This was originally published in October 2008 but I’m bumping it up for today. There is an interesting discussion in the comments. It’s fascinating to look at this article and the linked article eleven years later. I’ve been doing some extensive reading and research in anticipation of going on a writing spree about retirement. I actually think the bottom half of the middle class is much worse off eleven years later.
I know that I run the risk of scaring some of you off if I write too often about the economic situation in the world. I promise that this isn’t becoming an economic blog for chicks.
Commonplace Unnecessary Luxuries
But I thought this section about the explosion of commonplace unnecessary luxuries from How Long Will the Coming Depression Last? fit so well with the things we think about around here when it comes to living more simply and quietly.
Just off the top of your head: what do we have little need for more of? How about furniture, mattresses, light fixtures and loans, just to name a few?
How about what we could easily do without? How about exotic foreign travel, shopping excursions to N.Y., L.A. or S.F., ice cream, frappacinos, “fine dining” of the sort where main courses for $35 are considered “reasonable,” hundreds of specialty wineries producing $40-$50 bottles of wine, artsy programs paid for by tax dollars, non-profits doing nice things with donations, gew-gaws for pets, spa treatments, lawsuits with unknown odds of success involving plaintiffs with no money, cosmetic surgery, “financial services,” having your nails done, costly haircuts (cut your kids’ hair yourself), house cleaning services, dog walkers, travel consultants, kitchen remodels, Mercedes vehicles, or indeed, any new vehicles, now that any decent vehicle lasts 10 years with minimal maintenance, 6-foot long BBQs, “entertainment centers,” more iPods, kids’ toys, or clothing of any sort or type or style, given that you can buy heaps of clothing for a few dollars at garage sales or thrift stores?
This is a tiny selection of literally thousands of goods and services we can easily do without, and indeed, did do without a mere generation ago, when now-commonplace luxuries like $100 per person dinners and hip surgeries for pets would have been reserved for flamboyant millionaires.
David and I have diligently tried to avoid getting sucked into the “extras.” I think our biggest failure is a fondness for coffee drinks and inexpensive dining out (as in we all eat at Qdoba for $12 or we carry out a pizza for $4.99). But we’ve resisted getting sucked into many things, not because we think they are evil but because as we observe others we see that so many people become either owned by them or become addicted to the next upgrade.
That isn’t to say that we haven’t done some nice things or purchased some special extras. But when we do those things, they are extras and special, not a way of life. I can look at that list above and say that almost all of it is a non-factor in my life (except for ice cream which Caroline has discovered and loves).
Middle Class Trading Up for Luxury
I read an interesting book a few years ago called Trading Up: The New American Luxury. It was about the middle class being willing to pay more for “premium” items from “premium” companies such as Callaway Golf, Panera Bread, Williams-Sonoma, and Victoria’s Secret.
I think the next book to come out will probably be more along the lines of Treading Water: The New American Frugality.
If everyone dropped those services from their lives, all of those service providers would be out of a job. I’m not sure how that helps anyone. I have met a lot of single moms over the years who work in pricy salons, working hard so they can put food on the table and buy their children school clothes. There’s a woman in our neighborhood who has a housecleaning business on the side so she can continue to put her son through college. As long as I can pay for the service, I’m not sure why I’d cut it out just for the sake of being frugal. I know that when I give my stylist a good tip, she is grateful. I know when I refer my neighbor to someone who needs a house cleaner, she is grateful. The list goes on. Those services might seem frivolous, but people who have chosen those career paths need to pay the bills, too.
Are you really suggesting that a hip surgery for a pet should be considered an “extra”? I’m really not trying to be smart so please forgive my tone. I think I’m just a little flabberghasted. Indulging in a pizza is considered a “failure”? Sallie, I think you’re being a little to hard on yourself. It’s one thing to live frugally, but you have to have fun and enjoy life.
Well, I am of course concerned and watchful. There’s nothing I can do about it anyway!
But I’m just leaving 3 years of little to no income. I’m all about not doing the extras;). I’m a testament to the fact that you can more than survive without a lot of things.
I’ve learned that a family can thrive and have a beautiful life without all the things that society pressures us to have.
God is more than able to take care of us even when times are hard.
Jen – Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it. Did you read the original post I linked to for the context of his comments? He was discussing his view of a significant increase in unemployment coming up because these things are extras. Read in the original context, I think they make more sense. Yes, I do think those things are all extras in that they certainly aren’t necessities. I’m not advocating people not using them and that’s why I pointed out that I don’t think they are evil.
But to answer your question directly and risk the wrath of all the pet lovers out there, yes, I think hip surgery for a dog is an “extra” that we as a society have come to see as a “necessity.” I’m not that old (41), but when I was in school in a comfortable suburban setting, I can’t imagine anyone would have spent thousands of dollars on their pet’s health. They would have been seen as a loon. I am completely serious. But now it is almost expected that pet owners will go to great lengths financially to do whatever their pet needs. I’m not going to make a judgment regarding where to draw the line in this. I’m just saying that the attitudes about this and whether it is a necessity or an extra have changed dramatically in the past twenty years.
Re: our failures… Failure might be a strong word, but I do think we probably indulge too often in them, especially the expensive coffees. But we have lots of fun. That’s why I said we do special things. David and I taken some lovely trips and vacations, we’ve stayed at beautiful inns and B&Bs, we’ve bought nice things for ourselves, etc. We aren’t into self-deprivation for the sake of self-deprivation. But we have chosen to not run after every newest thing. To a certain extent, a person is controlled by their worldly possessions and we have tried to avoid that as much as possible.
I hope that clears things up for you! 😀
I’ve continued to think about this, especially as the original author of the quote referred to how things have changed in just one generation. I realized that I was in high school and college a generation ago so I understand his perspective. Let me go through the list…
exotic foreign travel – Almost no one went abroad; I remember when the few classmates who did travel did so because it was so exceptional; I never even flew in a plane until I was a senior in high school!
shopping excursions to N.Y., L.A. or S.F. – A few people might go to Detroit and Chicago was a very. big. deal. done by only a few people. But flying on the weekend to go shopping? No way.
ice cream – Where I shop at Meijer, we have an entire side of one aisle devoted just to ice cream. I remember ice cream was a treat at birthdays and in the summer. At the store there was a small section that had a couple of brands and a few flavors.
frappacinos – Did not exist in the middle class America, as far as I know.
“fine dining” of the sort where main courses for $35 are considered “reasonable – If a family of 4 spent $35 to feed the whole family, it was probably to celebrate a birthday or other special event.
hundreds of specialty wineries producing $40-$50 bottles of wine – Can’t comment on this because I know almost nothing about wine.
artsy programs paid for by tax dollars and non-profits doing nice things with donations – Can’t really address this
gew-gaws for pets – Princess halloween costumes for dogs? Yes, I saw it yesterday at Meijer. I’m not going to say much else about pets and their accessories except I think my friends had nice colored collars for their dogs and that was special.
spa treatments – Spas did not exist for the middle class then.
lawsuits with unknown odds of success involving plaintiffs with no money – Frivolous lawsuits were just starting to develop then
cosmetic surgery – Only if you lived in Hollywood and even then it was seen as vain and excessive.
“financial services,” – This is what you got when you went to the bank and got your check cashed by the teller. No one had 401ks to manage or any of these other financial gimmicks around today.
having your nails done – I had a bottle of nail polish and did my nails. I was in a sorority in college in the late 80’s and no one got their nails done. Some of my sorority sisters had extensive nail polish collections and they used to do each others nails. But having your nails done? Maybe for prom or a special dance. Probably by the bride for her wedding. But as a regular necessity? No way.
costly haircuts (cut your kids’ hair yourself) – Costly meant you went to a salon and not the cheap place. Expensive salons were for the rich.
house cleaning services – I remember almost no one had their house cleaned by someone else.
dog walkers – This is what kids did when they got home from school. They walked the dog.
travel consultants – Only when people went on a honeymoon.
kitchen remodels – Maybe once in a woman’s life she would remodel her kitchen in the house she lived in for most of her life. And it didn’t cost the equivalent of an entire year’s salary.
Mercedes vehicles, or indeed, any new vehicles, now that any decent vehicle lasts 10 years with minimal maintenance – Generally agree.
6-foot long BBQs – We had one of those Webber grills with briquettes. I don’t think anyone had gas grills at that point. And certainly not thousand dollar stainless steel grilling centers.
“entertainment centers” – I think this was where we kept our board games and puzzles.
more iPods – The Walkman arrived but very few people had them. And they only played cassettes.
kids’ toys, or clothing of any sort or type or style, given that you can buy heaps of clothing for a few dollars at garage sales or thrift stores? – I knew very few people who got their clothes this way. Most people did get new clothes. That was probably part of the suburban experience.
So why did I write all this? Because I’m trying to make the point that I am only 41 and I can see how almost none of these things were necessities just a mere generation ago. I’m not saying people are wrong to enjoy them. Just that our society’s view of what is a necessity has changed dramatically at the same time our savings rate has plummeted and our indebtedness has skyrocketed.
Whew. Gotta go do something else!
Well, I think this is exactly the danger of what we are heading into. People are already slowing their spending on those things that aren’t necessary, that our economy has been relying on for years. And yes, there are a lot of things for sure that aren’t necessary.
There are so many things that have just popped up in this generation that are now considered “necessities.” Vacations, new furniture, new cars, iPods, digital cameras, computers, new clothes, expectations for gifts, eating out, ordering out, coffee drinks. The good news is, that all of this stuff can be easily cut from a budget should times get tight, so I’m not sure that people should necessarily worry about these expenditures, unless it is getting in the way of their savings. Groceries are another area. Organics? Hello? Super expensive in some cases, easily switched back to conventionally-grown foods.
But there are people who can’t buy groceries and gas right now, those are the people who are really going to hurt, especially if everyone else starts to tighten their spending too.
And of course, no matter how a family is doing right now, I know around me, most of us are doing well still, as long as we have our job(s). Doesn’t matter how rich you look, but for most, if that job is gone, say bye-bye to your current standard of living.
My experience is similar to Sallie’s, and I’m about a generation in front of her. So, needles to say, some of these ‘treats’ weren’t even around…..special coffees, sony products, ipods, computers, all were not invented yet.
Now, I have to confess, I get my nails done once a month. I go to a very good hair salon/stylist (who is a good friend, and a sister in Christ who is the sole provider for her family, and owns the salon!). The rest of the stuff listed are not in our lives on an ongoing basis. We always buy used cars, and drive them for a minimum of 150k – 200k miles.
We rarely eat out. If we do, it’s a treat – and a good restaurant, I dislike (bordering on hate) fast food, or quick food. There’s so many preservatives in that food, and artificial this and that, so how do you know what you’re eating? We prefer to go out to a good, local, restaurant and get fresh food. We ask our servers whether something is made locally, or when the seafood came in. In some cases, we’ve been introduced to the owners, and now know exactly how they bring in their seafood or beef/chicken, etc. So, that money spent is for good food, and a treat only once in a while, so it’s special to us.
As to the pet issue. I doubt seriously that my husband and I would pay over a few hundred dollars for our dog’s healthcare needs should he develop a serious illness. If he was in so much pain that a hip replacement was needed, we wouldn’t want to put him through a surgery and then have him go through physical therapy and such to readjust. No way. The poor boy wouldn’t know what to do. We went through a cancer issue with our cat back in 2001 and we chose to let her pass in her sleep rather then go through treatments like chemo, etc.
Part of all this for us is whether you’re trying to be a good steward of what God has entrusted to you and your family. Not everyone has the same convictions. We all have to make choices that we personally feel will be acceptable in God’s sight. I already have enough to account for before Him from my past mistakes, I try to be aware each day of where we put His money.
Speaking of money – how much is gas in your town today? It’s $3.69 here in Nashville for low grade.
Great post – my husband and I have been married two years (we have a newborn son) and this kind of living has been a reality for us since day one. We’ve learned a few things along the way. Well, it’s mostly me, since I’m from the “spender” family and he’s from the “we have nothing” family. We’ve learned that a good meal out once a month is worth skipping the fast food later later in the month. We’ve learned that the library has a great collection of DVDs that are free. We’ve learned that cooking can be fun and so can an evening at home.
But we’ve also learned that some things are worth spending: the perfect gift, a cooked meal with friends over, something to make the house more comfortable. These are done within our means, of course, but they are worth it because they make like more enjoyable. God gave us money, both to be wise with and to enjoy.
I get what Jen is saying—but I think she (and not picking on jen, promise—-is missing the point.
Yes, these people need jobs too. I will not deny that. But what happened is our shift in attitudes about services and jobs a generation ago. The Barista at Starbucks might be a single mom who needs a job to support her family. But would we even have Baristas and Starbucks beyond a generation ago? No.
Our “consumer-driven” market grew and grew over the past few years, creating oodles of jobs for people. I mean, how many cell phone kiosks and stores do you have in your town/shopping areas? I live in podunk, small town, USA and we have TONS of them. They sprung up when cell phones got hot a few years ago.
We’ve become a pampered society with gadgets and service-oriented industries galore. So, yes, it did create jobs for many people. But, now that things are tight, it is precisely those jobs that will dry up first. It is sad, and it is somewhat unfair…but that is the way it goes. They were the last jobs created and will be the first to go, unfortunately.
Jobs like mine, in education….nursing….have been around for a very long time and will continue to be around. We will always need hair stylists and vetinarians, but we won’t need more than 1 for every 10 people. Our proportions have gotten out of whack, and now we are paying for that.
Does that make sense at all??? 🙂
Reiman Publications (published taste of home, reminisce, until reader’s digest bought them out) published two fantastic books. “We Had Everything But Money” and “When the Banks Closed We Opened Our Hearts”. These two books are worth looking for, as they both deal with how the everyday person remembered life during the depression. I hauled out my copies today.
NormalMiddle – Yes, you are making perfect sense and I believe that was a key point of the other blogger.
Judy – I have both of those books and they are two favorites of mine! The stories in them give a person a totally different perspective. There are usually copies available through Half.com and Amazon if anyone is interested.
Sallie, are you familiar with the Valley of Vision… it’s a book, a collection rather, of puritan prayers. Here is an excerpt from one that I read this morning:
“the intoxication that comes of prosperity”… I loved that imagery. We are an intoxicated culture (and church). God forgive us.
So glad to see you are blogging again ! I am I guess what you would call a lurker! I actually threw out my microwave about 8 years ago and havent gotten one since and I have only really missed it about 3 times! We used it constantly ,this really is a bit of a shock and other people can not believe we get by without one. Truely funny when a relative age 20 came over and could not find the microwave and then said in complete shock ….. what ,you can never have popcorn! Thats us alright…..the popcorn deprived family!! Anyway same relatives have lost everything once already in this financial mess and now are loosing everything again , they have brand new luxury cars cell phones for all and every extra channel and game for their 2 big screen t vs and pizza boxes always and yet they come to us for financial aid almost monthly until my husband put his foot down but they say they NEED these things, and it is sad to see they truely do think these are needs, we make probably 3 times the amount they do and don t have these things……hmmm all these services we pay for are being kept afloat by credit card living which puts your average worker in the hole further every month then a lot of these services are being kept going by something that is not sustainable, we all have truely gotten ourselves into a fix havent we ? A prosperity trap.
Thank you for this article and for you comment above. You are really speaking from where I am at right now. I am 55 years old and can relate to what you are saying and then some.
There have been several times in my life when I had to stop and pause at the way our culture has become so materialistic and this includes Christians in general. I remember 30 years ago when we came home from having lived on a miitary base in Germany and being in shock at the things you could purchase that no one had ever heard of 4 years earlier when we left the US. We had been so happy to find the basics in our PX that it really stunned us to wander around in discount and department stores here. I have heard so many missionary families say the same thing. We do not know what doing without really means in this nation. Did you know that the majority of families in the world, for example, haven’t even a single table to set things on?
I have had the same thoughts in recents times when I have been in stores and have seen shopping carts full of all sorts of things no one really needs being paid for with money no one really has.
To put some of this into perspective, I remember when my grandma died and we were sorting through the things in her kitchen. (Her kitchen “remodel” was when my dad wired the house for electricity and they brought running water inside.) In one of her drawers I found an old journal where she kept track of everything they bought. Amazingly, every single penny was listed. I think of her journal every single time I step over a penny on the floor that everyone else in the house has also stepped over a dozen times.
Have you tried a Coffee Toddy? Google it and you’ll find the website for it. Basically, it is a coffee extractor that makes a coffee syrup to use for just about any coffee application. I used to be a Barista in Seattle and trained under an Italian coffee roaster and I love my good coffee. But when we moved down here there is no good coffee house. So I had to come up with a new plan b/c we cannot afford a $500 coffee machine. Talk about necessities…anyway, the Toddy has been a lifesaver around here for coffee drinks I make at home. My favorites are a Mocha and an Americano in the winter and an iced latte in the summer months. If you want to know more just e-mail me and I will tell you all my recipes and tricks for the Toddy system. I think it currently retails for about $35 total. 😉
It is interesting to see how perceptions of needs change. It amazes me to think of how a few decades ago the idea of a cell phone was rather crazy, and now kids are thought of as strange to not have their own cell phone in middle school.
The list of “needs” today that didn’t exist twenty to thirty years ago is mindboggling.
My daughter (who just turned 42) and I talked about this a lot when people would say they could not homeschool because they could not afford to be a stay at home mom. Because of my husband’s illness, we had good years and bad years financially so she knew what it was like to work for her clothes and extras even in high school.
Everyone who told her this had a lot of luxuries in their life that they could forego to homeschool. Her best friend, who did homeschool, lived on a very small income but knew how to make the most of it.
Her husband (the world’s best son-in-law) makes an excellent salary as a scientist so through the years, they did move to a lovely and big home in a “good” part of town. She was an interior designer and houses are “her thing”. Otherwise, they were very frugal.
Two or three years ago, they realized their mortgage, taxes, etc. were taking more of their income than they wanted. What we could buy at a good price in the Midwest cost exorbitant amounts in Massachusetts. So they downsized to a house half the size but in a lovely small town near their church. Which also cut their taxes a lot.
It was that decision that paid for their trip to Europe as a family last year, along with both of them knowing how to get great deals online! Also, they could stay with family in Ireland for two weeks of the trip. She has said the kids will remember that trip long after they might complain about sharing rooms. Yes, two boys in one bedroom and three girls in the other!
Housing prices in much of the Northeast are insane. And there is a reason we call it Taxachusetts in our house. LOL!
I don’t think there is anything wrong with kids sharing a room. They will probably be better for it in the long run.