Maybe the “Means” are too small

After nearly two decades of rising excess, “Living Within Your Means” is suddenly all the rage. In magazines, newspapers and on TV, cheap is the new chic; on Wall Street, Suits are fretting about the possibly permanent return to frugality and away from recreational shopping. As Americans cart truckloads of long-forgotten belongings to Goodwill – where, incidentally, they have begun to shop for the basics– there is a real sense that a sea change in our attitude towards consumption is underway.
There is much to applaud in this trend. Most people really, truly, only need a few pairs of shoes, a few pairs of pants, and an assortment of work and casual tops. We don’t need ten sets of sheets and twenty towels when a handful will do, and we really don’t need three styles of plastic dishes for “outdoor entertaining”. Buying a car once every decade is rational and more affordable, as is downsizing into a house of reasonable square-footage. A wonderful renaissance is taking place in kitchens across the country as people realize that it is actually possible to cook meals at home, and there are intangible gains to be had by spending more time together as a family playing board games or even running around the backyard – all for free.
Yet underlying this trend is a critical misunderstanding of the crisis. While a contributing cause of the current situation was a collective spending beyond one’s means, it was not the only cause. A corrupt financial system with perverse incentives to approve buyers- particularly minorities- for homes that they could not afford, an upside-down tax system that promotes corporate welfare while sucking every penny from those least able to afford it, a continuation and even speeding-up of outsourcing for both manual labor and office jobs, exorbitant health care and education costs and a decline in real wages surely had something to do with it – arguably much more to do with it.
It wasn’t the occasional splurge on an anniversary necklace or a weekend at an amusement park that did the country in. It was the structure of our economy and the fact that most Americans cannot afford to get by – with or without the little extras. Charging the little extras to the Visa card was a symptom of the disease, not the illness itself. And so today, by avoiding the extras, Americans duck additional financial pain but are merely applying bandages to a dying patient.
The risk today is that ordinary Americans, instead of challenging the status quo and pressing for real transformative change, are berating themselves and devolving into martyrs of frugality. Like anorexic patients who count every calorie as if the counting, not the enjoying of the meal, was the end goal, many today are expending all of their energy on the tallying and the agonizing instead of on the living. Sure, there has been a lot of waste, and certainly, where there is waste, there can be a rectification and therefore a future increase in savings. Yet, what qualifies as waste is a difficult matter – and in the frenzy toward cutting costs, important elements of life can be the first to go.
Shelter and food (and in many places, transportation) are necessities, so they stay. What about the type of food they’ll buy, though? Will it be nutritious produce, yogurt and lean meat, which cost more, or ready-made packaged meals, which cost less but offer far more calories, fat and sodium? And what about their shelter and transportation? Will they perform annual maintenance to ensure the proper functioning and safety of their homes and vehicles, or will they postpone it all for a better year? What about pets – are they ‘family’ or are they a luxury? As the abundance of abandoned pets seems to suggest, responsibility for the lives that once dwelled with the family has been brushed off as a needless excess in the quest for a balanced budget.
And what of extra-curricular activities for kids (to say nothing of hobbies for adults)? Is Pop-Warner football, a weekly ballet lesson, a summer theater class, or piano lessons too much to ask for in a recession? Will parents cancel their children’s best chance at enrichment, at experiencing the world, and at both personal and interpersonal development so that their ledger will be tidy? Many school districts seem to agree that these are worthless trivialities in life, demonstrated by their decision to ax artistic, athletic and even industrial and technology programs despite a proven record of improving students’ lives and rounding out their education – not to mention jump-starting and inspiring future careers.
Let’s think of all of the other things that could go: weekend afternoons at the movies; birthday parties and gifts on religious holidays; the feasts for those religious holidays; extra books and developmental toys for our children’s book-shelves and toy chests; art to adorn our hallways; family vacations; outings to the zoo or the museum; cameras to record the special moments in our lives, sports equipment and the chance to perfect one’s game; camping and boating gear to facilitate our exploration of the outdoors; the time wasted by exploring nature when one could be working a second or third job; houseplants; the Internet and cell-phones; coffee, tea, chocolate, wine, seafood, cheese, jams and other yummy treats; weddings, births and retirements with their expensive festivities; Netflix and cable TV; craft sets and other hobbies; contact lenses; electronic games; higher education.. and maybe we could all start washing our clothes in the back yard, too. The list goes on and on. After food and shelter, we could pretty much cut out everything and still survive.
If we do that, if we cut out everything not immediately necessary to everyday survival, we can succeed in our rush to return to the supposed good-old-days when households managed their finances without access to credit and abstained from frivolities. But once we return, I’m afraid we’ll see that the reality can be bleak. An example that always comes to mind is that of my father’s tragic teeth. Born in 1950, when the economy was supposedly improving, my father’s family had no dental care. The neglected trips to the dentist saved his parents – a WWII veteran turned car salesman and his wife, a secretary- thousands of much-needed dollars over the years, I am sure. But today, it hasn’t saved any money or teeth. Dozens of crowns and cavities later – not to mention thousands of dollars in expense and countless hours of pain – it is clear that the trade-off wasn’t worth it. Yet it is the reality of living within one’s means when one’s means are simply too small.
And that, I fear, is the real problem in our economy and our society. When over 60% of personal bankruptcies are due to medical bills, when promising students drop out of college for financial reasons, when expectant mothers cannot provide their babies with pre-natal care, when two incomes is not enough to make ends meet, when a parent cannot afford to enroll their little boy in Little League or give their daughter swimming lessons, and when the queues outside food banks is ever-growing, we don’t have a problem with living within our means. We have a problem with the means themselves. While we all have a responsibility to manage our households the best we can, it is time that we start demanding answers to why it is increasingly impossible to succeed in that task. Could it be because of the inequities inherent in our current system? I believe so. The time for change and reform is now, as Congress debates a flurry of new bills pertaining to the health care, industrial and financial sectors.
Your leaders need to hear from you. They are certainly hearing from the lobbyists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *