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The gloomy stories are by now old hat. Gas prices keep surging upward, forcing drivers to watch their fuel gauges like Mad Max. SUVís rot away unused, slumped in suburban driveways like beached whales. Food prices continue their slow but relentless rise, forcing aspiring politicians to offer praise and compassion for ďsimple, hardworking Americans.Ē The dollar continues its journey toward pesohood, effectively raising the cost of everything. We Americans, long accustomed to a cheap and plentiful world many consider to be a birthright accorded to the worldís ďleader,Ē are learning that itís tough to share with the rest of the planet. Life was so much simpler when inhabitants of the Second and Third worlds behaved by purchasing very little. It might just be our turn to forego steaks and cars for rice and bikes, as the fast-rising Asian nations once did.

We hate it. It doesnít seem fair. Itís downright un-American.

For sure, itís cost-cutting time in the Land of the Free. The networks churn out stories about people who have done ďevery last thing possibleĒ to save money.

There seems to be nowhere left to cut. But, like most of us, the people in these stories are clinging to one outdated vestige of American life that inhibits further savings: Pride. Itís amazing how much money you can save when you learn to suspend your pride.

America needs to become like the C-list actress who turns to hand soap ads and ends up earning far more than she ever did in films. Iíve done and seen others do the same thing, and it really works. Hereís how:

Cost-Cutting For Dummies I: Transportation:

AAA, the emergency vehicle rescue company, recently and foolishly revealed a brilliant strategy for saving money on gas. The company noticed that their ďstranded motoristĒ call rate had jumped significantly in the last few months. It seems that people were calling up and claiming to have an empty gas tank. Per contractual agreement, AAA would show up and add a gallon of gas to the stranded vehicle. Getting wise to the ploy, AAA started requiring motorists to start their car before getting the free fuel, hence thwarting the scam. Undoubtedly, the foiled motorists were filled with shame.

AAA is an unpatriotic company that hates simple, hardworking Americans.

My solution to this quandary is simple: drive the car until it actually is out of gas. This gives you the upper hand in the shame game, placing the onus of indignity and mistrust on the AAA technician when your car doesnít start. Then drive until the car is out of gas and call AAA again. Repeat as needed. This is the awesome power of pridelessness.

AAA is getting wise to this approach as well. Theyíre starting to write down license plate numbers and refusing service to repeat offenders. The solution to this situation is also simple. Trade in the Excursion for two beaters and register one in your motherís name. Itís a hassle, but it still beats riding the bus.

Cost-Cutting For Dummies II: FOOD:

Lord knows most of us canít do without our morning coffee. I know I canít. But when java prices rise and youíre forced to choose between coffee and diabetes medicine, you know whatís going to happen. The blood sugarís gonna surge.

So hereís what you do. Last week I pulled into Jiffy Lube, telling myself that I was going to hold my ground and spend no more than $19.95 on an oil change. When I drove away an hour later Iíd dropped $230 on a bunch of stuff I didnít understand.

J-Lube trains its technicians to hunt down and punish mechanical miscreants like a dog sniffing for drugs at the border. But no matter, I learned a valuable cost-cutting lesson during my visit.

Sitting in the lobby watching Oprah, I watched a tattooed guy with a skateboard walk into the room and fill up a small Styrofoam cup with coffee. He slurped one cup down while gazing at the small TV hanging from the ceiling, and refilled two more times, knocking back the java like a man doing shots in a dive bar. Then he threw the cup in the trash and entered the bathroom. A moment later he walked out, glanced over at me with a crooked smile, and said ďHave a great day.Ē I grinned back, realizing that I was in the presence of a cost-cutting master.

Struggling with absurd coffee prices? Scratch that burden off your list.

Cost-Cutting For Dummies III: Clothing:

A few years back I was a lowly hotel worker scratching out a living in a ski resort in Utah (see the pre-midshift American here, unaware of the untapped prowess buried under an addiction to pride?) One day I headed down to Salt Lake City to buy some socks. I was traipsing around a department store, bumming out about footwear prices, when I spied a man in the shoe department peeling off a pair of socks and dropping them into a cardboard box. A light bulb went off in my mind. I hoofed over to the shoe division and asked to try on a pair of size 11Ĺ Chuck Taylors.

While the sales guy retreated to the backroom accompanied by a Madonna song from the Musack overhead, I put on a pair of almost new, beefy white tube socks and dropped my razor thin socks with the burnt out heels into the try-on box. I passed on the shoes (wrong color) and walked out of the store with a pair of sweat socks. Two stops later I returned to my hotel with my wardrobe complete.

Iíve had a recurring foot fungus problem ever since, but itís a small price to pay for being ahead of the curve in the new, cost-conscious America.

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