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Rich needed a class in our rebate reality

"Insulation! That was the ticket. That was the term Rawlie Thorpe used. 'If you want to live in New York,' he once told Sherman, 'you've got to insulate, insulate, insulate.' "

Tom Wolfe, "Bonfire of the Vanities"

That's what it came down to in the end: too much insulation.

All those rich corporate types whose sinking companies are at the heart of the fiscal meltdown could have done with less of that and more practical lessons in what money management really looks like.

For regular people, that is. The same workaday folks who will feel the burn of the economic crisis -- and its expensive solutions -- even though they didn't create the problem.

Buffalo wouldn't have been a bad place to absorb those lessons.

People here think differently about money. Maybe it's because they've never had too much of it; it's never become invisible, the way it was on Wall Street in the heyday of heady excess that laid the foundations for the current collapse.

Good times here never get great, which is why people in this city handle money like it's a rationed pair of nylons. Gingerly. With respect. Afraid of what might happen if they let go.

You can see this attitude all over Western New York. More specifically, you can watch it play out daily inside the Wonder Hostess discount shop on Clinton Street.

The place doesn't look like much. Not even the yellow streamers promoting 50 percent-off cakes and doughnuts relieve the no-nonsense flourescent atmosphere.

At 4 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, though, it's packed.

Seniors, moms, grandparents tugging grandchildren -- all of them looking for a bargain.

Any why not? That's the way Western New York is. We clip coupons. We buy with cash, not credit. We don't splurge on the big house when the small one will do, and we shop for discount hot dog rolls because, hey, why not save a few cents? Better in your pocket than somebody else's.

"We come here a lot," said Peggy Kovach, a nurse. "I use coupons, get the rebates. The people I know are good with money."

Kovach could be Wall Street's textbook. She's a working mom who scrimps to tuck away so much of each paycheck that she took a shorter-term mortgage than she needed to -- 15 years -- and then paid it off in 7. The car she's driving she bought in cash.

Try explaining that to the Masters of the Universe.

But that's the side of the picture that's getting obscured, in this frightening economic mess -- Warren Buffett called it our economy's "Pearl Harbor" -- the country is mired in. Instead, our heads have been filled with images and sound bites that turn our stomachs.

Corporate high-flyers scurrying out of their bankrupt offices, hauling expensive paintings with them. Lawmakers playing politics over a bailout that strikes many working people as patently unfair. Wealthy people, in both government and business, who throw around phrases like "$700 billion" as if they were so many feathers, light as air.

Buffalo works hard for its money. Always has. Probably always will.

But you know what?

In times like these, it starts to seem like that tradition had an upside we never imagined. Maybe it taught us common sense about spending, saving, and the power of the word "no" -- no to greed, no to rule-breaking, no to spending money we don't have and taking on risks we shouldn't bear.

Valuable lessons, those. If Wall Street wants to learn them, it can start here. At Wonder Hostess, they're open for business.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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