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Anatomy of an oh-so-good splurge in fragile times

Joanne Cleaver stands next to one of her quilt displays at her home in Chicago. Cleaver has been sewing since she was 12 and started quilting at 14. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Joanne Cleaver stands next to one of her quilt displays at her home in Chicago. Cleaver has been sewing since she was 12 and started quilting at 14. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)Read more

Associated Press Writer

Meet Jim Breitinger, Alison Hinson and Joanne Cleaver. Their lives are different but they've got one thing in common as they navigate the fragile economy: an oh-so-good splurge.

Breitinger is a single guy who returned to the ski slopes near home in Salt Lake City, Utah, last season, but he made far fewer trips than he wanted as he dug his way out from under thousands in credit card debt.

Hinson and her husband have a 4-year-old daughter and a modest home just outside Portland, Maine. They have kayaks but no boat big enough to put on the ocean a half-mile away. What they do have is a shiny new counter depth refrigerator as they spiffed up their kitchen.

Cleaver, who loves to quilt and sew herself knit wrap dresses, recently hit her favorite fabrics store, ignoring for an instant her husband's plea to use up her abundant stash stacked on shelves in their Chicago home.

All three have jobs and have gone through recent job transitions. Breitinger's back in the corporate world after a huge mid-career pay drop to retrain and teach, then go into business for himself. Though Cleaver and Hinson have husbands who make nice livings, Hinson was laid off as the business manager of an outdoor school and works as a freelance financial coach. Cleaver added a startup doing research to her writer's resume.

They're not in the direst of circumstances, considering, but they play into a small trend noted recently by bellwether Walmart: Some wealthier shoppers are starting to spend up. Consider them three people behind the world's daily dance of economy urgency, splurging beyond a little more latte at Starbucks to feel better a lot:


At 44, the editorial director spent two years living like a pauper with his dog in an Airstream trailer as he paid off more than $50,000 in credit card debt.

Breitinger's troubles began after he left the corporate world to go to grad school so he could devote himself to teaching history, writing and starting a business selling pieces of meteorite at rock and gem shows.

"It was a mid-career thing," he said after watching his income plummet from $100,000 to $30,000. "I found it somewhat impossible to deal with my lower income."

On the verge of declaring bankruptcy, he negotiated settlements with numerous credit card companies — and things are looking up.

Recent splurges?

— Skiing about six times last season on rented equipment, using free lift tickets he got through work. In better times, he would have been out on the slopes 20 days or more.

— Jake, his half Great Pyrenees and half German shepherd, gets a break from staying home alone about once a week at doggy day care. "He loves it and it makes me feel good to know he's not just sitting at home doing nothing."

— Breitinger just bought a new Honda Fit for $17,500, selling his gas-guzzling, 4-year-old Dodge Ram for what he owed on it. "Getting a new car felt like a luxury, even though the whole point was to get a vehicle that would be cheaper to own."


Hinson, also 44, said she's always been good with money.

She and her husband, who works in information technology for the state of Maine, live with their 4-year-old daughter in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house of about 1,000 square feet, complete with a large garage. They decided to stay put after the baby was born to pay off their 16-year mortgage early, putting off renovations, new cars and other luxuries.

Hinson left her full-time job a year ago to hire out as a personal finance consultant and public speaker, exchanging a drastic drop in income for more job flexibility.

The work, she said, is "pretty steady, nowhere near where it needs to be, but that's true of the first year of any business."

Recent splurges?

— Work on their house, including a new kitchen floor and new ceiling, floors and lighting to finish their basement for more play space. Hinson is most excited about her new $1,600 fridge, picked over cheaper models. "It's exactly what we wanted and we didn't worry about the price. It's the first time we didn't have to buy something because it broke down."

— A two-week family vacation in Alaska this summer after Hinson took a cruise to Mexico in January with some girlfriends. "We've always watched our pennies but all of a sudden there's been kind of a loosening up."

— A new lawnmower and new gutters. "For us, compared to what we had been doing, it's all huge bucks."


Cleaver, 51, considers herself a "fabric nut." She's been sewing since she was 12 and started quilting at 14.

Sewing is a passion, but putting her three kids through college is a necessity for her and her husband — and where a major chunk of money has been going. They have two down and one to go, estimating the cost for all three, including housing and other related expenses, at half a million over 13 years. "It's pretty merciless," Cleaver said.

A bad economy's not the greatest time to start a business. Cleaver pulls together research projects for associations and publications while her husband works as an executive at a high-tech lighting company.

Recent splurges?

— $341 at G Street Fabrics in Centreville, Va., during a business trip, as opposed to the $1,200 she spent at the same store five years ago. "My husband is like you have to sew down your stash. We have kids in college. But the new fabrics are so pretty. During the last 18 months I did sew down about a linear yard of quilt fabric."

— Whole Foods. "For $8, my husband bought a little half-pound of candied walnuts for a salad. A year ago, we would have had a regular salad. A year ago, we pretty much eliminated Whole Foods. We haven't gone crazy with it, but at some point you have to start living again."