The Thing About Things
We choose to live within our means.
We choose to live in a modest home.
We choose to be a one income family.
We choose to have only one car payment at a time.
We choose to put 10% of our earnings into savings without fail, each pay period.
To expand upon that...
We don't use credit cards, so if we do not have cash on hand, then we simply do without. For big purchases, we save up or wait for bonuses, tax returns, etc. We do have one for emergencies, but we absolutely, positively do not use it for intangibles such as dinner out or a mani/pedi. We learned a hard lesson early on in our marriage about abusing credit, and we will not go down that road again.
Our home is small and shabby. It was 15 years old when we bought it and already in desperate need of some TLC. The improvements have been slow going and over the years, some things have deteriorated even further. But it keeps us warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. It keeps the rain off our heads. It has a big fenced in yard in which my boys frolicked safely for many years. Most importantly, the mortgage is quite manageable. We are not house poor as so many of our friends and neighbors are. And now that husband is out of work, it will be difficult, but not impossible to pay it.
Fourteen years ago, quite to my surprise, I found that I simply could not fathom leaving my tiny pink baby in that cold, sterile, cheerless place. I chose to stay at home with my boys. While I have sometimes questioned whether it was the best choice for me, I have never doubted that it was the best choice for them.
Husband and I trade off with vehicles. I got a new van 6 years ago, while husband's poor Jeep plugged along year after year. When my van was paid off recently, he finally bought himself a new car. He had been driving the Jeep for 11 years, and it had over 200,000 miles on it. Now, I will wait until his car is paid off before I replace my big blue cliché with something a little less...maternal.
Both of us have seen what happens when you don't plan for future. So although it's tough to see that money subtracted from our already meager bottom line each month, we know that it's a necessity. Who knows if there will even be social security in 30 years? I don't want to be reduced to eating tinned beef and stale crackers from the dollar store.
All of that means, we don't have some of the stuff other people have. We can't do some of the stuff other people do. We can't go places some other people go. We do not appear affluent, though we live in an affluent area.
Still, my children have far more than I ever did growing up, which makes me both enormously happy and somewhat fearful. I sometimes I worry that they have too much.
It's a fine line to walk in this material world.
I remember the humiliation and shame of not having the right clothes, the right house, the right car. I can still hear the taunts and jeers; I can still see the contemptuous looks. I didn't invite other children to my home because I was ashamed of the sofa with the stuffing coming out of the arms, the crumbling hole in the kitchen ceiling, and the mismatched bedclothes in the room that I shared with my sister.
I didn't volunteer for things at school and church because I knew I would have nothing appropriate to wear. I didn't go out for sports or cheerleading or choir because I knew that the cost of uniforms, dues and equipment was just too dear.
And although my mother tried very, very hard to make sure we knew we were as good as anybody else...it took a lot of years for me to stop thinking of myself as less.
I don't want my kids to ever feel like they are less. I don't want them to ever feel shame for something over which they have absolutely no control.
I worry that they take the things they have for granted. They have televisions, cell phones, iPods, xBox, Wii, computers. They have some of the latest clothing brands, and nobody knows they were bought used on ebay or from the consignment store. They have never been picked up in a rusted out rattletrap of a car that backfires and leaves clouds of black smoke in its wake. They have never had to miss a fieldtrip or a cultural experience because we couldn't afford the fees.
I don't know if that's entirely good for them.
Now, I'm not saying that poverty builds character and that any kid who hasn't gone to bed hungry is destined to become a shallow, materialistic brat with huge entitlement issues.
But I think sometimes that people need to hunger. Not in the literal sense, but they need to need; they need to want. Because otherwise, they never learn to strive for anything. They never learn to be resourceful, they never learn to be driven and determined. They have no appetite.
So I am torn between protecting my children from the cruel reality of being and having less, and keeping them from becoming the kind of greedy, grasping, hedonists that are responsible for the economic collapse of this country.
I think about this a lot. Because I myself sometimes get depressed and discouraged by always being on a budget. I want new living room furniture and I want it now. I am sick to death of driving the big blue cliché. I want to get rid of this disgusting carpet and put down hardwood floors. And we could. We could have all that and more...if we changed our priorities.
Yesterday was Diminutive One's birthday, and he had a small party with sleepover guests. Despite our current situation, we were able to give him a pretty nice birthday and I was feeling good about that.
He was excited by his new cell phone. But about three seconds after he unwrapped it, one of the birthday guests said "I've had a cell phone since I was in third grade." He was excited by his new Wii game, which prompted another comment. "The graphics on this game suck. Too bad you don't have an xBox. I have all the game systems."
I hadn't been paying much attention to their chatter, but for the duration of the party, I was hyper aware of everything that was said. And the comments continued. Diminutive One was completely oblivious to the fact that this kid was dissing all his stuff. Sometimes the fact that things go right over his head is a blessing in disguise. But the more I listened, the more irritated I became.
Shortly before he left (he was not able to spend the night like the other guests, thank God) he made an unsolicited comment to my son. I think he was growing frustrated because his jabs had gone unnoticed or at least, unacknowledged by Diminutive One. He said, "Boy, I feel sorry for you. You don't even have a laptop." Diminutive One looked at him blankly and ignored the comment completely. He has a very nice desktop pc and was obviously baffled as to why anyone would feel sorry for him.
Why? Why did the child feel the need to make these comments? I've been to his home. It's a huge lavishly decorated McMansion in an upscale neighborhood. His Mom drives a high end SUV. He always has the latest and most coveted clothing and shoes. The disparity is obvious. They have more money, or more credit than us. So why the need to continually point out that he has better stuff? Why so much concern over and emphasis on material things?? Why the need to steal Diminutive One's moment and dampen his excitement over his gifts?
I was puzzled and thoroughly annoyed.
To my knowledge, my children have never behaved in such a way. Though they have a lot of things, they have had to wait for birthday and Christmases. We don't buy them things just because. Sometimes they have to use their own money for things and save a very long time. Pubescent One wanted an xBox very, very badly, but at $350 for the game console, and $50 per game, it just wasn't an expenditure we were willing to make. So he saved his money for a year to buy his own. They know that things don't come easily and money doesn't grow on trees. They have pride in the things that they do have, and, for the most part, take good care of them.
Pubescent One got an iTouch for Christmas only to have it stolen from his gym locker a month later. He never asked us to replace it. And several months later when Husband got an iPhone and gave Pubescent One his old iPod, he was genuinely grateful.
Diminutive One was incredibly pleased with his phone. He knows what the situation is, and never expected to get such an extravagant gift. So the surprise and delight that he displayed upon opening them was genuine.
And that makes me think that I must be striking the right balance or at the very least, helping them understand that there are more important things than things.
But if I *ever* hear one of my children talking the way that child did...I will take every single thing they have and make them earn their possessions back one by one with very hard, very grueling, and very stinky labor.
You can count on that.