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The comfort of doughnuts

Times may be tough, but I still want my MTV. In fact, I want it now more than ever. As the recession forces us to take a harder look at what we consider "necessity" and what is mere "indulgence," a few surprising personal revelations have surfaced.

During our latest budgetary tune-up, my husband suggested trimming back the TV bill. That's when I found myself with a virtual death grip on cable television, something I'd gone happily without for years in the past.

The same goes for broadband Internet. I would no sooner unplug my high-speed connection than a loved one's life support.
In fact, when a local Internet service provider called recently pitching a story on the MoneySmart virtues of returning to online dial-up, my initial reaction was, "Nah, nobody will ever go for that."

This, from the neurotic cheapskate who -- raised in the shadow of her grandparents' Great Depression -- was stockpiling beans and rice while her middle school peers were saving up for New Kids on the Block tickets.

So what's the deal? According to Nancy Upton, a Harvard-educated social psychologist and marketing professor, it's an extension of the Lipstick Effect.

The Lipstick Effect was so named during the Great Depression when squeezed consumers began indulging in cheap pick-me-ups as mood enhancers.

Back then, shoppers rationing every penny would splurge on an inexpensive lipstick as a sort of poor man's Prozac.

We've begun doing the same thing today, only now it might be called the Doughnut Effect. According to a recent article in Supermarket News, sales of the devilishly delicious treats have held steady like troupers, and are up at both Tops and Wegmans.

The story, calling doughnuts "inherently indulgent," says the high-fat, high-calorie treats are a beacon of light to stressed consumers in these dark times. They're freshly baked, delicious and cheap.

So while you may forego the $4 latte and French pastry at the fancy cafe, you're much more likely to drop 59 cents on one of these guilty pleasures at the grocery store.
In a similar way, we shun fancy dinners with friends after work and reward ourselves instead with drive-thru fast food fare in front of the TV during "America's Next Top Model."

As for cable and Internet, Upton says it's a common occurrence to binge on "nesting" accessories, feeling they're justifiable expenses as we wait out the economic storm from the comfort of our homes. That explains all those folks putting the kibosh on a pricey vacation but spending serious coin on plasma widescreen TVs instead.

Cable TV, Internet and cell phones are important mood regulators, Upton says, since they offer immediate gratification in addition to offering one of the most important coping mechanisms of all -- communication.

It makes sense, really. If I'm going to give up, say, $30 concert tickets, you better believe I'm going to have the girls over to watch "Project Runway" and eat cookie dough every once in a while.

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