WHEN I STOPPED AT CVS the other day to pick up a new charging cable for my iPhone, I was reminded just how woefully out of fashion I am.
The young lady behind the counter handed me a box from the rack and watched as I took the cable out to make sure it was the right one. I guessed her to be in her early 20s. She was wearing a pair of those huge loopy earrings that you could jump hoops through out in the parking lot.
When she saw me bring out my phone, she gave a little laugh. “Is that an iPhone 8?” she asked with genuine amazement.
I looked at the phone in my hand, then back at her. “Yup,” I replied.
“Wow,” she said. “It’s been like years since I saw somebody with an iPhone 8. Why haven’t you upgraded?”
By now, I was feeling a little self-conscious. Would she make fun of my reading glasses too? The boring dad haircut that I’d gotten at Hair Cuttery for $25? The clothes that I wear over and over because they’re comfortable and I’m too cheap to buy new ones?
But I steeled myself and told her there was no need to upgrade because my phone worked just fine. I was able to do everything I needed to do on my iPhone 8, and it also takes pretty darn good pictures. Plus, it was paid off, and I wasn’t particularly eager to take on a new monthly payment now that I’m semi-retired and living off my savings.
“I’ll replace it when it breaks,” I said. “I do that with everything.”
It’s true. I like to get my money’s worth from things and tend to hang on to them until they die—phones, cars, old pairs of jeans. It’s a habit I learned from my parsimonious father, who used to hold up the hose at the pump to make sure he got every drop of gas he’d paid for into the tank.
I once drove a 10-year-old Ford Escape until it died. The engine, which had 138,000 miles, had been failing for months. I had the pedal to the floor as I drove it to the local dealership to trade it in.
The girl at CVS took in my use-it-until-it-breaks philosophy with a vacant stare. “I upgrade every couple of years,” she said. “I just got the iPhone 13 Pro.”
With visible excitement, she brought out her phone and held it out proudly for me to look at. I had to admit, it was gorgeous. Even from behind the COVID-safety plexiglass that separated us, the slim piece of aluminum pink technology glittered in the light like a jewel worthy of going around a queen’s neck. My five-year-old black iPhone 8 suddenly felt as elegant as a rock in my hand.
I found myself wondering how much the latest phone cost, thinking somewhere in the $1,000 range. The upgrade price, of course, would be lower than that, but then you’re locked into a three-year phone plan at the cost of a small monthly mortgage. I was on a basic cut-rate phone plan myself. Forty bucks a month for unlimited talk and text, no contract, no strings attached. Simple, just the way I like it.
“It’s amazing,” the girl said, about the phone. “It even has lidar.”
Lidar, I asked. What was lidar?
She tried to explain it to me—some kind of radar scanning technology that shoots laser beams across the room to create a 3D image—but I wasn’t getting it. “It’s really cool. My friends and I use it to see how tall we are and move objects around the room.”
“Move objects around the room?” I asked.
“Virtually,” she explained. “In games, you know.”
I nodded vacantly. How to explain to her that I’m a hopeless frugalist? “Simplicity” is my rallying cry, taken straight out of the pages of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which I read back in high school and has been my north star ever since.
It was Thoreau who taught me the concept of economy not as a measure of societal output and consumption, but rather as something we practice when we keep our needs simple and live below our means. From Thoreau, I also learned that the value of something is more than just the price we pay for it. It’s the cost of the time we put into earning the money to pay for that item—time that we could use doing something else.
After Thoreau, it was a natural progression to teachers like Warren Buffett and Jack Bogle, who taught me the importance of investing in low-cost index funds, avoiding fees like the plague and letting the market do the work for me, instead of paying up for people who think they can outsmart a random walk down Wall Street.
But I wasn’t sure it would do any good getting into all this with the young lady on the other side of the plexiglass, plus other people were waiting in line. She rang up my charging cable, put it in a bag and I walked away. I was thinking about that iPhone 13 Pro, how beautiful it was, all the things I could do with it. I could measure just how short my girlfriend Rachael is—she is really short. I could move things around the room. Virtually, of course.
But then I thought about the monthly payment and my ancient plain-black phone seemed just fine as it was.
Rock in my hand, I pushed through the glass doors of the consumeristic madhouse and, like Chief Bromden, out into freedom.
James Kerr led global communications, public relations and social media for a number of Fortune 500 technology firms before leaving the corporate world to pursue his passion for writing and storytelling. His book, “The Long Walk Home: How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life’s Purpose,” is forthcoming in early 2022 from Blydyn Square Books. Jim blogs at PeaceableMan.com. Check out his previous articles.