My Chinese-American boyfriend’s birthday came less than a month after we started dating. I got him a polo shirt, carefully cut off the tags, and wrapped it up in tissue paper. Andy opened it, thanked me, and sat in expectant silence.
I asked, “Do you like it?”
“It’s very nice. Soft.” Andy patted the material and looked at me again.
“Did I get the size right?”
Andy inspected the tag and nodded.
I said, “Um, I know it’s not a color you usually wear, but I think it’ll look nice.”
I said, “I know it’s, um, not a big present or anything, but well, we haven’t been together very long.”
Andy nodded. “That’s true.”
“Of course,” I mused, “My birthday is in four months, and of course by then we will be serious enough to give really expensive presents.”
Andy balled up some tissue paper and threw it at me. We moved onto birthday cake, but I was left with the nagging sense that he was waiting for me to say something else about his present. I just didn’t know what.
Growing up, I was acutely aware that there was not enough money in my family. It wasn’t a secret. I got free school lunches for a couple years, though I tried to pretend I paid for them like my classmates. If any kid needed money for a field trip, my dad painstakingly counted it out from the loose change that he kept on top of his dresser. This was so excruciating for Big Brother that he quit bringing home permission slips and skipped field trips altogether. (Yes, yes — for everyone who has been paying attention, OF COURSE this explains why Big Brother wound up a Senior Vice President at Bank of America.)
My dad went to private school, my mother was a freakin’ debutante. They were the country-club set. Until they got married young, my mom dropped out of college, and they had a ridiculous number of kids. Back then, there was no TLC show for idiots attempting to overpopulate the planet. My parents discovered that life was hard when no one hands you a reality show romanticizing the crap out of large families. There was an ugly divorce. There was my mom trying to finish college and get through law school – while having MORE children with her second husband who was also in law school. Meanwhile, my dad struggled to find work in the ever-shifting political landscape of DC. He, too, remarried, and then also had more kids because he was doing such a great job supporting the existing kids.
BIRTH CONTROL, young people. FAMILY PLANNING. I cannot stress this enough.
My sibs and I all knew that money was tight, but in true Anglo-Saxon fashion, we instinctively knew we were NEVER supposed to let on that we were not as comfortable as our middle class neighbors. Shame and secrets are an integral part of the repressed WASP heritage. So if young Doc Sis cried over being called “Safeway Shoes,” or I hid my “Kmart boots” in the back of the closet, we did it silently. At least we mostly had enough food. Mostly.
If there was ever a time for coupons, it was my childhood. Yet coupons were out of the question. My parents couldn’t keep up the charade of plenty by using coupons. Coupons were an admission that you needed a discount. Coupons were a badge of shame.
The first time I woke up to see Andy going at the papers and magazines with the scissors on Saturday morning, I freaked out.
“OH MY GOD. Did you get laid off?”
Andy came over and waved a hand in front of my face. “Are you awake?”
I shoved his hand away. “Yes. What are you doing?”
“Getting ready to go shopping.”
“When you’ve just been laid off?”
“You need some coffee.” He headed to the kitchen and yelled back, “Did you have a bad dream I got fired? Or did you think I was looking through the ‘Help Wanted’ section?”
“I thought you were clipping coupons.”
Andy came back with coffee and a perplexed look. “I am. Can’t go shopping without coupons.”
“Well, yeah. Since I was a kid. I learned from my mom and Popo. Found a coupon that saved Popo five dollars once. She was so proud.”
I drank my coffee and tried to wrap my head around this. Andy went back to cutting.
After a few minutes, he whipped out his phone. “Hey, did you know you can get this Paw Points thing for coupons and free kitty litter from Fresh Step? Want me to sign up Bat Cat and Commando Cat via email?”
“Oh…um, no, that’s okay. I’m not into coupons.”
“WHAT?! But you could save more than $3.00 on every box of litter!”
Andy gaped. He couldn’t even process this idea. “But, but — it’s like…giving money away!”
And there it was. Truth, staring me in my proud, white face. Coupons weren’t a badge of shame. They were a badge of smarts.
I signed my cats up for Paw Points. I collected coupons. And when I gave Andy a leather jacket for Christmas and he looked at me expectantly, I knew what to say.
“I got it at the outlet mall. Half price!”
Andy gave me a huge smile. “Good job, honey!”
“Yeah, but that’s not all! They were having a 20% off sale!”
“Yes, but wait! I had 30% off coupon!”
“They let you use it? On a sale item?”
“Yes! And, get this, there was NO SALES TAX!”
Andy put on the jacket, pulled me into a hug, and spun me around the room: “Best gift EVER, honey!”
Hooray for coupons.