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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stretching a Euro in Spain

The dollar is sliding downward again, a huge inconvenience if that is your currency of choice. I have seen quite a few fluctuations since I arrived here and I’ll probably see a few more. What holds constant is my search to find the most economical way to live while I am dependent mostly on my bank account for my daily expenses. I have always been able to live economically which explains how I have been able to make this migration to Spain in the first place. Here in Spain I have simply learned how to live even more simply. If and when I ever get back to having the sort of income I used to have I will be more of a saver and even less of a spender. I will give you a run down on my expenses here in Valencia and how I cut corners, stretch a euro, pinch pennies, and live with less to keep on a budget.

First of all, I share an apartment with two Spanish women instead of having my own apartment. This is the first time that I have shared a place in many, many years. At first I thought it would be great for improving my Spanish, and it has. That was my original intention but now it is also more or less an economic necessity. I also have a much nicer apartment than I could probably afford on my own. Living with roommates can be a complete pain in the ass but it has forced me to change the way that I live. I am a much neater person for having shared a flat with two obsessively clean Spanish girls. When I lived alone I was fairly neat but I would often cook and then leave the dishes for later, sometimes much later, if you know what I mean. Now I have evolved into a cook who cleans as he works so that when the meal is served the kitchen is practically cleaner than when I started. I’m still not as neat as my roommates but I don’t think they have anything to complain about.

My communication costs are laughably low. I used to just swipe an internet signal from both of the places in which I have lived here in Valencia, so my internet costs used to be nothing, zero. I now have my own service from Telefónica, one of the local providers. I pay 15€ a month for internet and a landline phone which I almost never use. The ironic thing is that I almost always still nick an internet signal. There is one I can grab from my desk that is stronger and faster than the one we pay for. My cellular telephone bill is also a complete joke. I bought a pre-paid phone when I first got here—the drug dealers in The Wire call them “burners.”. I got the cheapest model available which cost about 40€. I use my phone so infrequently that I only need to charge it for 5€ every month or so. This can be done at hundreds and hundreds of different businesses around town. Everyone here, or almost everyone, is pretty Spartan with their cell phones, at least for talking. I have learned that text messaging is a lot less expensive way to communicate, when that is an option. I don’t use a phone for gabbing; it’s just for contacting someone. To talk to family and friends I use Skype® which is free.

I almost never go to restaurants, although many here are very modestly priced. Most of the money I set aside every month for entertainment goes into buying food so that my food and entertainment costs are almost the same thing. I can cook a meal for six people—including wine—for less than I would pay for one meal in a restaurant. My friends probably think that my dinner parties are a gesture of considerable generosity when in fact I am just being economical—it’s cheaper for me to entertain everyone at home than to go out, especially if I have a date. Please keep this a secret.

Going out to bars in Spain is a cheapskate’s wet dream. I sometimes leave the house with a five euro note in my pocket for an evening on the town. No kidding. At some places that translates into four or five beers or five glasses of wine. I can get a buzz and come back with change. I’m not just talking about going to dives, just about all of the bars and restaurants are fairly inexpensive. I doubt that I will ever get used to bar and restaurant prices in America again.

Clothing used to be a rather big expense. I brought over a lot of clothes but I’ve been here long enough now that I have had to replace and expand much of my wardrobe (I have a wardrobe?). Clothing is quite a bit more expensive here than in the U.S. I often used to say that I would have given three pints of my own blood to be able to spend about 20 minutes in The Gap. American brand clothing is about 30% higher here than in the States. I have gracefully side-stepped this expense by shopping in my weekly market here in Ruzafa. There is a guy who has a stall selling great piles of clothes for 1, 2, and 3€ an item. I have found good quality clothing there and I now have more clothes than I probably have ever owned. I have gone a bit overboard on football jerseys and cycling clothing but that’s just become something of a hobby. I don’t actually wear football jerseys for anything other than sports or going to the beach. I also wear them in my cooking videos—it’s my trademark as we call it in television.

This is probably a lot more about me than any of you ever wanted to know but I have also found a good source for underwear. Back in Seattle I had a certain style of underwear I had a loyalty for that bordered on extreme nationalism. They were from J Crew and cost about 18$ a pair if they were on sale. I am no longer in a position to spend 18$ on a pair of underwear. I found a place in the market that sells Pierre Cardin boxer briefs for 2€ a pair and they are actually better than the J Crew brand. This just shows you the incredible mark-up of most retailers.

I don’t have a car which means I don’t pay for gasoline or insurance or for parking or for maintenance or for parking tickets (a major expense for me at one point in my life in Seattle). Now all I need to worry about is upkeep on my bike and buying the occasional metro/bus card. The metro is about 1€ a ride and the bus is .50€. Both of these services here in Valencia are fantastic, in my opinion. Whenever I hear Valencianos bitching about their mass transportation I gently remind them that there are many places in the U.S. where “mass transit” is driving around in a Hummer.

I only go to museums here on Sundays when they are all free. Some of them are always free. I rarely go to the movies because they just don’t make a lot of Spanish movies I care to see. When I do go there is a theater in my neighborhood that shows a double feature for 2.50€. Most of the time, if there is something I want to see I just download it. ¡Viva la piratía!

In short, I have adopted the lifestyle of most Spanish people. To many Americans my way of living may seem austere but I can assure you that I live like a king. I don’t miss going to expensive restaurants on a regular basis and I think this economy has made me a pretty good cook. I would say that my culinary skills have reached the status of “inspired amateur.” Like all Spaniards, I have become incredibly stingy in my energy usage—call it “conservation through necessity.” I spent less on my entire summer wardrobe than I used to for a single dress shirt. I think this is the part where I supposed to say something about how you need to enjoy the simple things in life, or that money doesn’t buy happiness, or some other down-home proverb, but this has always been fairly obvious, at least to me.

I suppose that I am a bit odd in many ways. I have never had a credit card bill that I didn’t pay in full every month. I’ve never lived beyond my means and never wanted to. I can’t think of a single item that I want to buy. There is no material possession that I am living without that I feel I need or even desire. Perhaps a racing bike but my status here is too tenuous to buy another bicycle. I certainly don’t want an automobile. The greatest luxury that I feel I could ever afford would be to never have a car again. In short, I don’t covet my neighbor’s goods and I don’t have much that my neighbors would covet.

Just a few expressions in English I have learned to live without and haven’t bothered translating into Spanish:

You are what you drive.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.
…and Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. is a phrase that is in sharp contrast to my present lifestyle here in Spain.