We were married within a month of our commencement, after three years of courtship at a big Middle West university. Looking back, it seems to me that rich, tumultuous college life of ours was wholly pagan. All about us was the free-handed atmosphere of "easy money," and in our "crowd" a tacit implication that a good time was one of the primary necessities of life. Such were our ideas when we married on a salary of one hundred dollars a month. We took letters of introduction to some of the "smart" people in a suburb near Chicago, and they proved so delightfully cordial that we settled down among them without stopping to consider the discrepancies between their ways and our income. We were put up at a small country club—a simple affair enough, comparatively speaking—that demanded six weeks' salary in initial dues and much more in actual subsequent expense. "Everybody" went out for Saturday golf and stayed for dinner and dancing.
By fall there was in working operation a dinner club of the "younger married set," as our local column in the city papers called us; an afternoon bridge club; and a small theater club that went into town every fortnight for dinner and a show. Costly little amusements, but hardly more than were due charming young people of our opportunities and tastes. I think that was our attitude, although we did not admit it. In September we rented a "smart" little apartment.
We had planned to furnish it by means of several generous checks which were family contributions to our array of wedding gifts. What we did was to buy the furniture on the instalment plan, agreeing to pay twenty dollars a month till the bill was settled, and we put the furniture money into running expenses.
It was the beginning of a custom. They gave most generously, that older generation. Visiting us, Max's mother would slip a bill into my always empty purse when we went shopping; or mine would drop a gold piece into my top bureau drawer for me to find after she had gone. And there were always checks for birthdays.
Everything went into running expenses; yet, in spite of it, our expenses ran quite away. Max said I was "too valuable a woman to put into the kitchen," so we hired a maid, good-humoredly giving her carte blanche on the grocery and meat market. Our bills, for all our dining out, were enormous. There were clothes, too. Max delighted in silk socks and tailored shirts, and he ordered his monogramed cigarettes by the thousand. My own taste ran to expensive little hats.
It is hardly necessary to recount the details. We had our first tremendous quarrel at the end of six months, when, in spite of our furniture money and our birthday checks, we found ourselves two hundred and fifty dollars in debt. But as we cooled we decided that there was nothing we could do without; we could only be "more careful." Every month we reached that same conclusion. There was nothing we could do without. At the end of the year on a $1200 salary we were $700 behind; eight months later, after our first baby came, we were over a thousand—and by that time, it seemed, permanently estranged. I actually was carrying out a threat of separation and stripping the apartment, one morning, when Max came back from town and sat down to discuss matters with me.
A curious labyrinthine discussion it was, winding from recriminations and flat admissions that our marriage was a failure and our love was dead, to the most poignant memories of our engagement days. But its central point was Max's detached insistence that we make marriage over into a purely utilitarian affair.
"Man needs the decencies of a home," he said over and over. "It doesn't do a fellow any good with a firm like mine to have them know he can't manage his affairs. And my firm is the kind of firm I want to work for. This next year is important; and if I spend it dragging through a nasty divorce business, knowing that everybody knows, I'll be about thirty per cent efficient. I'm willing to admit that marriage—even a frost like ours—is useful. Will you?" I had to. My choice rested between going home, where there were two younger sisters, or leaving the baby somewhere and striking out for myself.
"It seems to me," said Max, taking out his pencil, "that if two reasonably clever people can put their best brain power and eight hours a day into a home, it might amount to something sometime.
The thing resolves itself into a choice between the things we can do without and the things we can't. We'll list them. We can't do without three meals and a roof; but there must be something." "You can certainly give up silk socks and cigarettes," I said; and, surprisingly, on this old sore point between us Max agreed.
"You can give up silk stockings, then," he said, and put them down.
Silk socks and silk stockings! Out of all possible economies, they were the only things that we could think of. Finally— "We could make baby an excuse," I said, "and never get out to the club till very late—after dinner—and stay just for the dancing. And we could get out of the dinner club and the theater bunch. Only, we ought to have some fun." "You can go to matinées, and tell me about them, so we can talk intelligently. We'll say we can't leave the kid nights—" "We can buy magazines and read up on plays. We'll talk well enough if we do that, and people won't know we haven't been. Put down: 'Magazines for plays.'" He did it quite seriously. Do we seem very amusing to you? So anxious lest we should betray our economies—so impressed with our social "position" and what people might think! It is funny enough to me, looking back; but it was bitter business then.
I set myself to playing the devoted and absorbed young mother. But it was a long, long time before it became the sweetest of realities. I cried the first time I refused a bridge game to "stay with baby"; and I carried a sore heart those long spring afternoons when I pushed his carriage conspicuously up and down the avenue while the other women motored past me out for tea at the club. Yet those long walks were the best thing that ever happened to me. I had time to think, for one thing; and I gained splendid health, losing the superfluous flesh I was beginning to carry, and the headaches that usually came after days of lunching and bridge and dining.
I fell into the habit, too, of going around by the market, merely to have an objective, and buying the day's supplies. The first month of that habit my bills showed a decrease of $16.47. I shall always remember that sum, because it is certainly the biggest I have ever seen. I began to ask the prices of things; and I made my first faint effort at applying our game of substitution to the food problem, a thing which to me is still one of the most fascinating factors in housekeeping.
One afternoon in late summer, I found a delightful little bungalow in process of building, on a side street not so very far from the proper avenue. I investigated idly, and found that the rent was thirty dollars less than we were paying. Yet even then I hesitated.
It was Max who had the courage to decide.
"The only thing we are doing without is the address," he said, "And that isn't a loss that looks like $360 to me." All that fall and winter we kept doggedly at our game of substitution. Max bought a ready-made Tuxedo, and I ripped out the label and sewed in one from a good tailor. I carried half a dozen dresses from the dyer's to a woman who evolved three very decent gowns; and then I toted them home in a box with a marking calculated to impress any chance acquaintance. We were so ashamed of our attempts at thrift that they came hard.
Often enough we quarreled after we had been caught in some sudden temptation that set us back a pretty penny, and we were inevitably bored and cross when we refused some gayety for economy's sake.
We resolutely decided to read aloud the evenings the others went to the theater club; and as resolutely we substituted a stiff game of chess for the bridge that we could not afford. But we had to learn to like them both.
Occasionally we entertained at very small, very informal dinners, "on account of the baby"; and definitely discarded the wines that added the "smartness" demanded at formal affairs. People came to those dinners in their second or third best: but they stayed late, and laughed hilariously to the last second of their stay.
In the spring we celebrated Max's second respectable rise in salary by dropping out of the country club. We could do without it by that time. At first we thought it necessary to substitute a determined tramp for the Sunday morning golf game; but we presently gave that up. We were becoming garden enthusiasts. And as a substitution for most of the pleasure cravings of life, gardening is to be highly recommended. Discontent has a curious little trick of flowing out of the earthy end of a hoe.
Later that summer I found that a maid was one of the things I could do without, making the discovery in an interregnum not of my original choosing. A charwoman came in for the heavier work, and I took over the cooking. Almost immediately, in spite of my inexperience, the bills dropped. I could not cook rich pastries and fancy desserts, and fell back on simple salads and fruit instead. I dipped into the household magazines, followed on into technical articles on efficiency, substituted labor-savers wherever I could, and started my first muddled set of accounts.
At the beginning of the new year I tried my prentice hand on a budget; and that was the year that we emerged from debt and began to save.
That was six very short years ago. When, with three babies, the bungalow became a trifle small, we built a little country house and moved farther out. Several people whom we liked best among that first "exclusive younger set" have moved out too, and formed the nucleus of a neighborhood group that has wonderful times on incomes no one of which touches $4000 a year.
Ours is not as much as that yet; but it is enough to leave a wide and comfortable margin all around our wants. Max has given up his pipe for cigarettes (unmonogramed), and patronizes a good tailor for business reasons. But in everything else our substitutions stand: gardening for golf; picnics for roadhouse dinners; simple food, simple clothing, simple hospitality, books, a fire, and a game of chess on winter nights.
We don't even talk about economies any more. We like them. But— every Christmas there comes to me via the Christmas tree a box of stockings, and for Max a box of socks—heavy silk. There never is any card in either box; but I think we'll probably get them till we die.
The following short confession, signed "Mrs. M.F.E.," was awarded the first prize by the American Magazine in a contest for articles on "The Best Thing Experience Has Taught Me.
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