Saturday, January 19, 2008

Skipping around, socioeconomically

Like most people, my relationship with things is related to my relationship with money. When I was a child, my family started out working class, and worked its way up to middle class. I had a lot of typical middle class experiences, with private school, and my parents helping me out financially long after I moved out, but I remembered our not-so-secure start. We had friends and family who were still there.

College was a mixed bag—I wasn’t well-off, but I wasn’t poor. I worked hard, with at least one job all the way through, but between my jobs and my parents help, I had plenty of money to buy new clothes and go out partying. I wasn’t buying the designer stuff, but I wasn’t avoiding the mall, either.

When I got married, things went downhill, money-wise. I had my daughter 10 months and 2 days after we got married, and we didn’t have much money. We didn’t fall under the poverty line at first, but we were just over the top. After my ex and I went back to college, we did fall under the poverty line, but we had enough financial assistance to get by. Plus, my parents were still helping out. This was a really hard time for me, because it was very different from any other time I remembered. I avoided stores, because the amount of stuff I simply could not buy depressed me. When I went to the grocery store, I had to keep a running total in my head to ensure that I didn’t exceed our extremely meager food budget. I couldn’t afford to decorate my home in a way that I liked—it was all hand-me-downs or doing without.

Around the time I got divorced, I got my first professional job with my new college degree. I also had a second child, increasing my expenses. It took a while to pull myself out of the debt and just get some of the basic things we needed, and get out of the expensive daycare years. But now, I am doing well in my job, comfortably ensconced in the middle class, no full-time daycare fees to pay, doing pretty well.

I still remember vividly those poor years, though. They make it even harder for me to moderate my spending. When I go to the grocery store, I buy what I like. At a minimum, I can think about how much we will be home, and whether I am just buying too much volume, but I simply cannot keep a running total of what I am spending, even when I am buying groceries near the end of a pay period with not too much money in the checking account.

I did without so much for so long, that it is hard for me to see many of my purchases as extravagant. Sure, I don’t need 4 winter coats, but a knickknack for my shelves seems reasonable. We live in an expensive area, and I want my children to look nice at school; all of their friends have lots of nice clothes. But my 5 year old has finally started stabilizing in his growth, and I have somehow ended up with nearly 2 months worth of shirts that still fit him. I have to struggle not to buy him another shirt when I see something particularly nice in the stores, though, still.

I used to avoid malls and other stores because I couldn’t afford to buy anything. Now, I find that I need to avoid the stores because I CAN afford to buy things, and I WILL buy too much. I need to find other ways to feel better-off, not poor, than bringing a bunch of extra stuff into my house. One thing I have started doing is going to more plays. I have season tickets to the Rep for the second time this season, and I will do the summer Muny shows again this year.
For now though, I am still trying to avoid the stores and the temptation. Or I will be as soon as I am done buying new furniture for my front room. And new bookshelves. And some storage for my kitchen. But I really need these things, don’t I? I think I do. I think that by making my home inviting and pleasant, maybe I will calm some of my acquisitiveness. Maybe then I will be able to look around and think I have it pretty good.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Consumption at the Macro Level

I started to right a great post on why Christmas time is not so good for my affluenza recovery, but it got kind of depressing, so I never got around to finishing it. I am not far enough along in my recovery to delve that deeply yet, I think.

But I did read a great article in the Times today that I wanted to post here on global consumption. It is very encouraging to see that people are taking the problems of consumption and sustainability seriously on a global level. Also, that it is not realistic to complain about consumption in the rest of the world when we (Americans) are the largest contributors to the problem. That is why I am working on an individual basis to figure out how much I can cut back without lowering my standard of living in any way that matters to me. There are ways to cut that consumption and actually raise my satisfaction with my life, but there are lines I don't want to cross. I figure that if I gradually push those edges, I will lower my consumption more and more.

One thing I have been looking at lately is electricity. My electric company has a new program where you can pay an extra cent and a half per kilowatt hour to support sustainable energy programs. I went out to look at my account online to see how much this would impact me, and I realized we are using a lot more electricity in this apartment than we were in the old one. Part of that is the extra bedroom. Both kids spend more time in their rooms now that they have their own spaces. They leave the light on all the time, too. So, now I am reminding them to turn the light off when they are not in there. It's not like it is difficult to turn the light back on when they go into the rooms. Another issue is the computers. We have two now, and I have gotten into the habit of leaving them on all the time. No more. When we are done, we shut them all the way off.

Those are the wasteful things I noticed when I went sleuthing, but there are other things affecting this as well. I found my alarm clock radio and plugged it in. So now I listen to NPR to gradually wake me up in the mornings, and keep me going as I get ready for the day. The dishwasher uses electricity. It is a fairly new dishwasher, so I think it is pretty effiecient with the water, plus I LOVE IT, so I am not giving that up. And, as we have been de-cluttering, our home has become a more pleasant place, and we are just plain here more often. Overall, I think the slight raise in electricity use is offset by the increased contentment with our home, and decreased driving time to go out and do other things. We are also getting more use out of things that we have here at home, since we are here to use them. I think the net effect of our increased time at home is probably actually a decrease in consumption, although I don't have any numbers to back that up.

After a month of cutting our electricity use where we can, I am going to go out and see what kind of affect this has on our total usage. Then I am going to join the Pure Power program, although the thought of what it will do to my electricity bill in the summer is scary. Still, if I can support a program that is working to reduce our consumption effects so that I never have to give up my air-conditioning and dishwasher, it is worth a little extra money--or even a not-so-little extra money.