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money is the root of all that kills

April 7, 2010

After reading this post, and then being directed to this one, I’m once again ruminating on my favorite topic, class. Particularly, why and how we judge others based on their spending habits. When we use phrases like “keeping up with the Joneses,” we tend to say such things disparagingly (or at least I do),* implying that such unnecessary competitiveness in lifestyle is merely a facet of our crass consumer culture. We sneer at the poor bourgeois** fools who are constantly striving for bigger houses, shinier cars, the newest TV, all in order to put one over on their suburban neighbors and completely beggaring themselves with debt in the process. And, you know, I’m sure living examples of such caricatures exist. But I think that when we take the cheap shot, we miss the bigger meaning—and the bigger problems—behind intra-class competition.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up poor. We didn’t live in poverty, and we were fortunate enough to have a familial support network to help us through the rough patches, but let’s face it: we were poor. We struggled a fair amount. My mom was a master of stretching a dollar as far as it could possibly go. And while I grew up being slightly ashamed of our circumstances, cognizant of our differing status, and occasionally resentful of the limitations our economic situation placed on my life, I also realize that I had a pretty good childhood. And that, at the time, I didn’t realize just how different I was.

Fast-forward to college. I was more than a little shocked to realize how much money some of my fellow students came from (like the guy whose mom works for LucasFilms). And I’ll admit that I was kind of snotty about it at times: I was vehemently opposed to borrowing money, even a dollar for a soda; I refused to let people cover me; I thought I was so much better with money, so much more independent, because I was financially independent from my family and because I understood how to live frugally. I got a credit card, and I charged a couple things, but I paid it off religiously.

That lasted about two years. Maybe less. Here’s the thing that nobody tells you, that few people really examine in mainstream discussions of poverty: being poor is fucking exhausting. I honestly don’t know how my mom did it for so many years. It’s hard enough when that’s all you know, when your situation matches that of everyone around you. But it becomes almost intolerable if everyone around you is not similarly struggling. When you’ve turned down your friends for the millionth time because you can’t afford to go out, or to go on vacation, or what have you, it makes you resentful. Why don’t you ever get to have fun? Why do you have to agonize over every single purchase? Why are you the one eating peanut butter sandwiches most nights? Why don’t you ever get to have the things you want?

And finally it just gets to be too much. There’s that lovely credit card, just sitting there. One little purchase, what could it hurt? And then another, and another, and another. Until it snowballs completely out of control and suddenly your debt is like a child you’re raising, a lifetime financial commitment that rules your life.

And so when your cohort is graduating from college and getting a job and establishing a life, maybe with help from the parents, you are still struggling along. And that makes everything worse. Perhaps I’m overreaching here, basing too much on my own experience, but for those of who are “passing” into the middle class, it’s not the desire to constantly outdo our neighbors or show off our wealth as an enormous status symbol that sinks so many of us, but merely the desire to keep up with the people around us. It’s the subtle peer pressure that is the most oppressive. As we age, it’s expected that we become “real adults,” that we have cars and go out for birthday dinners at respectable restaurants and go on vacations. Being poor, for most of our middle class peers, was buying IKEA furniture in college.*** It is not a lifestyle that one expects to last beyond the mid-20s.

We tell ourselves it shouldn’t matter. Who cares that your car is a twenty-year-old piece of shit? It runs, and you own it outright. That should be good enough. But it’s still so damn hard to look around you, to see so many people who do not share your struggle. It’s hard to gracefully bow out of your friend’s birthday celebration because you can’t afford the restaurant. Your friends, of course, are perfectly nice about this, but that doesn’t make you feel any better. You’re still the one who can’t get it together, who is still massively broke, who has fucked up credit. You’re the one people buy drinks for at the bar because they feel bad you’re carefully maximizing that $20 you budgeted for the evening. You have officially become a charity case.

Look, I’m not trying to argue against personal responsibility. Speaking for myself and my own incredibly embarrassing credit card balance, I know I’m solely to blame. I wouldn’t have half the problems I have now, wouldn’t be half this miserable, if I’d been smarter about money ten years ago, or even five years ago. Hell, even last year. And now that I’m really, truly trying to face it, it’s so much harder in so many ways. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that the vicious consumer cycle isn’t always about ostentatious displays of wealth beyond means, but for many is about simply trying to belong to a fairly modest world.


* The royal we, that is. Please don’t think I’m slamming you, my fictitious reader, or arbitrarily attributing actions and thoughts to you that you might not actually engage in.

** I cannot spell this word. Like, ever. The French language makes no damn sense to me.

*** Aside from the super cheap bookshelves, I still find IKEA expensive. That’s how low my bar for acceptable spending is set, you guys.

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