So far during the year and nine months of our marriage, my husband and I have never bought tin foil. I realized that today as I was prepping some baked potatoes and unfurled the last of our second-to-last roll. Granted, we don’t use tin foil that often and we started off our marriage with about four rolls scavenged from Dave’s bachelor pad (he was the last one to move out, which meant that we had to clean everything but we also got to keep everything. Still not sure we got the better end of the deal). But as I wrapped the potatoes in the foil, I thought a little wistfully that at some point we are actually going to have to buy the things that we’ve generally happened into gratis. Who ever buys soy sauce, for example? We’re still working on the two and a half bottles from Dave’s old apartment. And there’s no need to buy napkins if you go to Five Guys often enough to have a ready stock from the last trip. I’ve given up saving the little packets of ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard that come with sandwiches, but if I hadn’t, we’d have quite a store of those, too. And that brings me to the Tin Foil Indicator of Economic Prosperity.

Lately, NPR has been running a series about the economic indicators that proliferate in real life. For example, the soda machines used to be crammed with dollar bills; now they’re crammed with coins (the commentator’s theory was that people are digging into couches and going to penny jars for small luxuries). Well, the Tin Foil Indicator is as follows:

Things are really bad off when people finally finish using the last of their junk.

To expound, I come by my junk in the following trusty ways:
(1) scavenging (roommates or neighbors moving away and cleaning out pantries, left-overs from ward activities or work meetings)
(2) foresight (shampoo on sale for $.88)
(3) surplus (extra napkins from Five Guys)
(4) charity (a friend’s sister’s baby doesn’t like Huggies–would I like the rest of the box?)

With such assiduous pack-ratting, our apartment is generally well stocked with mismatched napkins, pens pilfered from information fairs across the country, and about as many hand-me-down baby clothes as one little two-month-old has a right to (although she does look pretty cute in them). It may not be the nicest stuff or the newest stuff, but, as the Romanians say, ne ajunge.

So according to the Tin Foil Indicator of Economic Prosperity, when we begin running out of our junk, the following is most likely happening:
(1) no left-overs: everyone else is scavenging, which means less for us
(2) no extra money, which means that even $.88 shampoo can’t entice (hey, during hard times, certain luxuries have to be foregone: hair doesn’t suffer too much if only washed every third day)
(3) no surplus because we’re no longer going to places like Five Guys. Alternatively, Fives Guys itself is looking to the bottom line and wising up to the moochers among their customers.
(4) no charity because babies don’t get to be picky about Pampers vs. Huggies during recessions.

All of which points to: Hard Times. I think there really might be something to this theory. Take food storage, for example. Since this would fall under the category of “foresight,” it represents the more morally commendable end of the Tin Foil Spectrum. But junk it nevertheless tends to be, for all intents and purposes. Generally it sits undisturbed in the basement or storage closet or underneath the guest bed until it gets dusted off, tossed out, and replaced with another row of No. 10 cans.

This past weekend, however, I heard from my brother-in-law (an absurdly intelligent actuary whose buying power would typically render him disqualified as a Tin Foil candidate) that he’s taken to making whole wheat bread. Which he grinds by hand. With food storage wheat. Forget that they aren’t in dire economic straits (in fact, I think their whole wheat bread kick has more to do with health and rotating food storage than saving money): the point is that what is generally categorized as “junk” has suddenly become utilitarian. I remember a classic Depression-era story told about my Grandpa in which he brought a spoon to his dish-washing job so he could eat the left-overs off of the plates that came down his line and save money on meals (ESO, do you remember that one?). We haven’t gotten to that point in the Sloan household (although I did eat my nephew’s left-over broccoli for lunch the next day), but I will admit that I’m strongly considering rinsing off, drying, and reusing that tin foil once the potatoes are finished. It’ll be a sad day when we have to buy a roll ourselves.