Life in New York is nothing like Friends. "Those apartments would cost at least $3,000," says Kera Bolonik, "because studios are going for $1,900 these days. There's no way, not with their jobs. Except maybe in Queens."
Bolonik grew up in River Forest and landed in New York after graduating from Rutgers University. Her first apartment was in Jersey City--lots of space for the money. "But the problem was we lived around the corner from the World Trade Center bombers. It was a little crazy." Bolonik eventually moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn. "My refusal to ever live in Manhattan or pay more than x number of dollars for rent really helped in making life a little more manageable."
As an editorial assistant at HarperCollins, Bolonik met Jennifer Griffin, and the two hit it off immediately. Griffin, says Bolonik, played Dorothy Parker to her Fran Lebowitz. "We felt our brains wasting away, and after reading hundreds of terrible book proposals and exclaiming after each one, 'I could do better,' we decided to write a book together."
The topic came to them a few weeks later, after they attended a first-class New Year's Eve party that seemed well beyond the means of its two hostesses. They made some inquiries, and a few weeks later Griffin hosted a lavish party for 60 people, spending just $20. The wheels started turning. "We thought there should be some sort of Martha Stewart-esque book for the working-poor spawn of the bourgeoisie who graduated from college and moved to the city to entry-level jobs," says Bolonik. "People with no money but bourgeois taste. We were marveling about how our friends managed not to make everything a Blockbuster night. They went to plays, concerts, and parties and were living very active, culturally enlightened lives when they were about to be evicted from their apartments. I thought if they could do it, anyone could do it. It's about feeling entitled."
Frugal Indulgents: How to Cultivate Decadence When Your Age and Salary Are Under 30 (Henry Holt) provides practical how-tos for such postcollegiate problems as finding and furnishing an apartment (or dispensing with one through house-sitting and couch-crashing). It gives dating advice (don't ask, don't pay; date people in higher tax brackets). It lists the financial pros and cons of dating and relationships, and it provides amusing multiple-choice guidelines on picking a drug for Saturday night. There's also a glossary of terms, like exfriendable ("an expendable friend") and glambidextrous ("the ability to look fabulous with the poise to make it seem easy").
Griffin and Bolonik are unapologetic about the need to wheedle what you can out of family, friends, acquaintances, and employers. "I had older friends who took me under their wing and would take me out," says Bolonik of her first few years out of college. "If they wanted to see me, they would treat me. I think they remembered when they were making no money. They knew eventually I would, and I was just paying my dues. They just saw me as their little investment."
At the core of the book's philosophy is the importance of expecting only the best things in life. For example: "Traveling in style involves acting financially endowed. It involves charging the European airfare and worrying about it later; using the resources of friends to one's own advantage; and using one's charm, wiles, and little white lies to cajole favors from wealthy strangers. If you want to swank it up on the road remember this: It is easier to hitch a free ride on a Learjet than it is on a Greyhound."
Bolonik and Griffin's fortunes have changed since they wrote the book. Both just broke 30 (thousand, not years), and both are in serious relationships. Last August Cosmopolitan ran one of the book's quizzes--fittingly, since the tone of Frugal Indulgents is strikingly similar to that of Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 best-seller Sex and the Single Girl. Brown's book was also chock-full of breezy, slightly ironic advice about shopping, cooking, dating, money, and clothes. Bolonik says she's never read the Cosmo founder's book, but she isn't surprised to hear they're so similar. "I guess we need a book like this every 35 years."
Bolonik will sign copies and discuss the book Saturday from 1 to 3 at Todd & Holland Tea Merchants, 7577 Lake Street in River Forest. A free event, the signing will include plenty of free refreshments. Call 708-488-1162. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kera Bolonik photo by Nathan Mandell.