I'M AT THE theatre with Thrift Queen Laura. Doing it economically, naturally. We only go to things either purchased at the Half Price Ticket Booth, or under the Travelex £10 scheme which has sponsored several shows at the National Theatre. Fantastic theatre, for a tenner! Naturally we will also be operating under my Five Commandments for guilt-free nights out. These are as follows: Get Mr Millard to do the babysitting. Park for free on Waterloo Bridge (post 7pm). Skip the programme and pick up a free cast list. Drink tap water in the interval. Go home for sandwiches. If you follow all these, a night for two at The Alchemist will only set you back £20.
As we sip our water looking over the Thames, Laura agrees in rather stunned tones that it looks as if I've got this saving money gig sorted. How can I tell her I'm going to New York for the weekend? Well, since the dollar is ferociously low at the moment it makes shopping in Manhattan look like a bargain. Veni, Vidi, Visa; I came, I saw, I shopped, as someone once said. Anyway, my credit card debts are at an all-time low. Only £18,760 to pay back, and the bill is going down by £3,000 a month. Such savage repayments are crippling me, but it's worth it. By February I will be out of hock.
"You're part of a national trend," says Laura. "Am I?" I say, modestly. According to Laura, who keeps up with these newsflashes, credit card spending has slowed over the last year. In 2004-05, we owed £33bn on plastic. Now we owe just under £31bn. Progress. "Everyone's paying back their debts, and because they don't want to spend any more, they are freezing their cards," says Laura. Like freezing a bank account? "No, for real." What? "People are putting their cards in a bowl of water, and the bowl in the freezer. When you need to use your card you must first defrost the bowl of water. Usually by the time that happens you don't want to buy whatever you needed the card for."
Blimey. Whatever happened to good old willpower? Anyway, Laura has started to tell me about another story which illuminates people's determination to find bargains everywhere. Yet again I sense I am ahead of the curve. "There's a top 10 list of the country's most popular freebies," she tells me. At the bottom are rather obvious things such as free bags or flip flops affixed to the front of magazines, and free tickets to nightclubs. Then it goes to free broadband (thank you Talk Talk), free coffee (What? Where?), free music downloads (isn't that illegal?), interest-free credit cards (oh, absolument), free DVDs on the front of free newspapers, and at the top of the freebie tree, free mobile phone calls, along with free text messages. All readily available, if you keep your eyes sharp, open all your junk mail and spend about two-and-a-half hours a day cutting out coupons.
Indeed, it almost seems possible these days that if you have time, you can operate almost free of charge. The days when you were charged real money for a DVD or a pair of sunglasses now seem like something out of a BBC historical drama.
Of course, if you haven't paid much for something, its perceived value can diminish in front of your eyes. After the interval we go back to our seats, and bump into two women walking out of our row. One is shaking her head. "No, let's not come back, Jean," she is saying to her friend. "I mean, win some, lose some." Jean grabs her bag. "Louise, at £10 a ticket it doesn't really matter, does it?" Laura and I look at each other meaningfully.
The next night I'm appearing as a guest on Quote Unquote for Radio 4, recorded before a live audience. The audience all appear to know each other. And they certainly know about shows such as Quote Unquote, which like all BBC Radio light entertainment shows has free ticketing. The place is packed. While we hovered in the wings, our waggish host, Nigel Rees, asked where everyone was from. "Australia, Russia, France" came the various replies.
The comedian Stewart Lee shook his head. "How the hell can you come from Australia and know that this is where you get two hours of free entertainment?" he whispered to me. Then his eyes gleamed with inspiration. "I bet it's recommended by Fodor's."Reuse content