YSC = Young Stylish Colleague
DH = Dear Husband
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
About twenty-two years ago, I made it onto a local TV news broadcast. I was at a shopping mall in December when I saw a familiar-looking woman with a microphone in her hand and a cameraman at her side. She had just finished speaking with a shopper and was scanning the faces around her with purposeful intensity – until I realized she was making a bee-line towards me.
“Are you Christmas shopping?” she asked, her face transformed by a gregarious friendliness. I told her I was. She asked something about my spending – was I sticking to a budget – or something like that. I admitted to her that my spending had gone out of control but that I had bought some great Christmas gifts. “Well, how are you going to pay for it all?” she asked. “I’ll worry about that in January,” I answered with a coy smile. “Cut! That’s a good one.” My new friend was clearly pleased with what she’d lighted upon. I can’t remember if I ever saw that news show, but my mom did. She, who knew my bad money habits all too well, had a mixed reaction. She groaned with dread at her daughter’s carelessness but said I looked cute. Mom has referred to that TV clip occasionally over the years, her dread always balanced by her reassurance of my cuteness – as if that somehow made it OK.
Cute: The Enemy of Progress
I was a young adult on her own by this point; an independent grown-up who had ostensibly left her childish ways behind. I had a vague awareness of the fact that my income management skills were non-existent, but it never really seemed to matter. Every time I stumbled, I resorted to my cutesy confessions, and life went on. I have come to recognize the prevalence of “cute” as a coping mechanism for people who know that that they should change their habits for better physical or financial health, but who persist in the same, comfortable rut. “I tried so hard to be good, but that cupcake just called out to me,” says the person on a diet. “I had my gym bag at the door all ready to go, but the couch got in the way of my workout,” says the person trying to get in shape. “I planned to get only what I’d come for, but that hat wouldn’t leave me alone until I bought it,” says the person trying to rein in spending. I’m sure you’re familiar with the self-deprecating smiles – the passive, disarming tone of voice – both male and female. The male is more complacent, loud, and funny; the female is mock-earnest and sweetly helpless. Either way, it’s difficult to counter Cute with anything but a chuckle.
My own inner-cutie-pie has been kept at bay over the last few months as DH and I have taken on our journey out of debt. She tries to pop up every once in a while, but I stare her down with a level gaze, and she skitters back into the shadows. I know she’s lurking there. She’s not harmless. Her charm is deceptive. She’s a fake, and she wants to derail my progress. Good-bye cutie-pie! The grown-up is emerging.
But even grown-ups need clothes. I went shopping this past Wednesday after work, and there was nothing cute about it. Full of determination to do it right, I sought out an expert. I’ll call her YSC for Young Stylish Colleague. She’s a teacher whom I mentored at the start of her career, and she has all of the qualities of the shopper I want to become. YSC dresses very well. In her last year at our school, for our Academy Awards Night, students voted her the best-dressed teacher. I knew she didn’t have a lot of money. She had grown up with poverty at her doorstep, and she had left home at an early age. Somehow, she didn’t miss a beat: finished high school; went to university; got into teachers’ college; and at a time when jobs in education are heart-breakingly hard to come by, secured a teaching position. I can tell you one thing: She didn’t come this far by being cute. Part-time jobs through school; tight, tight money management; taking on the obstacles in her path with a clear head . . . YSC’s success has been the outcome of her purpose and intention. Insofar as shopping goes, there is no compromise in style; no compromise in quality; no compromise in price. She is now my mentor.
I took $200 cash with me to the shopping mall where we had arranged to meet. YSC told me that our goal was to buy six items. Her cool confidence was way beyond me, but I completely trusted it. We went to sales racks – to clothing that was not at the entrance – not featured on the mannequins. This territory was unfamiliar to me. YSC picked out shirts, pants, a scarf and a skirt that I would not even have seen had I been on my own. If I expressed hesitation, she convinced me to give it a try, but didn’t push if I remained hesitant. Once, I pointed out a shirt that I’d probably get on my own. “That shirt has ‘MOM’ written all over it,” she said. “But I am a mom,” I told her. “Not here, you’re not.”
I came home with seven items. The only thing YSC got out of the evening was dinner at the food court. I felt rather badly about that, but she assured me that she’d appreciated the experience too. Ever industrious, she is thinking of becoming a professional shopper on the side, and our Wednesday evening excursion gave her an encouraging taste for it. She certainly has my recommendation. When I arrived home, DH was out of the house, but I gave a fashion show to DD2 and DD3. They hovered just outside my door and kept telling me to hurry up. Each time I stepped out, I was greeted by cheers and smiles and approving comments. My children were proud of their mother for having purchased clothes that didn’t say “MOM”. For his part, DH said to me this morning, “You’re dressing like a woman.”
Working on money habits is like working on food habits. With smoking, you can quit. But you can’t quit eating; and you can’t quit spending. So those of us who are money or food challenged have the very hard task of adopting new habits. But we don’t have to do it alone. There are experts all around us – just look. And the thing about experts is that it’s a pleasure for them to use their expertise. With YSC’s help, I’ve taken many steps away from that cute shopper once featured on the news. I think the friendly TV reporter would be disappointed if she interviewed me now.