Thursday, September 6, 2012

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

More dhal last night for dinner.  Still trying to get it quite like Costco's, adding more cumin helped.  Yummy in any case.  I also enjoyed making biscotti for a church event.

Rich Kids of Instagram
Tomorrow our family commemorates a special anniversary. We've lived in our own house for 5 years, we've had 5 years of a real, honest-to-goodness salaried job with benefits (through the tough recession, no less!) and I need to admit it: I'm not poor anymore, and I shouldn't pretend quite so hard that I am.*

I'm thoughtful today about the wealth divide. Somehow S. and I have always felt poor, even compared to the other struggling students we knew, and I've hung onto that mentality of scarcity. Things that other people seem to take for granted around us feel like huge splurges for us: American Girl dolls, ski trips and cruises, digital cameras, Disneyland/World, furniture and electronics. Cute haircuts, even, and piano or ballet lessons. There are a few things we gradually have taken the leap on – partly prompted by being sued a couple years ago, and figuring we might as well buy some of the things on our wish list before money possibly was taken from us – but for the most part, we remain resistant to consumerism and even such norms as eating out or ordering pizza.

We were eligible for WIC through the births of all four children, but even since better fortune has come our way, I'll confess that I've gone on our county website and gleefully looked up the buying price of everyone's houses in my peer group. I've noticed when my kids sometimes feel different, worse, because of their food or their clothes or their lack of movie and television exposure, in a way that didn't happen when we were living off nothing in student housing. For example, Cheez-Its are treats for us, but they've been disdainfully turned down by our best little neighbor friend because they're “just” crackers with cheese. I suppose if your cheese crackers usually come in shapes other than square, maybe these are too boring, but we haven't bought goldfish crackers in a very long time. But really, are these actually divides, or am I just looking too hard and taking it too personally?

Part of that answer came today, when a wonderful friend I've always figured must be rolling in it divulged that in fact their family makes much less than we do. Of course, they also had beginning savings for a good down payment and no student loans, so their situation on a month-to-month basis is very different in that respect. But it was very helpful and eye-opening to learn that, and I'm left to ponder why, exactly, I have felt like our lives (financially) have not measured up.

I've mentioned before that we've aimed to keep our expectations low in terms of material goods, and truthfully we've set pretty high amounts for our donations to church and charities, even through our poorest years. We've felt like that would be a good way to keep ourselves away from danger, so to speak, and to stay aware of the needs of others. And maybe that's why I still feel oddly poor, because we've done a decent job of staying connected to other socioeconomic circles of living, if only occasionally. (Truthfully, that's one real reason I shop at Walmart and Goodwill.)

Plus, my husband has been rather desperate to do something else with his career, and pretty much anything he's even marginally interested in would be a major pay cut, so it's been a year and a half at least that we've been gearing up mentally to have to scrimp and scrounge and put off purchases, though he hasn't yet succeeded in switching jobs. Add in the recession and the lawsuit (which was resolved just recently, but came awfully close to stripping us of everything we've put aside these last few years), and we haven't had a huge mindset of being ahead. S. has also pointed out that it's hard to feel rich until the underwater mortgage and the ghastly pile of student debt are gone, too. Still, we've been just plain grateful to have a roof over our head, clothes to wear, food to eat, health insurance, and good schools and transportation. Plus healthy kids, a fabulous marriage – heck, who needs to be going on ski trips, that sounds like a fantastic life to me!

A long time ago, when we just had two little ones, I was with some friends and our kids eating sandwiches at a picnic table when someone asked the question, what makes someone rich? As in, what items are your personal clue or threshold that means someone has plenty of discretionary money? Everyone laughed at mine, which were curtains and Ziploc baggies. But that was very real to me; I almost never used anything but fold-top baggies or even old bread bags. So seeing a mom sit down with a whole bunch of food items all in their own zipper of plastic made me think they must be rich.

Obviously I've come a long way -- I own both curtains and Ziplocs, in moderate quantities -- so it is interesting that today I found out we're likely much wealthier than this great friend of ours. And since it coincides with our being exactly five years in a job and house, in a "real" American life of mowing our lawn and being actual grown-ups, I think it is time -- time for me to let go of my scarcity attitude and acknowledge that we can afford things, and not to act put-upon that other folks can afford other things of their choosing.

I'm always the complainer about price at family reunions and ladies' birthday dinners out, and I need to stop, absolutely. That doesn't mean I should suddenly spend whatever, wherever, because it has been crucial to our success as a family that I have been this frugal. I don't think raising our material expectations any higher would actually increase our happiness. Suddenly having television channels and a decent dining room table wouldn't change our daily life for the better.

Deep down, really, I don't want people to have expectations of me that would require me to change some of my core values, just to meet the conventional image of someone that is upper-middle-class. One thing about me, whatever my income level, is that I hate things that are just to look good, that take effort simply to satisfy some outward, surface status quo. (You may have figured that out about me by now!) So I haven't been sure how to reconcile that with a new self that has some opportunities and resources that I didn't have before, and that wants to fit in with this peer group that has some higher standards. I need to give myself more permission to offer what I do have to give, to not worry about how it appears and if others will look down on it. I've been trying that for a while, actually, and hoping to set an example for my kids as well, but it's hard.

It's important for me to figure out how to balance our family's
personal needs and situation with the community and culture we live in. I especially need to practice a little more compromise -- not with values necessarily, but with the actual, vital individuals who live around me and have their own different sets of choices, talents, and opportunities – financial and otherwise.

I need to acknowledge that in many ways, our choices define our lifestyle much more than our money. That when my friend responds that it was obviously my choice not to give ballet lessons to my daughters, that maybe she's right; it was more than just poverty that stopped me, which has always been my excuse.

In any case I would like to apologize to my wonderful, awesome, dedicated, valiant sisters who have ever felt looked down on because they went skiing, or had a pedicure, or owned Ziploc bags. I'll bring you a hand-sewn holiday pillowcase full of homemade granola to make up for it...

*One of our other friends, a smart-aleck, recently used that word to describe S. and I. He said that we were “obviously wealthy but pretended not to be”. I'll take that as a compliment, I guess!

And just for fun perspective: Money on xkcd

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