Monday, 28 February 2011
When I was younger, I thought the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" was over-exaggerated. In my mind, there really wasn't any such thing as social pressure to gain more material possessions, to buy bigger and better, not so long as I made sure that the friends who were close and important to me didn't care what I had or didn't have.
All the way through college, in fact, due to the equalizing effect of uniform dorm rooms and campus-issued apartments, my friends and I were, for the most part, happy and content with the space we had. We rejoiced in being as creative as possible in that limited space. Nothing was supposed to be shiny and new, and we'd roll our eyes at the kids who came with everything matching, expensive, and paid for by the parentals.
In fact, the more random, secondhand, and ecclectic our possessions, the cooler and more resourceful we felt. We'd loft our dorm-issued bed and create a fort/hangout spot underneath it. Our decor would be made up entirely of found, made, or cheaply purchased items. A 6 ft tall cardboard cutout of "link" from a used video game store. An inherited deer head from somebody's dead uncle hanging upside down from a hook in the ceiling. Posters that came free with cds. Christmas lights found in somebody's parents' basement. An unwanted sculpture or painting from an artist friend. Pictures taped to the wall.
If somebody owned a particularly great possession, like a good gaming system or a large screen tv, nobody else felt particularly jealous. In fact, we were happy the other person had bought that thing instead of us. They had to pay for it, and we got to use it! We'd just crowd into that person's dorm room or apartment and use it at leisure, sometimes even when they were at class and not even there.
College had more of a community atmosphere wherein many possessions could be shared, so long as people were friends and knew the owner didn't care. It almost became a burden to own something cool. As the owner, you had to care and maintain the thing while everyone else just got to use it free of charge. So why buy a gaming system of our own when we could convince someone else to spend their money on it and then walk ten steps out of our way on a daily basis to use it?
This was particularly the case in roommate situations. If the roommate wanted to furnish the kitchen with their plates and utensils and small appliances then great! Fewer things I had to buy myself
After college, however, I began to see "the Joneses" emerge for the very first time. And to my surprise, they weren't the lofty self-entitled easy-to-resist couple that I had always pictured. Some of them turned out to be my very own friends. Some of the very same people who once considered an empty beer can collection "decorative" graduated college and got good jobs. And with good jobs came a good salary and the ability to purchase things.
And suddenly we find that instead of heading over to visit friends who inevitably dwell in an identical dorm room to our own, we're visiting people our age who live in nice houses with large yards in brand new subdivisions. We're carpooling in their shiny new cars. And we're finding ourselves continually questioning the meaning of the word "enough."
Post-college, it was at first "enough" to live in any kind of apartment at all. When my husband and I got married, I was still in college, going to school full time, and working something like four odd part-time jobs. My husband worked two jobs, and all day long we rarely saw each other. We'd wake up early and come home exhausted around 10 p.m.
At the time we lived in a one bedroom apartment with a tiny living room and minuscule kitchen and bathroom that were basically one space outside the bedroom. Three windows were sufficient to give light to the entire apartment., and below each one, a steam radiator kept the place cozy and warm. Winter was brutal and long that year and, emerging from the cold, we'd climb four flights of old, wooden stairs (no elevator) in a building built in the early 1900s (we still had a milk delivery door) and emerged into our tiny hole in the wall that just felt like home.
Our sofa was an old green futon with a mattress older than my husband. In our bedroom, our only furniture was a mattress on the floor and the old dresser I had used as a child. Our kitchen table was a card table and our coffee table an overturned egg crate with a random piece of fabric draped over it.
Despite these apparent shortcomings, we loved our place. We had people over all the time and nobody ever complained about climbing all those stairs or crowding around the card table to play games. Our tv was impossibly small by today's standards yet friends still came over to have 4-player battles. Our space and our things were more than "enough."
That was three years ago. In that time we have watched other friends get married or go down wealthy career paths, and many of them (including us) have children. Due to a growing disparity in income, we have all settled into very different living situations. Some of us still rent. Others own small condos in the city or "fixer upper" type starter homes. Still others have gone all out and purchased really nice brand new houses.
And I notice the pressure now. None of it meant to be mean, belittling, or vindictive, nobody thinking they're the Joneses, each of us unknowingly acting as the "Joneses" to someone else who has less than we do. It's subtle, subconscious, yet incredibly infectious and difficult to fight.
Yesterday we went to a super bowl party at the newly purchased home of a friend of ours. He's 26 and engaged to be married in July. Both he and his fiance have established careers and due to some sacrifices back in college, where my friend chose to live at home and work to pay his way through school instead of taking the debt-increasing dorm route, he has no student loans, already owns a condo, has a retirement fund and savings, and is in a pretty good financial situation.
All of this amounts to the fact that he just purchased a 3 bedroom home that is only four years old. It has a huge fenced in back yard, a master bath, and unfinished clean basement with the potential to build more rooms, a workshop, and a bar area. My husband and I came back from their place and couldn't help admitting to feelings of jealousy. The comparison game started.
They have 3 bedrooms and no kids! We're about to be a family of 4 and living in a 2 bedroom with a TINY shared bathroom. Their home is new, tight, clean. Ours leaks air and wind through the single-paned (probably lead paint contaminated) windows. Their home is freshly painted with one coat of paint in modern colors. Ours is apartment beige and brown and has collected so many layers of paint since the 40s that certain places are peeling and chipping and pieces of paint flake off around the door and window jambs.
Their basement is large, clean and full of potential. Ours is a narrow strip large enough to store a washer and dryer in and smells musty and damp, with more peeling paint and dark scary dusty cob webbed places that I won't even clean because they're so disgusting. Their kitchen is open and they can view the entire house while cooking. Ours is tiny and cramped and I can never see my daughter playing in the living room while I'm in there.
The more we compared our home to theirs, the more ours suddenly felt small, inadequate, dirty, depressing. Their house, its size, shape, look, suddenly became the standard, and ours, well, it just wasn't enough.
It wasn't until my husband mentioned this morning that he'd like to get a new tv that I snapped out of it. We have a small, non-flat-screen digital tv that, while not big, is new and works really well. It doesn't take over our living room, which I like, and we don't really watch it enough to justify owning a bigger one.
Yet, yesterday we naturally watched the game on a larger flat screen, and some mutual friends were teasing the owner of the screen, saying that now that he has a bigger place, he's going to need an even bigger screen. After all, there was plenty of wall space for it to cover.
To make him feel better, I joked about the smaller size of our screen and another friend joked back about how a big screen is a "man thing" and I wouldn't understand. "Whatever," I replied. "You're peer pressure isn't going to force US to buy a new tv." We were just joking around and having fun.
When I realized my husband was serious when he said he wanted a new tv, I knew what was going through his mind. He was comparing. He was realizing our tv is nowhere near as large as our friend's, and yet our friend was being teased for owning a small tv. And the "have nots" were kicking in.
While two days ago our tv was a perfectly adequate size (we had friends over to watch a movie, in fact), now it is suddenly "not enough." And here my husband is telling me I need to get him a new tv, at least for Christmas.
And then I remembered. I DON'T WANT TO BE "THOSE PEOPLE!" I don't want to be constantly striving to just keep up with the Joneses, spending my hard earned money on the newest and latest and greatest electronics and constantly upgrading my house size. I want to be INTERESTING, spending my money on hobbies and interests and traveling and the stuff stories are made of. No way do I want to find myself in that place in life where all I can do is invite people over and give them a tour of the house that includes subtle bragging about whatever latest thingamabob we purchased or remodeling we did. How boring and belittling!
I forced myself to go around this morning and just touch the things I own and appreciate them for what they are. I tried to get in touch with reality, to compare myself not to those who have more, but to those who have less. The starving, living in straw huts. The pioneers, living in one room log cabins. I remade my bed from scratch, snapping the crisp sheets in the air as I did so and thought about a woman a hundred plus years ago tucking her hand-sewn quilts in around a bed of straw in a much smaller dwelling than my own.
I decluttered my bedroom and placed items in a box to take to Goodwill, reflecting on the excess of American consumerism and the burden of owning, storing, maintaining, and disposing of extra things. I entered my tiny little bathroom with its exposed 1940's pipe underneath the original sink and vanity, it's tiny black and white square tiles, and i noted that it is incredibly easy to clean.
I closed my eyes and thanked my God for the things I own, and I reflected and refocused on my goal to live small and debt-free. And then I went downstairs and reminded my husband of these things. I think that later I'll tell him we can buy a new tv when we're debt free, if he still wants it then.
Until then, we have enough. We know that. We just need to remember it every once in awhile.
How do you remind yourself that you have enough? How do you convey that to your family?