. The $12.95 usually looks delicious.

Turn the Tables

A great way to not look cheap is to spend a lot of time around people who don't spend money on food. Namely, young people and vegetarians. I'm telling you, if you can end up married to a vegetarian, you're home free. It doesn't mean you'll have to become a vegetarian, it just means you'll save tons of money dining out (the cornerstone of any great relationship, as far as I know). And have you noticed that young people don't have any money? It's great! I had the pleasure of dining with one of our junior staffers the other night, and lo and behold, there I was sitting at the counter of an East Village Polish joint, plopping down a mere 10 bucks for an absolutely gigantic pile of food, tip included! The best part was that I got to play the "Oh, OK, sure, I don't mind if we eat someplace cheap" card, as if I'm usually out there throwing market priced-lobster down my gullet. Brilliant.

Read last week's Unemployed Gourmand on Food Republic: What Would You Eat With Your Last $10?