I just read Marjorie Hart’s Summer at Tiffany, a very fun and frothy memoir. I remembered seeing it recently at a bookstore, but was very good and checked it out of the library. Hart, writing at age 82, remembers “the best summer of her life.” In 1945, while enrolled at the University of Iowa, she and her best friend moved to New York City on a lark for a summer, managed to land jobs at Tiffany, watched customers like Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich, got swept up in romance, and saw World War II end from Times Square. As I was reading, I did recognize her relative privilege and naiveté, but hey, she was in college, so I cut her some slack. It was also interesting to see how immersed in celebrity culture she was. We are certainly not the first generation to know inane details about our favorite stars.
So, could this twenty-year old sorority sister teach me anything about finances? I think I gleaned a few ideas from her. By the way, Hart did not entire high society through her summer gig as a page at Tiffany, but I think she did end up living a very rich life. She’s a retired professor and professional cellist and, if the picture is to be believed, she certainly wins the Octogenarian Award for Best Skin. What did I learn?
Budget, Budget, Budget
Hart and her friend had the kind of 1945 budget you just have to love. Each earned $20 a week and together they paid $65 a month for rent and utilities for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Lunch was 15 cents for a sandwich and a drink, and they ate chocolate milk and toast for breakfast and dinner at 9 cents a day. They had a list of “discretionary items” like cold cream, nail polish, Coca-Cola, and sundaes, but could only choose one a week if there was money left.
Stick to Your Budget
Here’s what impressed me: they really did make it on that budget. They actually did only eat bread and milk twice a day. Of course, wartime New York made consuming fairly difficult. All the stores were closed on Saturdays and Sundays. The girls had ration cards to deal with. No one seemed to have much extra money, so everyone found free or inexpensive ways to have fun. Also, dates paid for everything, so the girls got a few square meals along the way. But all in all, they only spent what they had. They didn’t overspend and beg their parents for more money, nor did they squander money and need to find second jobs. At one point, Hart found a beautiful dress on sale at an expensive Fifth Avenue store. She had five dollars that her brother had given her for the summer and the sales tag said $5. When she took it to the counter, the clerk told her no, that’s $50. Did Hart say “Oh, OK” and whip out her credit card? Nope, she put the dress back and continued wearing the three or four things she had for dates. Granted, she didn’t have a credit card, so her limits were very real. But, still, setting limits and sticking to them is essential to making a budget work.
Know Who You Are
Yes, Hart and her friend were enjoying the “poverty” of privileged college girls on an adventure who knew that life wouldn’t always be a bread-and-milk diet. It’s fairly easy to endure a really tight budget like that when you know it won’t be permanent. But, I did really admire their spirits. In one lovely scene, Hart walks into a rare instrument shop and somehow gets the chance to play an exquisite antique cello. She doesn’t bemoan the fact that she can’t own something like that; instead, she just relishes the chance to play it. I really admired her willingness to just soak in experience rather than consume. Part of that comes from being twenty, I think, but part of it is something I could focus more on in my own life.
A 1945-Budget Experiment
I’m tossing about the idea of declaring war on my debt and adopting a 1945 budget for one month, just to see how much debt I could knock out. I don’t think I can convince the future husband to join me on a bread and milk diet, but I could cut the budget back to the absolute bare bones for four weeks. I wouldn’t want to do it for the whole year of debt-reduction mode, but four weeks might be fun. We’ll see. I’d have to wait until after the wedding in any case. Someone remind me of this post in August and maybe I’ll try it!