Column Date 2009-02-08

How to make ends meet on $500,000 a year

Can you believe that President Obama is asking some CEOs to live on a mere $500,000 a year?

Sure, they ran their companies into the ground, received billions from us taxpayers to bail them out, and don't deserve much sympathy.

But to survive on only $500,000, these folks will have to go through some emotionally wrenching life-style changes.

So here are a few tips to help CEOs adjust to the new economic realities. (We'd also like to welcome the word "frugal" back into the American vocabulary.)

For a start, you won't be able to afford a cook anymore. So, when you wake up in the morning, you'll have to make your own toast and coffee. Both are relatively simple operations involving automatic machines. This shouldn't be a problem for anyone with an MBA.

Your private limousine and chauffeur are history. Get used to hailing a taxi and talking to cab drivers who have a limited knowledge of English. (Conversation starters: "How has the monsoon been in Dhaka this year?" "What's that thing you're sitting on with all the wooden beads?" "How long have you been driving in New York? I believe downtown is the other direction.")

At lunch, brown paper bags are back in style. Perhaps you and your wife could make a variety of sandwiches and pack several brown bags for important meetings with those pesky U.S. Treasury people. This sends a good message. Extra tip: an ordinary Swatch (black, quartz movement, $50) keeps more accurate time that your gold Rolex. It's true.

When you meet friends for dinner, you'll have to forget those trendy restaurants (with their $350 tasting menus and $2,000 bottles of wine) and dine at home.

Frozen entrees have become remarkably edible over the years. Stouffer's Chicken Fettucini in Alfredo Sauce might be to your liking. Or perhaps Kashi's Black Beans with Mango. (Both sell for $3-4.)

Serve these entrees on your best china and nobody will even suspect they haven't been prepared by the chef you no longer have.

Please keep exercising. All of us taxpayers would like you to stay healthy and fit, especially since we have so much of our money invested with you. But ask your secretary to switch your membership from your executive spa to the local YMCA. And kiss your fresh-squeezed orange juice, wi-fi and blond personal trainer goodbye.

Charitable giving needs to be carefully controlled. The bad news: you can't attend as many gala openings at the symphony this year. The good news: you don't have to sleep through another performance of atonal music.

Kiss those First Class tickets goodbye. (And it's just as well. It seems that the only people flying First Class these days are bankruptcy lawyers, lobbyists and, of course, drug dealers.)

And finally, remember that all these little changes can add up to big savings at the end of the year.

Who might even be able to put a little something away for a rainy day.

©2009 Peter Tannen