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Bargain hunting dilemmas - it's class isn't it?

"When something as total as your whole domestic and local environment has been shaped in one way, to encounter a world in which that environment would have been shaped another way is wholly disorienting." Lynsey Hanley/The Guardian

As always when writing the kind of post I am about to attempt, I start out thinking it will be one thing, and it ends up being something somewhat different - and yet simultaneously the same. And this is often because somebody else - most usually via The Guardian - has said some of the things I was thinking about but with a different slant, and so much better than I.

Thus today's post which began with the thought that neither David nor I seem to be able to shake off an obsessive desire to find a bargain, or at least to very carefully check that we are not being extravagant. Besides pondering on the practical downsides of bargain hunting, I also wondered why we can't seem to be able to resist, and after reading those Guardian articles it's actually beginning to veer into thoughts about class.

David is worse than I on the bargain hunting, but I am not immune. So just to begin in a relatively trivial way, I started thinking about the practical downsides of bargain hunting - the most obvious being the beautifully illustrated consequence above. Of course the cartoon shows an extreme, but it happens every time we go shopping. We go, either with a list, or the notion of one - as today -'I just need some orange juice' said David - and we return with a trolley load of items because they were bargains. (Yes that's what happened - two heavy bags!) If I were a different person this could lead to massive wastage, both in the money spent and of the products bought. And even here, the question of class comes in because I was brought up, being poor, on the mantra, 'waste not want not', And so I mostly rise to the challenge and find some way to use it all - which is actually a plus because it gets the creative juices going. And if I really do have to throw something out I feel dreadful.

And, of course, we have spent more money than we would have if we had stuck to the plan - $4 something instead of the probably nearer $100 that we eventually did spend. We are fortunate and it doesn't matter that much but if you are poor this is a disaster. But, of course, that said, if you are poor then indeed you should be looking for bargains - but real ones for things you actually need.

On a more socially philosophical level, bargain hunting is probably encouraging the supermarkets to squeeze their suppliers even more, and maybe even gives them bigger profits. Though I would have to think about that one.

Whilst we are on the evil supermarkets, and to digress slightly, let me refer you to an interesting article called Be honest - supermarkets have made our lives better by Jay Rayner, who has actually written a whole book on the subject. This is where the class thing starts to creep in - just a little. He makes a number of points - most of which I have touched on every now and then over time. The first one though is a new one to me - well at least one that I had not thought about as much:

"In 1900 we spent 50 per cent of our expendable income on food; by 1970 that had dropped to 20 per cent; today it is ten per cent, and that is all down to the mass buying power of supermarkets." Jay Rayner

Shops and the distribution system were relatively small scale, and therefore there were no economies of scale, and therefore food cost more on a percentage of income basis. Plus the women were mostly at home and not earning an income. So many reasons for this. But here is one of them - pointed out by Jay Rayner.

Back then - even in the 50s when there were no supermarkets - shopping took time. You had to go from shop to shop to purchase everything you needed. There were no supermarket trolleys and so you also had to carry everything from shop to shop. Thus women had less time to do all the other unmechanised housekeeping tasks they had to complete, not to mention spending time with the children. And so women were much less likely to be able to work, which meant all the low status and lack of opportunity for women. All because there were no supermarkets, and no time saving domestic devices.

People, will of course, get all nostalgic about little shops and all the supposed personalised attention, but as Jay Rayner says:

"the notion that the independent retailer is in some way a much friendlier alternative to the staff of the soulless supermarket is also little more than a myth."

He gives a few examples of horrendous service in little shops and farmer's markets, and good personal service in supermarkets. Like me today looking for dulce de leche in Woolworths. OK - it's David's birthday and I'm cooking him a special chocolate dessert. It's not something I would normally buy. So I asked a passing Woolworths guy who spent a good 5 minutes, looking it up on the system, not finding it there, but walking the aisles with me looking for a suitable substitute - Nestles Fill & Top Caramel if you want to know - all the time chatting cheerfully about how things came and went and so on.

But back to the increasing perception that class comes into all of this. Both David and I grew up poor - not quite nothing to eat, but almost, particularly in David's case. However, even I, as a young teenager, remember thinking that when I grew up I wanted enough money per annum (I remember thinking £2000 would be enough), not to have to worry about the cost of things. David's case is complicated, because of his relatives, and the school he went to - mine is a pretty standard progression from working class to middle class via education and marriage. We were lucky in that we lived at a time when education was free and so through hard work and luck - mostly David's much higher paying hard work I have to say - we now find ourselves in the enviable position of not having to worry about money. And yet neither of us can really bring ourselves to pay more for better quality. But honestly you have to ask why did we work so hard to gain economic independence, only to constantly worry - no not exactly worry, more trying to beat the system - rather than just buying what we fancy no matter the cost?

I have to say that all those more expensive options - the farmers' markets, the artisan bread, the brands, organic, health food, free-range, the prestige foods such as truffles and caviar - are not necessarily either desirable, or, indeed, any better than home-brand supermarket stuff. So why would you bother, unless it's for snob appeal?

"There is nothing wrong with spending your expendable income in whatever way you wish. But what you mustn’t do is to allow there to be a veneer of self-righteousness across the top of it, which makes that indulgence of an aesthetic into some political statement. Because that it ain’t." Jay Rayner

I think what he's saying here is all the holier than though stuff about the various elements of health food, fairtrade and so on that puts a virtuous sheen on buying expensive stuff.

The slightly different dilemma of fresh fruit and vegetables is that, currently anyway, some items are ridiculously expensive for what they are - $10.00 a kilo for tomatoes a week or so ago for example. Now if you are poor, you obviously don't buy them and indeed do buy the cheap options, either because they are in season or of poorer quality. I don't have to worry about the price, but I just cannot bring myself to buy tomatoes at $10.00 a kilo, even though I could. I have recently occasionally made myself buy a leek at $3.00 or an iceberg lettuce at even more, but every time I do I get a twinge of guilt because I know that many others cannot even think about doing this. Not to mention that I am lining somebody else's pocket unnecessarily.

This is where I came across another article by one Lynsey Hanley in the The Guardian entitled How I Became Middle-class which really captured the idea of never really being able to forget your origins in a different kind of environment.

"most people do have to pick a side, even if they do it unconsciously. I didn’t decide pragmatically to become middle-class in order to access social esteem and higher wages. It happened that way because I happened to stay on at school. There is a sense in which you buy, or are sold, a one-way ticket. You can go back, but never again on the same terms."

So very true. To the outside world I am now a member of the privileged élite who can buy whatever I want, but inside I am still that working class girl, watching every penny, and still worrying about the even poorer - those poor starving children in Africa we were always told about when we didn't finish our food. It hits people different ways. Some, of course, are so relieved to be no longer poor, and proud that they are not because they worked hard for what they now have, that they will not worry about buying expensive clothes or food. Others, like David, and to a slightly lesser extent, me, still can't quite splurge.

"Social mobility has its limits: limits which, perhaps, you have to set yourself in order to stay at least halfway related to the person you started out as." Lynsey Hanley/The Guardian

In terms of the famous comedy sketch pictured here, assuming that the John Cleese character started off as the Ronnie Corbett character, is there still a tiny bit of Ronnie Corbett in John Cleese? Can you ever shake off your origins, whether you have moved up or down the social ladder?

And when does thrifty become miserly? I did like Lynsey Hanley's closing words though:

"Aldi operates a two-tier system, reflecting the disparate degrees of economic and cultural capital of its customers. You can still get your staples cheaper than anywhere else, with an added layer of quotidian luxuries on sale for members of the urban middle class who love a bargain but wouldn’t starve if they couldn’t go there. Because my class struggle is over, I can go to Aldi for fun, for additional delight in a life already full of it." Lynsey Hanley/The Guardian


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