If there’s a silver lining in encroaching recessionary storm clouds, it’s the Economic Excuse—a convenient pretext being nimbly proffered by enterprising prevaricators. After all, why should corporations and governments be the only ones able to blame economic malaise for cutbacks, layoffs and cancelled holiday parties? One Toronto woman, who requests anonymity, recently channelled beleaguered U.S. brokerage Morgan Stanley (which is cutting 10 per cent of its workforce while simultaneously recruiting high-end “financial advisers”) when she told her cleaning lady she had to let her go because of the sour economy. She didn’t mention she’d rehired her former cleaning lady, who’d left to deal with a family emergency. She defends her deception as easiest for everyone. “Some of my friends use her so I’ll bump into her,” she says. “I also didn’t want to burn any bridges; you never know, I might want to hire her again.”
How many people are covertly exploiting the financial downturn to sever relationships, professional or personal, is unknowable. But a glimpse is offered in a survey released in November by Prince & Assoc., a Connecticut-based polling company that specializes in the habits of the rich. It asked people with a net worth of more than $20 million how the economy was affecting their extramarital relationships. Twelve per cent said they planned to dump their lovers while 80 per cent claimed they would be cutting back on their gifts and allowances.
It’s anybody’s guess how many of these adulterers are telling the truth about potential romantic downsizing. But anecdotal evidence suggests many alleged “belt-tightening” measures are in fact “relief-providing.” And nowhere is this more evident than in the deployment of the Economic Excuse to escape the death grip of holiday obligations. One woman who works in PR, for instance, told her family she’s unable to come home for Christmas, intimating limited finances were the reason. They were sympathetic; she’d lost her job last summer and only recently had been hired back on a contract. But money wasn’t why she deep-sixed her visit. “It’s a hassle,” she confides, chiming off the routine—shopping for and wrapping of presents (if she doesn’t go, she’s expected to send only one or two), packing, arranging the cat-sitter, hauling bags to work, making a mad dash to the train station. Then there’s a five-hour train trip crammed in with noisy, excited children and people hacking and coughing. She loves her family, she says, and enjoys their company, most of the time. “But there’s pressure to fit in visits with everyone, which leads to guilt, as well as the high risk of a family member uttering something outrageous that will rankle for days,” she says. “Then I have to haul an assortment of gift baskets—a lot of soap—back on the train.”
She’s not alone in breaking with rituals that, over time, have become oppressive. One Toronto couple who has thrown a Christmas party for neighbours for over a decade has decided this year is the perfect time to end the tradition, even though their financial situation has not changed. “Every year we say, ‘This is the last year,’ ” says the wife. “Then we get sucked into it again. And it’s so much work—three days of preparation.” When they told people they wouldn’t be hosting the party, people just assumed the economy was the reason, she says, noting none expressed disappointment. “Maybe they’re relieved too,” she says with a laugh.
Not only does the Economic Excuse allow people to opt out, but to opt out with a tinge of moral superiority. In this new era of “frugality chic,” slashing an unwieldy gift list is fiscally responsible. Re-gifting is no longer tacky; it’s savvy! And parents can finally refuse to buy the latest soul-destroying video game—smug knowing such deprivation also provides Depression preparation.
Just like actual economic distress, the Economic Excuse does run the risk of having a domino effect. One woman who lives in British Columbia says she made plans to join her brother and his family, who live out of the country, in Toronto this Christmas to visit family in a nursing home. It was a trip she dreaded. “It’s depressing as hell,” she says. “I cry almost every time I see them.” Now her brother has just cancelled for vague “financial reasons.”
She’s suspicious. “They’ve got money,” she says. “Then that got me thinking: if the son who works for a big corporation can blame the economy, why can’t the self-employed daughter?” So his rationale, whether true or not, has become her excuse as well. “I guess I just want to be selfish and enjoy Christmas the way I see other people enjoying it; it’s a celebration, a happy day.” She’ll go after Christmas instead: “Better to see them on a random day in January or February when the atmosphere is blah and the miserableness of it won’t be so pronounced.” It may not be a heartwarming Christmas tale out of Dickens—or even Dr. Seuss—but the Economic Excuse saved her Christmas. And it’s a reminder to all that there’s at least one way left to make the economy work for you.