Sunday, January 25, 2009

Gross Domestic Bypass

I thought I spent a lot of money in my twenties. I went out to eat and drink every weekend; I traveled at will; I took taxicabs and bought new clothes, books, and CDs often. I wasn't like Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic--I was a public school teacher for crying out loud--but I had a relatively carefree, debt-free life, with Me as my only dependent.

My thirties are entirely different story and I know I am not alone. I didn't own a fork or a couch or a TV or a computer until I was 27 years old; they were shared items in my shared residences. Over a decade I have gone from carless and renting a room in a house to owning a vehicle and a house. So I've bought insurance and leather interiors and gas and sofas and appliances and yard stuff and rugs and granite countertops and concrete patios. And then the intangibles like inspections and exterminations and cleanings and removals.

The kids came along and we bought carseats and bouncy seats and booster seats and three different strollers and a crib and bunkbeds and tricycles and scooters and crayons and dollhouses. Not to mention bottles, babyfood, diapers, and clothes that don't fit six months later, over and over again. And then the intangibles like daycare and dance class and soccer registrations.

Oh, how I miss the simplicity! I used to buy soap for myself, my clothes, and the dishes. Now I find myself buying liquid detergent for the sink and automatic detergent for the dishwasher and unscented detergent for the laundry (and also Oxyclean and Tide To Go sticks) and soap refill for our soap dispensers and bar soap and body wash for the shower and tear-free soap for the kids. The truth of the matter is the Spending Menu before us is overwhelming and ever expanding.

People buy electronica like they buy groceries: with replacement in mind. I have a drawer dedicated to old cell phones, batteries, cameras, cords, speakers, and then components whose part of the whole I never determined. And I am not even known for my Tech Savvy. I'm only on my third cell phone. The first one was a hand-me-down.

We're overwhelmed by Stuff we find in stores, but we can also spend an inordinate amount of money on what is essentially air: Satellite Radio, DVR, Downloads, WiFi, Programs, Pay Per View, Applications, Memory, Service Contracts, Minutes, and Fees.

But when you're buying a house and having kids and choosing a minivan and making the weekly trip to Target, you're just in the backseat of The Spending Bandwagon, where you get that subconscious sense that Everyone Else Is Doing It. And, probably Everybody Has Credit Card Debt. So it's kind of okay to buy that $20 shirt at Target. It's cute and will update your wardrobe. Anyway, you deserve it after cooking all those healthy organic meals for the family.

In the meantime we were all mostly pretending that our bank accounts didn't Stress The Hell Out of Us and that we needed new bedding and kitchen accessories more than to fix the dry rot and pay down the debt.

Just like people don't enjoy being the teetotalers at the party, though, friends don't want to put the squeeze on the spendfest when it means saying, no we can't really go on that ski trip or out to dinner or sign our kid up for that activity...and thereby miss out. So we went along, continuing to shop at Crate and Barrel and then taking out a Home Equity Loan.

The truth is, it's a hell of a lot easier to cut back when The Whole Nation Is On A Diet. And right now with The Economy virtually bulimic, puking up bad mortgages and bankrupt stores, it behooves all of us to put our money where our mouths are. Which, if we've been commenting on our collective consumerism, is back in our wallets and bank accounts.

We know people who've lost retirement savings and stocks and even homes and jobs. And then there are those of us who better be satisfied with home and jobs because we're lucky to have them.

Whether or not we've had to come to painful terms with Living Beyond Our Means, I sense a growing sentiment that just because we personally may not be recovering from a heart attack does not mean we should not be cutting some saturated fats and cholesterol from our diets. I mean, isn't it totally rude to eat french fries in front of someone who just had gastric bypass?

So there's comfort in numbers out there as I know I am not the only one avoiding Costco and its inevitable $200 debit per trip. We're driving instead of flying and assessing where we can cut costs at every turn, while being thankful that we're not in bankruptcy court or foreclosure. I appreciate that our friends and neighbors are tending toward fiscal conservatism, too: let's enjoy, but do it cheaper, wiser, homemade, and share.

I have great respect for those who work in industries that our hurting and who are listening to us admit we're cutting back and not spending in support of their livelihoods. When my husband I checked into the Bed and Breakfast where we enjoyed a decadent getaway last night, it wasn't long before the clerk admitted he was being laid off next week. And we admitted we probably wouldn't be checking in if our trip hadn't been a gift.

When the economy turns around I expect it will look different. We might have fewer stores and fewer products; how we spend our money and how much we spend may have shifted.

For all the pain and heartache there are some silver linings. Families I know are home together more often. Or out in the free outdoors more often. We're cooking for ourselves instead of taking out. These habits could stick and we could wind up healthier and happier.

Meanwhile, I've got to return a pair of men's jeans to Target, which constitutes a net gain for the household. But if I am somehow seduced by some cute $20 shirt, I plan to declare it's one last donation to the American Economy.

1 comment:

Mama Deb said...

And this is why it's REALLY HARD being a grownup!