Living Large for Less

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Sarasota has been riding a wave of upscale consumption in the past few years. Some of it has been fueled by the super-wealthy, those corporate CEOs and tech entrepreneurs who jet in to stay at their downtown penthouse or Casey Key estate—one of several homes they own around the country—and shed money on local restaurants, […]


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Sarasota has been riding a wave of upscale consumption in the past few years. Some of it has been fueled by the super-wealthy, those corporate CEOs and tech entrepreneurs who jet in to stay at their downtown penthouse or Casey Key estate—one of several homes they own around the country—and shed money on local restaurants, jewelers and art dealers while they’re here. The merely well-off, who were feeling even better off with the skyrocketing increases in their home values and stock portfolios, have also been purchasing luxury goods and services at record rates. But with the collapse of the real estate market, the mortgage crisis and the near-panic in the financial markets as Bear Stearns went down, conspicuous self-indulgence has suddenly gone out style.

Even people who haven’t lost their homes—or their fortunes—have started to worry, as their paper profits have evaporated and the recession seems to be deepening. And though luxury marketers like to argue that the ultra-wealthy are insulated from economic slowdowns, in the current climate of widespread hardships, even those who can may choose not to splurge. As Robert Frank puts it in his Wall Street Journal blog, The Wealth Report, “Nobody wants to be the oblivious guy with the champagne bottle who’s still dancing after the music has stopped.”

Here in Sarasota, businesses from salons to restaurants to fashion boutiques are reporting slumping sales, attendance at pricey black-tie galas—the mainstay of local social life—has dropped significantly, and even the well-heeled are beginning to trade money-saving tips on everything from monthly facials to travel. “Most of Sarasota’s wealthy are self-made people,” points out Karin Gustafson, who as president of the Sarasota YMCA Foundation works with donors of major means. “They got it the hard way, and they know it can be taken away.

But even if they’re cutting back, Sarasotans still want the good life. They’re just being smarter and more creative about how to find it, like the arts leader who, because of the falling dollar, is substituting a month in San Francisco for his family’s usual sojourn in Italy.

We asked some Sarasotans how they’re living large for less, stretching their dollars without sacrificing the pleasures that matter most to them.

Paul Boyd decided to make a change when he realized he was spending a fortune on a fishing boat that he used for just a few months a year. A Brit who bought a second home in Sarasota 17 years ago and has been trawling the Gulf of Mexico ever since, Boyd explains, “I live here 90 days a year less two—the maximum the U.S. government allows, and that’s part of the problem.” The cost of absentee boat ownership no longer made economic sense when he learned about Waves Boat & Social Club. “Waves took my boat as part of my membership; I’ve been saving substantially and stress-free with no maintenance hassles ever since,” he says.

Asked how much he’s saving, Boyd hesitates. “If I tell you how great a deal it really is, Carissa may raise my fees,” he quips. Carissa Ellis founded the club four years ago and has grown it from 17 members to 240 and from one location in Cortez to three, including two in Sarasota. “Many of our members are like Paul,” Ellis explains. “They owned boats, weren’t using them, and gave them to me in return for membership, quantifiable savings and peace of mind.

With a little prodding, Boyd admits to slashing all maintenance costs, which were often considerable and eliminating dock slip fees of $3,600 a year and $300 of annual insurance. Ellis says a basic membership in Waves is $3,900, but seasonal rates like Boyd’s are negotiable, and there are lots of options and specials. But what cinched the deal for the Brit is that he can request, and always gets, the same 20-foot fishing boat he traded in for membership.

In effect, Boyd has sacrificed nothing and gets boatloads of luxury for less. Non-boat owners, who haven’t coughed up the $30,000 to $60,000 a small craft costs these days, save that much more. That’s why boat clubs have become a form of cheap chic, a downsized version of fractional ownerships for the mega-yacht set.

Now that Big Brother is watching Elena Pascoe at the gym, she’s trimming her body and her budget. A cardiology nurse who lives in Palmer Ranch, Pascoe dropped weekly sessions with a $70-an-hour personal trainer in favor of the new virtual monitoring system at Sarasota Memorial’s year-old HealthplexFitnessCenter. She says it saves her thousands of dollars a year but in no way diminishes the quality of her workouts.

“In this economy, I don’t need a personal trainer to stand next to me while I’m on the treadmill,” says Pascoe, who punches in a five-digit code that automatically sets each piece of equipment on her exercise circuit to a routine designed just for her by a medically certified physical therapist. “Now, instead of spending $140 to $200 a week for a personal trainer, I’m spending that amount just twice a year to have a professional fine-tune my workout,” she explains.

According to general manager Roy Hill, Healthplex is the only fitness center on the west coast of Florida with the digital monitoring system, and it beats the old-fashioned clipboard method used at Pascoe’s former gym by far. “It knows your weights, how many reps, and adjusts according to your cardio: If you’re going too fast, it slows you down,” Hill says. If you get off a machine too soon, the digital trainer tells you to get back on. And if you don’t, the virtual monitor alerts one of the human trainers—Big Brother really does watch you.

For a $198 initiation fee that includes two evaluation sessions and blood work, then monthly payments of $62.50, Pascoe is getting a state-of-the-art facility with top-notch medical supervision. The decision to switch was a no-brainer.

Sometimes it’s a question of deciding which luxury you just can’t live without. Natasha Adams, a 30-something marketing and store planning executive who grew up in Brazil and Key West, recently moved to Sarasota to recapture the luxe beach lifestyle. But re-establishing her New York firm, Bulldog Marketing, here requires a lot more driving than the Big Apple did, and she’s cutting back on gasoline with equal doses of creativity and efficiency.

“I have been walking a lot more, riding my bike and trying to make all of my meetings that require driving on the same day,” Adams explains. And she’s fine with that—because it allows her to splurge on the pleasure that drew her here in the first place. “The one luxury I won’t forego is to drive to Lido or Siesta Key beach for a nice stroll under the sunset,” she says. “It’s a must at least three times a week.” Ah, sweet luxury!

Local foodies are also sweetening their daily lives despite the souring economy. Sue Engelhart, president of a Sarasota-based publicity firm, says she’s dining in a lot more but splurging on little luxuries. Engelhart says she’s learned to produce restaurant-quality meals with finishing sauces available at local gourmet markets. 

“Even if you’re not a whiz in the kitchen, finishing sauces can make you seem like a pro,” Engelhart confides. When she bakes or grills meat, chicken or fish, she bastes it with the sauce, and finishes it with a drizzle at the end. “One of my favorite sauces is mango chili; the sweet/mild fire is delicious with fish or chicken,” Engelhart says. “I also love the versatility of chipotle peanut sauce for an Asian flair, and it’s delicious poured on noodles or even used as a salad dressing. How easy can you get?” 

Not to skimp, Engelhart adds red, green or even black specialty rice for extravagance and color. “It makes a stunner of a meal—though $9 a bottle for a finishing or pasta sauce, or $4 rice might not seem cheap,” she says. “When you compare the cost to a gourmet meal at a fine restaurant, you’ll want to splurge on a very special bottle of wine.”

You don’t get to live in paradise without being clever about money, and many Sarasotans who refuse to cook (anecdotal reports indicate they are legion) are trimming the fat from restaurant budgets while accruing unforeseen perks and health benefits.

Joining the Gulf Coast Connoisseur Club (operated by the restaurants owned by the Klauber, Moulton and Mancini families) saves 10 percent on every dinner, says Michael Klauber. “We have 5,000 people signed up, and purchases accruing points now represent 30 percent of our restaurant sales.” Similar demand prompted chef Paul Mattison to open the new Mattison’s Culinary Club, which also gives back one point for every dollar spent, with a $25 credit after $250 in purchases at Mattison’s four restaurants.

One local doyenne who prefers to remain anyonmous is eating the most lavish meal of the day at lunch instead of after 6 p.m. (when prices can be as much as 50 percent higher). With her cost savings she gets the benefit of Ayurvedic weight control, detailed by Deepak Chopra in his book, Perfect Weight. Chopra’s premise is that you’ll feel more alert, energetic and comfortable all day if you eat the heaviest meal at noon, and you’ll also speed up your metabolism to keep the weight off.

Michael’s On East offers a two-course prix fixe lunch for $15 year-long, including entrĂ©e and dessert, and a new theme or regional cuisine each month. The restaurant’s dinner prix fixe is a value at $32.95, but an even bigger bargain from June to October, when Klauber says the price drops to $25. And Michael’s servers are cool about looking aside if you casually flip some of your Lobster Pot special across to your dinner partner—with two 1and quarter-pound lobsters, mussels, clams, corn and new potatoes, it’s the best bargain in town and $34.95 all summer.

Chef Judi Gallagher, always ahead of the curve with Sarasota’s food trends, says the non-cooking set has taken to entertaining at restaurants because it’s now so cost-effective. “Fleming’s has a three-course prix fixe prime rib dinner that’s served year-round for $34, and Roy’s $35 prix fixe changes seasonally,” Gallagher says. “People are telling restaurants to present only the prix fixe menu to their guests, and they’re even pre-ordering the wines to be served so they can control costs and know what to expect when the bill arrives.”

While this type of due diligence reaps big rewards, some stumble upon serendipitous savings. That was the case for Joan Sheridan, busy with unpacking and settling into new digs at tony Laurel Oak Country Club. “I needed a quick wash and blow-dry, but hadn’t had the time to find a new hairdresser,” Sheridan recalls. She did take time off to check out the Curves [exercise center] on Bee Ridge, and noticed a beauty school next door.

Sheridan figured no harm could be done with a simple shampoo, and popped in. “I couldn’t believe the quality of work and the professionalism,” she says. “The woman in the chair next to me got highlights that looked as good as mine—and I had been paying $150 in New York salons without having a top instructor oversee every step of the process.”   

Sheridan went back to the school and got highlights, a cut and blow-dry for a grand total of 40 bucks. “Suddenly my friends were complimenting my hair color—asking where I had the highlights done,” she says. She and a growing cache of patrons have followed the Meridian Career Institute from its Bee Ridge salon to a spiffy new location in Lakewood Ranch. 

Some women aren’t disclosing the source of their newfound savings, especially the patrons of MetroMix Wear in the Shoppes at UniversityCenter. Owner Rosie Garcia says the real estate debacle triggered a dramatic change in her customers’ buying patterns about eight months ago, when they began confiding that they could no longer afford the designer brands they had been buying.

“Our customers are typical Lakewood Ranch homeowners: young mothers in their 30s and 40s. Each household has at least three kids, and many of them bought three or four homes in Lakewood Ranch to flip,” Garcia explains. “Their husbands are worried, asking them to pull in the reins, but they still want to look good,” says the 34-year-old mom of three, also a Lakewood Ranch resident. 

Garcia replaced high-priced brands like BCBG and Eli Tahari with look alikes at a fraction of the cost. “It took a lot of trial and error to figure out what would work in this economy. Instead of $300 BCBG dresses, we now have lines for $40 to $60,” Garcia says. “And our customers are paying $52 for a Tahari-look blouse when a year ago they thought nothing of spending $250 for the original.” What haven’t been cut are amenities like personal shopping advice and last-minute deliveries—even as far away as Longboat Key.

“If you can get past the ego trip of name brands, cutting back doesn’t have to hamper your style,” Garcia declares, and apparently many of Sarasota’s million-dollar homeowners agree. When the economy tanked, one of the first status symbols to go were hefty golf club memberships.

Though she won’t name names, Linda Talbot, owner of Big Summer Golf Card, says much of her new customer list reads like a chapter in the book, The Millionaire Next Door. “We have 15,000 dedicated golfers now, and our participating courses went from 47 to 100 in the last year,” Talbot says. After purchasing a $63 card, golfers pay as they play with as much as 50 percent off greens and carts fees at any of those courses, including coveted Bent Tree, University Park and the new Sarasota National, a Troon Golf facility. 

But that’s not all: Many of the clubs extend Big Summer Card privileges through November or December. At University Park, for instance, you can pay from $32 to $50 (depending on the month) for nearly eight months a year, compared to a full regular membership that entails a $5,000 initiation fee, $6,000 in annual dues and a minimum $700 food and beverage commitment). Off the record, some millionaires admit to buying winter memberships at public or semi-private clubs; others said they’ve stopped playing from January to April to cut costs.

But because of the company’s buying power, Summer Card holders say they’re treated so well they feel they’ve maintained their status while penny-pinching. That’s also the goal of non-golfers Bud and Lissa Wyman, who refuse to give up their annual trek to London even though every dollar spent across the pond yields half what it would buy at home.

“Instead of staying in a pricey hotel, we rented a beautiful manor home in the Mews last year, and we’ve already booked this summer’s apartment in Kensington,” says Bud Wyman, who found the rental agent, In the English Manner, online (www.english-manner.com). The pair saves on notoriously expensive British breakfasts by eating at their flat, and splurges on lunch at London’s finest restaurants. “Lunch costs $120, about the same as dinner in a top restaurant at home,” Wyman reports. “We bring a light supper home from Harrods’s takeout or the local market, and we have never enjoyed London more.”

Luxury-for-Less Checklist

Dollar-wise Destinations – Go where the dollar buys more, like Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia, Budapest, and Croatia (until it switches from local currency to the Euro next year).

Cruise for Bargains – Crystal Cruise Line is offering free stateroom upgrades for the first time ever. But the amenity-packed Celebrity line is a fraction of the cost, and travel agents have dubbed it Crystal-Lite.

Learn to Share – Singles are sharing the cost and reaping the values on warehouse club sizes for groceries and cleaning materials at Sam’s. Readers are pooling vacation homes to “timeshare” with friends.

Be “So Last Year” – Ask for last year’s models when buying cars, appliances, even yachts. You’ll save substantially because dealers want to move discontinued (but top- of-the-line) luxury items off the floor.

The Art of Thrift: Consider joining your favorite local arts organization. For a modest fee, you’ll become eligible for benefits, discounts and special members-only events and privileges.

Remodel Now; Move Later – Now’s the time to add on a master closet, redo a kitchen, bath and more. You’ll pay less and get more for your home when the real estate market rebounds.

Bag the Brands – Cheap chic is in, and designer initials are out. Store brands are usually made by your favorite companies, so you’ll save on anything from dishwashing liquid to eyeliner, handbags to shoes.

The founding editor of Shelter Magazine, Carol Tisch is style editor for Sarasota Magazine. Read her blog, Retail Therapy, at sarasotamagazine.com

Back to School – Check out local beauty institutes and massage schools. Florida College of Natural Health in Bradenton offers facials and Swedish massage at prices lower than two-for-one at local salons.